Ever since his rippling Spartan abdomen graced the silver screen in "300," the gossip sites have been merciless. If he gains a few pounds and then has the audacity to go shirtless on a beach, the paparazzi snap a photo and make out like he just swallowed Rush Limbaugh.
What's the deal? Isn't it easy to get — and maintain — a set of six-pack abs? A magazine cover recently proclaimed I could get eight-pack abs in four weeks. I'm not even sure what that means, since every anatomy book I've read shows only six abdominal muscles.
Making your abs visible is about losing fat, not doing crunches, and I don't see how people can accomplish significant weight loss in four weeks. Recently I decided to try making the leap from flat belly to six-pack, and after 10 long weeks of dietary deprivation I managed a "four-pack."
So I can sympathize with Gerard and Jason.
Why was my experience so different from the "quick" and "easy" prescriptions touted in glossy magazines? I strongly suspect they're being less than truthful about the ease with which one can achieve a visible rectus abdominis.
Admittedly, I have a few things working against me. I'm 42, and the older I get, the harder it is to stay lean due to a slowing metabolism. Additionally, my family tree reveals I'm genetically programmed to resemble a potato.
Regardless of genetics, for most people, obtaining a six-pack still requires serious toil. Plenty of magazines, books and other products profess having a "secret," but the only secret I know involves lots of exercising and lots of caloric restriction. I didn't starve myself during those 10 weeks, but junk food never passed my lips and beer became a rare treat.
Mmmm … beer. Talk about your mutually exclusive six packs.
We see so many toned and tanned models when perusing the magazine rack, and it can be hard not to feel inadequate. But when comparing yourself to an actor or fitness model, remember that it's their job to look that way. They have a tremendous extrinsic motivator to exercise upwards of 10 hours a week and follow restrictive diets — it's called a paycheck. Chances are, your job is something else, possibly something that involves sitting down.
I don't want to discourage anyone from losing abdominal fat — it's a well-known fact that having a large belly is a cardiac risk factor. But how important is it to go that extra mile from flat stomach to rippling midsection?
"I would be highly surprised if there were any measurable health benefit to having six-pack abs versus simply having a favorable waist-to-hip ratio," says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity specialist at the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, Canada.
In other words, if your stomach is already flat, getting ripped isn't about health, it's about vanity.
I'm OK with that.
Still, there are healthful and unhealthful ways to achieve six-pack abs. Danny Bonaduce, the former child star who became as well known for his six-pack as for his adult antics, is an excellent example of how being ripped doesn't necessarily mean one is healthy. He told me in an interview that, although he was sporting a washboard stomach for his reality show, "Breaking Bonaduce," he was also drinking to excess, smoking and taking anabolic steroids.
"The doctor said my blood was 'like sludge,' and I told everyone my blood type was 'gravy,'" Bonaduce told me. "My cholesterol was 357, like the Magnum."
A total cholesterol level of 357 can be just as deadly as the pistol.
Bonaduce says he's much healthier now, being cigarette- and steroid-free, and his drinking is far less than it was. He's also not quite as lean as before, sporting more of a four-pack these days, which is still an impressive accomplishment for a 51-year-old.
For women, getting ultra-lean entails additional considerations. They need to be careful about just how much fat they lose or it can lead to loss of menstrual cycle and a decrease in bone density. This is according to my wife, a family physician.
Speaking of my wife, when I decided to go for the ripped abs I kept her in the dark to see whether she would notice any difference on her own. I suffered in silence as I drastically cut beer and anything else resembling a treat from my diet. I kept to the same weekly regimen of three hours of weights — including 15 minutes devoted to my midsection — and four hours of running, plus I added a bunch of cycling into the mix. Unlike Bonaduce, I planned to do this the healthful way.
The cycling I enjoyed; the dietary and barley-beverage deprivation, I did not. Trust me, it's no fun to go to a destination wedding with an open bar when you're on a strict diet.
And my wife? Nine weeks into the experiment, I had to resort to an impersonation of the shirtless Old Spice guy to get her to notice the abs. As it turns out, she likes them. She even took my "after" photo.
My wife is one reason I maintained the abs for the last few months. Thankfully, the strict diet regimen has become more tolerable, so maybe I'll keep the six-pack.
I mean four-pack.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada