The Rise of the Female 6 Pack
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock or been in a self-imposed social media blackout for the last 3 years, you won’t have been able to escape the phenomenon of the female 6-pack. What used to be regarded as the holy grail of male physical perfection has been hijacked by female fitspos worldwide and I can’t open my Instagram without some silicone enhanced (and all too often photoshopped) beauty hoisting up her top and her cleavage to reveal a perfect set of 6 chiselled abs.
My last 4 years in the gym have taught me that a large proportion of women I’ve come into contact with see lean, visible abs as the ultimate physical goal. I’ve also noticed a growing number of female PTs using their bodies as their calling card, posting daily photos of their own abs in order to market their services and gain new clients. Such is the allure of the female 6-pack that some prospective female clients immediately assume that if a Personal Trainer has a 6 pack then she must be a good PT, right? They place more value on the PT’s aesthetics than on whether she has a proven track record of clients making strength and functional gains.
I’m not ashamed to admit, that for 2 years of my fitness journey, I too chased a chiselled core.
It was only by achieving my goal of a tiny waist and popping abs that I realised that they weren’t really all that I imagined them to be, and the sacrifices to my health, strength and my mental wellbeing along the way definitely weren’t worth the end result. Here are a few of the reasons why I won’t be pursuing a six pack, a 4-pack or even my top 2 abs every again.
You can’t fight genetics
Before you start on your ab-quest you should know that you can’t control your fat distribution or where you will lose it from. This is largely governed by your genetics. The idea that every woman will achieve a 6-pack by reaching the same percentage of body fat is a myth. Some women will have year-round abs at 16% body fat while holding on to a fair amount of adipose tissue on their legs. Others, like me over here, can have the leanest legs and quad striations, but a generous roll of midriff that sticks around until they drop below essential body fat levels. If you’ve had multiple pregnancies and are over 40, the quest for abs becomes even harder. After 24 weeks of dieting and a 3 stone weight loss (fat AND a fair amount of lean tissue) for my figure competition last year I could squeeze really hard & the abs were definitely there, but there was still a layer of loose skin & stubborn fat that I just couldn’t get rid of.
I did however achieve a vascular back and some fantastic leg definition, but who’s going to be checking out my back veins?
Your periods may stop
Women need a much higher level of essential body fat than men in order to maintain the balance of their hormones. Essential body fat for a woman is necessary to enable reproduction. About 16 weeks into my diet my periods stopped. Now this wasn’t such a huge loss for me at 48 and with 3 teenage children, but hormones don’t just control your menstrual cycle, and if your periods are missing then that’s a warning sign that something isn’t right. I became moody, tearful, anxious and forgetful...all signs of hormone imbalance and symptoms usually associated with the menopause. All very well if your family is complete but not so great if you’re in your twenties or thirties. I’d love to be able to say that when I got back to normal body fat my periods started again, but no, they never did. My GP suggested that I could have kick-started my own menopause with extreme dieting and my own research suggests that this is not actually uncommon amongst female Masters competitors.
They serve no functional purpose
Unless you’re a fitness model and your perfectly aesthetic core is your living, visible abs serve no functional purpose whatsoever.
They do not mean you are healthier and you certainly won’t be stronger by the time you achieve them, unless you are very blessed genetically. By the time I’d dieted down for almost 6 months my 3 rep max deadlift had dropped by 30 kilos and I got on stage with some of the worst cold sores I’d ever had. I was run down, tired and my immune system was compromised. 3 weeks of trying to maintain my abs on minimal calories & I ended up with shingles. All in the pursuit of a washboard stomach. My leanness was the result of what was essentially a very carefully controlled starvation process and I sacrificed my strength and a fair proportion of muscle gains along the way. 14 months later and I can finally double bodyweight deadlift and that is oh-so much more satisfying than checking out my abs in the mirror of a morning whilst fighting the ever-present hunger pangs.
Maintaining abs is no fun
Once you have achieved your abs the hard part is maintaining them. Social media is full of vascular 20-something males living the If It Fits Your Macros high-life on Pop Tarts and Flex-bowls, but the sad truth is that if you are female it just isn’t that easy. Maintaining your newly achieved 6-pack will be a constant battle between willpower and the desire to just live life, and if you want to eat a relatively normal diet you need to be prepared to do a lot of cardio. In the run up to my competition I was doing 60-90 minutes of HIIT and Steady State Cardio daily. As soon as I stopped, and upped my calories to nowhere near previous maintenance, I kissed goodbye to my lean core.
Other parts of your body won’t look great
Abs on a woman are the result of extreme leanness. It goes without saying that certain parts of your body won’t look great at this level of body fat. Quite a few of my close friends have told me that although I looked great on stage, in the flesh I looked pretty scary: haggard, semi-anorexic and almost unrecognizable (Sorry Mum). Wrinkles became more prominent & I aged dramatically. At first I thought it was great to lose my hamster cheeks in favour of razor-sharp cheekbones, to have people comment on how much my face had changed, but the truth is, diet face & hollow cheeks really aren’t that pretty. Besides, unless you’ve had silicone enhancement or are naturally very flat chested, you will end up with 2 forgotten party balloons that look like they got lost down the back of the sofa. The good news is that boobs come back as soon as you put weight on but at the time, as a woman, it’s a full scale assault on femininity.
You will be hungry and tired
Don’t let anyone tell you that as a woman you can maintain a 6 pack year around and not be hungry.
Denial will be your daily mantra. Forget the cake, forget the doughnuts, forget all of the delicious food.
Forget eating out with your family, in fact forget eating the same food as your family at all. Your meals will be a carefully measured and controlled source of sustenance to maintain those abs, and there won’t be a lot of it. Be prepared for your training to suffer too. If you eat below your caloric maintenance for an extended period of time you won’t be able to recover from heavy training sessions, as that is what food is for – energy and recovery and building muscle. If you don’t get enough, then fatigue is a natural and all too inevitable consequence.
Your metabolism will suffer
Metabolic adaptation is a real thing. You cannot restrict calories for any great period of time and expect your metabolism to keep firing at previous levels. The body is a clever machine and will eventually adapt to lower calories to hold onto what little fat it has left. Eventually you’ll have to restrict food even more or do more cardio in order to maintain your abs. This is why so many bikini and figure competitors balloon once they return to pre-diet eating patterns. I was no exception, after dieting to 57kg I gained 15kg within 6 months of competing and it took the best part of a year to be able to eat at previous maintenance calories without gaining more weight.
You can lose sight of the bigger picture
Initially I had started training because I wanted to improve my strength and functional fitness. Becoming ab-obsessed made me lose my way.
I put so much focus into becoming lean that I forgot why I started training in the first place: to become strong.
It took me a while to get back on the right track but eventually I got there and I’m relieved and glad that I did. I wasted way too much time obsessing about my leanness at the expense of doing fun things with my family and eating delicious food and even at the expense of my health.
The Good thing about abs?
There are still a few pluses that I will take from my ab pursuit; it taught me that I can be completely focused and determined in pursuit of of a goal, a positive which I’ve since transferred to new fitness objectives. It taught me that I didn’t need to have abs to feel good about myself physically and also that aesthetic goals that exist in a vacuum aren’t worth pursuing. It taught me that I value my health and my family above everything.
In the end, having abs didn’t make me happier and that’s what fitness should ultimately be about – being healthy and happy.
Mum of 3, Gym Member for over 20 years, one time Figure competitor turned Newbie Masters 2 Powerlifter, coached by Propane Fitness.