The elusive 6-pack. Most of us drool over that chiseled midsection seen on the covers of magazines and envy the fitness model pics on Instagram. Lean, ripped abs are a rare yet valued aesthetic these days (for both men and women) as health and fitness become an ever more important part of our lives. But, how do you actually get a 6-pack…and is it even necessary for you as a dancer?
There are a lot of misconceptions and myths floating around out there in regards to ab work in the fitness industry. So let's clear some of it up to help you understand your body more and how to optimize it for your needs.
First of all, you have to understand all that goes into creating a 6-pack. And it may surprise you that one thousand crunches are not necessarily part of that equation.
The shape of your 6-pack is determined by the vertical rectus abdominis muscle that runs from the crest of your pubic bone to ribs 5-7. This is actually one paired muscle that is separated into smaller “muscle bellies” by connective tissue that runs laterally and vertically. This gives the appearance of individual pockets of muscle, creating the characteristic “6-pack” look.
We are all born with slightly different genetic variations in the shape and size of the actual rectus abdominis muscle itself as well as this connective tissue sheath that outlines it. Some people have broad, flat sections while others have narrow, protruding sections as determined by this sheath. Depending on how far apart these delineations are placed and the shape of the muscle sections, some people appear to have more or less rows to their rectus abdominis. This accounts for part of the reason why some people look like they have a “4-pack,” “8-pack,” or even “10-pack,” even though we all have the same number of sub-divisions. The rows can just be more or less prominent due to genetics (or hidden under fat and underdeveloped...but more on that below).
Diet is probably the main component in achieving a 6-pack. For most people, an extremely low body fat percentage is required for this muscle's definition to be seen. The great irony is that the 6-pack has become synonymous with supreme health these days, but the low levels of body fat required to make a 6-pack visible (especially on women) may not be very healthy at all, at least not in the long term. Cutting down to this low level of body fat for a brief period of time for a photo shoot or contest is one thing, but maintaining that low level of body fat isn't sustainable for most people. Not to mention, the effort required to stay that lean can drive you insane & make you absolutely miserable!
Coming back to genetics, some people can have their 6-pack visible even with higher levels of body fat while others can be super lean and still not have much definition. (Yet another reason why we shouldn't compare ourselves to others!) All of this should help you realize that a 6-pack is not the definitive sign of being healthy or even strong. It usually does require a lot of diligence with your diet though. So don't believe the fitness falsies that tell you to "do this exercise routine for 6-pack abs." You can't get there with exercise alone.
Now of course, you can affect the look of your abs through exercise...but not in the way most people think. We are often encouraged to do ab exercises to "burn off the fat" in your midsection. Well, reality doesn't work that way. There is no such thing as spot reduction - meaning working out a specific area will NOT cause you to lose fat in that specific area.
That doesn't mean exercise doesn't help reveal your 6-pack though. The main function of exercise here is in the muscle development of the rectus abdominis. That is what will make those pockets of muscle pop between the connective tissue sheath. But pounding out one thousand crunches might not be your answer. Most of the time, abdominal exercises are done wrong, engaging and tensing other muscle groups (hip flexors & other muscles of the trunk) to get the job done as opposed to focusing on quality contraction of this rectus abdominis. In fact, all the ab work you are doing in your efforts to cut up your 6-pack might actually be making your trunk thicker instead of more sculpted. You must apply tension in a particular way in order to get the aesthetics you desire.
That being said, you can’t create more "rows" of abs through exercise to go from a 4-pack to a 6-pack. The rows are already there as formed by your genetics (as discussed above)…they're just hidden under subcutaneous fat or underdeveloped muscularly. Exercise won't create more "muscle belly" pockets - it just enhances them.
Another exercise myth – there is no “upper” and “lower” ab exercises. As we pointed out above, the rectus abdominis is one muscle, so when it contracts, both ends work as the whole muscle pulls towards the center. You may feel certain exercises more in your lower abdominal region if your upper body is the anchor…or in your upper abdominal region if your lower body is the anchor, but the whole length of the muscle works when the rectus abdominus contracts.
Posing & Lighting
Even after considering genetics, diet, and exercise, your 6-pack still may not be visible. Most of the photos of gorgeous midsections require specific posing techniques to get the 6-pack to “pop." When I cut for photo shoots, I don’t walk around with my 6-pack out all day long. I still look soft when in a relaxed state. But, when it comes time for the shoot, I know how to manipulate my body in a way that flexes the muscle and pops the abs.
Along with posing, lighting is an important factor. Some lights wash out your muscle definition while others can enhance it. Overhead lighting tends to create shadows under any raised surface. So even if you have a baby 6-pack forming, overhead lighting can help create an enhanced aesthetic while other lights can make you look soft. That's often why bodies are oiled up in photo shoots. It's not the sweaty fitness ambiance they are after but the fact that the oil reflects the light and creates more definition.
Even if you don't desire a 6-pack, hopefully being armed with this knowledge helps you see behind the matrix and get a better idea of what is actual real life versus manufactured reality. Ya know, so you can stop holding yourself to such ridiculously high standards as you scroll through Instagram and berate yourself for not looking like those ripped bodies;)
Now that you know how to achieve a 6-pack, we can get to the second part of the question: Is it even necessary for you as a dancer? Absolutely not. But strength in your core is absolutely vital. When you use your rectus abdominis for dance, you won’t be flexing it in a way that causes your 6 pack to pop…but you will use the strength from it for almost every move you make - from initiating movement, powering jumps, balancing, stabilizing, turning, getting your leg up, etc.
If you want to cut down and learn posing techniques for a photo shoot or for your own knowledge of how to manipulate your body, that’s a separate issue that I’d be happy to help you with. Having control over your aesthetics can be an empowering thing. But think of the aesthetics of your 6-pack and the strength of your abdominals as two separate things that have to be approached and trained for differently.
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Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello