Are abs really made in the kitchen?

Can you out-train a bad diet with hard work in the gym?

model wears swim shorts by the poolside, photographed by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal
Photo by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal

Spoiler alert: you already own a six-pack.

That’s right. Even if you’ve spent the weekend sinking pints or the morning polishing off leftover pizza, you have a set of abs that could rival the chiseled midriff of Cristiano Ronaldo.

If you can’t see them, even with flattering lighting, it’s likely your perfect set of rectus abdominis muscles are buried under a layer of subcutaneous fat. This is normal. This is what happens when you like to eat well and drink heartily.

But if a visible six-pack is your ultimate goal, does the answer solely lie in the kitchen? Not quite, says performance nutritionist Liam Holmes of pH Nutrition. “Your diet is only one part of the jigsaw,” he says. “There are four main pieces that are needed for a great set of abs: genetics, muscularity, body fat percentage and diet.”

Core concerns

Model uses skipping rope in boxing gym, photographed by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal

You can’t control your genetics, but you can have a say in the other three. Priority number one is to strengthen your midsection. This will provide you with the foundations to work hard in the gym so you can start chipping away at priority number two: a low body fat percentage.

The magic number is around 10-12%. This is the point that those abs should start to see the light of day. Much lower and you risk compromising your body’s natural production of hormones like testosterone for everyday function.

Strength coach Andy McTaggart of CrossFit Shapesmiths recommends full-body compound movements like squats, deadlifts and chin-ups that will help build functional core strength plus high-intensity interval training that’ll elevate your heart rate and metabolism so your body burns enough energy that it starts chewing through your fat stores.

McTaggart’s favourite method is to go hell for leather on an assault bike – a punishing cross between a spin bike and cross-trainer that besieges both your arms, legs and cardiovascular system. After a warm-up, alternate 30 seconds at a flat out sprint with 30 seconds at a super low intensity for 10-20 rounds. “It’ll keep your body burning calories for several hours after you’ve peeled yourself off the floor and got your breath back.”

Whole food

Bradley Cooper cooking in the kitchen

You can’t out-train a bad diet. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Regardless of how much you thrash yourself in the gym, McTaggart is clear that what you do in the kitchen is still the most important factor. “You can’t out-train a bad diet,” he says. “Believe me, I’ve tried.” McTaggart’s nutrition rules are simple: eat natural, whole foods as much as possible.

“People often overcomplicate things when looking to make changes to their diet,” he says. “Start by stripping away processed food, such as muffins, croissants and crisps, and replace them with foods that have been grown from the earth. Every now and then I’ll have a milkshake with a burger but these are reward foods after a good week of tough training and eating well.”

Scrapping processed food will also reduce the risk of inflammation that can lead to bloating and excess body fat, according to Holmes. “Limiting or flat out removing processed meats, pre-made sauces, deep fried food, sweets and biscuits from your menu will help safeguard your stomach muscles,” he says.

Calorie deficit

Model wears hoodie in boxing gym, photographed by Adam Fussell for Gentleman's Journal

No-nonsense Australia-based trainer James Smith agrees that you need to work hard in the gym to hold onto your abs but this should be a time to “preserve muscle” rather than “burn fat”.

Fat loss does not occur in the gym, it happens in the 23 hours outside of the gym

“The unspoken truth is that fat loss does not occur in the gym, it happens in the 23 hours outside of the gym,” says Smith. Whatever you eat, however you eat it, you need to be in a calorie deficit if you want to burn away the fat concealing you abs.

“It’s simple,” he says. “Create a calorie deficit with your diet so you consume less calories than you burn throughout the day. Use food calculator apps like MyFitnessPal to establish how much is going in and out. Then when you go to the gym, remind your body why it needs to hold onto your muscles by using them with resistance exercises.”

Will having visible abs make you truly happy

Smith signs off with one final point. “The ultimate question is what are you willing to sacrifice in your quest for abs? Will having visible abs make you truly happy? And how much happiness are you willing to sacrifice to get them?”

Further Reading