Well Being

The Science Of A Six-Pack: Can Diet and Exercise Trump Genetics?

By  | 

dana mcmahan fitness model
In October, we published “Starving For A Six-Pack“–a 3-part series chronicling writer Dana McMahan‘s experience prepping for and getting fitness model photos taken for her portfolio–and there was no shortage of controversy over the grueling diet she followed to get industry standard's sculpted, toned look. Many argued that getting a six-pack (or muscle tone, in general) requires nothing more than “eating right” and working out. Others (including Dana) argued that a lot of what determines muscle tone is genetic; despite being strong and healthy, not all of us are destined for easily-sculpted abs.

As a former powerlifter and still-dedicated athlete, Dana always has a six-pack. But getting it to show–i.e. losing the layer of fat that normally insulates her middle–required a strict diet and workout routine because, as she put it: “I’m 5′ 1″ and so short-waisted my hand can span the space between my belly button and bra strap, so I’m just not designed to display a carved up set of abs.”

Still, many commenters argued that a six-pack can be had “without all the drama.” Marisa Bose commented on Facebook:

People can achieve a six pack without all the drama. Eating the right foods and exercise. This doesn't equate depriving yourself in any way…she didn't NEED to go on such an extreme diet. That wasn't healthy. People are able to achieve a muscular physique through abundance as well. Deprivation in any form, shame in any form, is detrimental to your health, no matter what you look like on the outside.

So, what's the truth: Can everyone achieve the same kind of muscle tone if we all just stick to the right diet and workout routine? Or are some of us just more or less prone to get that six-pack, “Michelle Obama arms,” or toned quads, simply based on what our parents passed down?

To learn more about the science of what makes a six-pack–and other (probably more important) markers of fitness–we spoke to Dan Trink, CSCS, CPT and Director of Personal Training Operations at Peak Performance gym in New York City. “It's truly not possible to assign a certain percentage of muscle mass accumulation to genetics vs. training.” He says both play a role, and while heredity plays a large role in our physicality, training unlocks and maximizes our genetic potential:

At some point in the evolutionary chain, certain groups of people likely benefited from having bigger calves or leaner torsos. Once that trait is passed down from generation to generation, the adaptation tends to stick regardless of whether the original circumstances have changed. [But] just because someone is not genetically predisposed to a certain trait that does not mean they cannot achieve that trait. This is particularly true with six-pack abs. Nearly everyone could diet their way down to six pack abs, it would just be easier for some than it would be for others.

But diet, training and genetics aren't the only factors to consider, especially when it comes to lowering body fat percentage (to reveal toned muscles, like Dana did): “I would say the number one factor outside of diet and exercise, and maybe even more important than those factors is hormonal balance,” Trink says. “Hormones are critical in determining how much body fat we accumulate and store.” Things like daily stress, environmental pollutants, and sleep all effect our hormones, “and in turn have a major effect on our body composition.”

While he admits that getting achieving optimal hormonal balance is tricky due to modern society and the lifestyles that come with it, he says the closer we get, the greater our ability to lose fat.

But he also admits that Dana's experience–of being in great shape, but still requiring unsustainable methods to achieve specific aesthetic goals–is very typical: “That level of leanness is not ‘normal' for most people to maintain, which is why it is usually referred to as ‘peaking' for a competition.” And Trink reminds us that most competitors don't even look the same way the evening after a competition, never mind days or weeks later. “We think of body builders or fitness competitors as being at the height of health when they are on stage, but being that lean is really not particularly healthy. In fact, for many fitness competitors, it is extremely hard to regain that level of leanness for their next competition even if they follow the same diet and training.”

So, cut yourself a break if you're eating well, training hard, and just don't look exactly like a fitness model. As Trink said, reaching aesthetic goals isn't the same as reaching optimal health–and Dana's experience prepping for her photo shoot only confirms it. But Trink's words of wisdom just might help you determine some healthy goals to work towards:

While a lot of people like to blame genetics for their lack of muscle mass or other physical attributes, I have yet to see someone who has trained hard enough to reach their genetic limits. I think the big takeaway is that genetics may be the hand you are dealt, but training is how you play that hand and you can almost always improve your hand.

Photo: John Adkins Photography, courtesy of Dana McMahan