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If you look at the cover of most women's magazines, one of the common terms you'll see is "flat abs." Naturally, this encourages us to set up fitness goals that MUST include a perfect midsection. Better yet, why not go for a six-pack? However, most people don't know how much (or how little) it can take to achieve this type of physique.

We've all seen the pictures of personal trainers, fitness models, actors/actresses, and bodybuilders with Adonis-like abs. Now, I'm not saying that ideal can't be achieved — it absolutely can! But there's a lot involved and at stake when earning those washboard abs. 

What many of us don't realize is that there are different things that determine whether or not you can physically get a six-pack. I chatted with some health and fitness experts who helped me get to the truth behind those perfectly chiseled abs you lust after. And it's possible — if you're really willing to put up with the hard work and time to get them. But first, let's make sure you've got the facts straight!

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Low body fat content is key

One of the main things you have to do in order to achieve a six-pack is to get down to a low body fat percentage. This is harder for women because we naturally have more body fat than men, which is needed to help us menstruate and to conceive. The average woman is considered healthy with a body fat measurement that falls between 25 to 31 percent. If you are fit, 21 to 24 percent body fat is normal, but anything below that is typically where professional athletes reside and requires a high-maintenance diet and fitness regimen. “If body fat gets too low energy suffers, mood suffers, hormone levels plummet, immunity suffers, and people get sick more often,” explains Lauren Antonucci MS, RDN, CSSD, CDE, CDN, and director at Nutrition Energy in New York City. Not to mention the diet is really boring.

The six-pack lifestyle is seriously high maintenance

You can kiss your social life goodbye if your goal is to get perfect abs. That’s because a lot of what you would normally eat or drink while out with friends is restricted. Personal trainer and dancer Jessie Green explains the endless food dos and dont's while on a six-pack diet. “You need to stay hydrated with 10 or more glasses of water a day, avoid excess sugars and refined carbs, time your meals out by eating every three hours in a 12-hour window, and only eat clean.” That means steamed veggies, lean protein, complex carbs, and no salt, sauces, dairy, most oils, alcohol, gum, or processed carbs. In addition, you have to put in time at the gym six days a week and make sure you get proper sleep while keeping stress at bay. If you lack sleep or are constantly stressed, the hormone cortisol is secreted and can cause fat to gather around the midsection.

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Genetics play a big role

Don’t be fooled by all those perfect-looking celebrity bods. While some of them do have to work hard to maintain their perfect physiques, for others it comes naturally. “Genetics plays a big role in who can and who cannot have a six-pack," says Antonucci. In fact, some people may put in lots of work to get those abs but because of how they are built genetically will never achieve them. And those who DO manage to achieve a six-pack and have worked hard for it need to make sure that they're focusing on maintenance after they’ve achieved their goal. But if you aren’t naturally built to have one and all of a sudden go back to your old habits, then those abs will disappear in as little as six to eight weeks, according to Antonucci.

Health problems can develop

A rarely discussed topic when it comes to abs is how your health may be affected. “Women who are trying to conceive must be careful not to drop their body fat percentage too low as this has been known to hinder chances of conception,” explains Green. Due to the caloric restriction and/or low body fat, Antonucci warns that we can lose our hair, end up with low hormone production, amenorrhea (lack of menstruation), which then leads to bone loss and stress fractures, as well as fertility problems. “I have had athletes referred to me by the doctors because of low hormone levels, low bone density, frequent stress fractures, infections and other 'out of range labs' such as liver function,” she says. Remember, if you do choose to follow this health goal, consult with your doctor first to avoid said health problems. 

They don’t serve a REAL purpose

With the exception of aesthetic purposes, a six-pack isn’t useful. Believe it or not, it doesn’t even indicate if you’re fit. “Having a visible six-pack serves no functional purpose for your body,” explains Layla Luciano, celebrity trainer and an instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp. “Therefore, a person without a six-pack can have just as strong of a core/abdominal area than a person with one.” Green adds that the rectus abdominis (a.k.a. the six-pack muscles) is the least important part of a strong core. ”The deeper muscles of the core, such as the iliopsoas, external and internal obliques, and transversus abdominis, though not revealed, are actually the game changers.” 

The best thing to keep in mind, is that a “fit” individual is someone with a strong core, stable joints, a supple spine and a healthy heart. Antonucci seconds this concept and says, “I see hundreds of people each year who dislike their bodies for one reason or another and it gets in their way of enjoyment of food, exercise, and life.“ She adds, “It is great to be motivated to exercise and eat well, but in my book those goals should include optimizing our health and energy.”