This is Week 6 of 6 in Derek Flanzraich’s #absperiment series. Catch up on Week 0 (why he’s doing this to begin with), Week 1 (how it takes a village), Week 2 (how it’s about the little things), Week 3 (how much traveling sucks for this), Week 4 (early conclusions), and Week 5(the sacrifices). Oh— and find out how he felt one year later.
It’s over. I am the proud owner of six-pack abs thanks to six weeks of sacrifices and support. Up until my binge on a Shake Shack burger and frozen custard Monday night, I hadn’t had a single beer, banana, or starchy carb in six weeks. I worked out 39 times in the last 42 days. And I dropped from 205 pounds to roughly 185 (maybe less—the scale once, true story, read 177.6), and most importantly, from 14.7 percent body fat to my sub-10 goal: 9.4 percent. And thanks to all that? I now look like this:
I went into this six-pack abs in six weeks #absperiment on a mission to figure out whether they’re worth it. Whether, you know, the magazine covers are right and perhaps you should do this just like I did. After a brief rundown of my last day-by-day, workout-by-workout, meal-by-meal #absperiment week, read on for my final takeaways.
Day 41 (Saturday, July 21): Rest Day, Low Calorie, Low/No Carb + Water Loading Day, and slept 7 hours
Day 42 (Sunday, July 22): Rest Day, Dry Carb, Low Protein + Water Cutting Day, and slept 6 hours
Shoot Day (Monday, July 23): Dry Carb + Water Cutting Day, and slept 8 hours
And now that all that’s behind me, here’s my take:
There’s no secret. “What’s your secret?” was the most popular question I was asked, but the truth is there’s nothing new. Other than some water, sodium, and carb manipulation the last few days before the photo shoot (explained below) , everything I did was what you’d expect: Eat better, eat less, and work out more. I didn’t eat anything weird (mostly, you guessed it, chicken and vegetables). I didn’t do any strange workouts (weight training, intervals, and cardio). I didn’t take any unknown supplements (just fish oil and vitamin D). I was just totally dialed in. Other than one “cheat meal” each week for the first three weeks and one slip up early on, I didn’t waver. I didn’t eat a single bite of dessert. I didn’t cave at lunch and have a sandwich or a wrap. I ate freakin’ arugula salad on July 4th. Six weeks is a really, really short time (even if it seemed like an eternity) — there was no margin for error.
What the human body can do is incredible. I honestly never thought I could look the way I do right now. Six weeks ago, I was pretty fit and healthy — but now I have those elusive six-pack abs plus an appreciation for how to get there. Recording every single thing I ate and every exercise I did forced me to learn more about the balance between carbohydrates, fat, and protein than ever before – and how each affected me. I know now a lot more about how many calories are in a tablespoon of olive oil, how many carbs are in a baby carrot, and how much protein is in half a chicken breast — and probably far too much (he knows too much!). In some ways I was treating my body by the end of the #absperiment as a science experiment, a precise equation that would be affected by a single extra shelled pistachio — and I’m pretty sure that’s not so healthy. I’m lucky that my body can change so quickly (and everyone’s body and biology is different for sure), but wow is it amazing how much can change with hard work and focus.
For some perspective, here’s a (lightning-fast!) time lapse from where I started to where I ended:
This was so lonely. It’s hard to express how alone you feel when you’re counting every calorie, pre-planning every meal, and working out every single day. The funny stares when walking through the park holding a one-gallon water jug were not a big deal. The late dinners at which I ate nothing (seriously, not a single thing) were bearable. But despite supportive friends and team members, no one really knew what I was feeling, what I was going through, and what kept me going. I felt trapped when asked to go places and do things. I felt embarrassed on weekends when I had to make sure to spend hours in the gym each day. I felt uncomfortable making others awkwardly eat and drink alone. I felt hungry and sad when I went to bed. The final week, I could barely sleep at all (my worst weekly sleep average for the whole #absperiment) – sort of as if even my body wasn’t supporting me anymore. Worse, there were also noticeable side effects for others. I’m usually really positive and happy, but (as everyone in my office now attests to) I was tired and grouchy throughout the #absperiment. That sucks. Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure who the people are who get and maintain six-pack abs for an extended period of time, but I feel for them and hope they have some awesome friends (who maybe ideally have six-pack abs, too?).
It’s even harder work to look your best for a photo shoot. Throughout the #absperiment, I tried to mimic exactly what a person would normally do in an effort to achieve six-pack abs — except for the last few days. Why? The photo shoot. This is a thing. A thing. It turns out competitors, models, and others go all out to make sure they look their best on the day of their shoot and, once I learned all about it, I figured it’d be an interesting story to share. So I embarked on (the absolutely most “lite” version) of what they’d go through. The basic idea is to play with water, carbs, and salt to get as lean as possible. For three days, I increased my water intake significantly (drinking more than two gallons per day), started adding salt to everything I ate, and cut out as many carbs as I possibly could. I then started cutting the water, drinking only half a gallon the day before the photo shoot and then just a few sips the day of. I also began eating dry carbs (this meant unsalted rice cakes and sweet potatoes) to soak any remaining water up. Greatist Expert, trainer, and fitness competitor Robynn Europe explains: “Since your muscles have been depleted of carbs, instead of the carbs making you hold water under your skin… your muscles suck it up like lines of coke.” Perfect. Thanks to that, the last couple days of the #absperiment were definitely the worst. Rice cakes and dehydration suck. But, along with a tan (weird) and a shaved chest (weirder!), it worked.
The water/salt/carb manipulation, shaved chest, and tan made a difference (what you see above is the difference between just Day 40 and Day 42) — but nothing can make a difference as much as professional photography, lighting, and Photoshop can.
The point? The people you see on the cover of health and fitness magazines, supplement ads, and in movies have (almost always) done everything they can to look their best. Fitness models, I’m told, are sometimes so dehydrated that they can’t get out of their chairs to do the photo shoot. I did a grossly imprecise, haphazard version of this and look what happened. Imagine what the pros do (eat a ton of unsalted rice cakes, I’m sure).
Where I’m going from here. The closer I got to the finish and the more I talked about Shake Shack, the more my expert advisors began to worry. “Hopefully you’ll try to keep most of what you achieved,” urged Peak Performance’s Joe Dowdell. “You may not want to stay as shredded as you’ll be at the end as that does take a concerted effort, but you will definitely be able to stay in very good shape if you keep applying 80 percent of what you’ve been doing.” A similar response came from Precision Nutrition’s Jay Bonn: “After all of this you just might discover the nice balance between what’s enjoyable, what’s practical, and what’s effective for you.” Even Greatist Expert and Dietician Lindsey Joe was worried: “Hope you’ve also gained some things for as much as you’ve given up.”
Of course, the plan was never to return back to where I started as immediately as possible… though it’d probably be pretty easy, since all my friends keep daring me take on the #kegsperiment (40 pounds in 40 days) next. I shared a bunch of conclusions in a previous post, but the ones that stick out are: how much less I have to eat to be satisfied; making sure I indulge only when it’s really worth it; and how much I loved working out more (though maybe not seven times a week). Ideally, I’ll keep my weight under 195 pounds, roughly midway from where I started and ended. I love living life like a greatist, empowered to make healthier choices, indulging when I think it’s worth it, and sharing in adventures with others. This was not that life.
There’s no way this could have been accomplished alone. As early as Week 2, I wrote about how it takes a village, but the truth is that it’s only become more important since. The experts I reached out to early on got weekly updates (much like you!) and sheparded me along, answering my questions and worries with amazing guidance and advice. I was lucky to have Precision Nutrition’s awesome Jay Bonn on my side, Greatist Expert and Trainer Kelvin Gary as a personal cheerleader, and Greatist Expert and Dietician Lindsey Joe with so much to share.Peak Performance’s Joe Dowdell and Trainer Dan Trink lent their support — and Dan even performed 12-site skin fold measurements on my nearly naked body four times without complaining once. NYHRC not only didn’t kick me off their cardio machines, but also tweeted encouragement. The epic John Romaniello and always-honest Robynn Europe gave me the real scoop on how to look best for the photo shoot and kept me sane by reminding me they’d done the same thing many times, just a million times worse.
The awesome Ian Spanier was flexible, professional, and so freakin’ good as a photographer that I basically never needed to do the #absperiment in the first place to look this great. My close friends didn’t hassle me too much about drinking only water, eating only health things, and complaining about it — and, to my knowledge, still remain my friends. My family kept emailing me encouraging things and my brother really came through with some clutch supportive texts over the home stretch. The entire Greatist Team endured my crabbiness, listened to my boring food and exercise-related stories, and continued to support me. I’m lucky to have such an amazing team filled with such amazingly understanding and thoughtful people. Jordan Shakeshaft, our fitness editor, took on a particularly huge load tackling these weekly posts and turning them into something readable and not a million pages long, often at the last minute (sorry!).
Finally, Greatist Expert Trainer Matt McGorry was my personal “sherpa” for this journey, but really became my closest friend. I saw him three times a week, but only he really knew what I was going through because he’d done it before. Only he really cared what the heck I’d eaten for breakfast, and only he wanted me to succeed as badly as I did. I’m not sure what I would have done without Matt’s friendship through every step of this (even the photo shoot!).
So are six-pack abs worth it? I began this #absperiment with the belief that you don’t need six-pack abs to be happy, but wanted to see for myself. I look better than I ever have, but am I happier? Absolutely not. The past six weeks haven’t been full of torture and suffering — they’ve been hard, sure, but ultimately manageable. But I won’t do it in the future and, in retrospect, I wouldn’t go back and do it again. Six weeks is too short of a time and demands too many sacrifices, sacrifices that I now know I’m not willing to give up. Six-pack abs are a superficial measure of health and fitness success — they don’t mean you’re the most in shape, the most healthy, or the most anything. If you’ve considering trying to get six-pack abs yourself (or maybe even were inspired by this series), I’d suggest it may be worth asking yourself what you’re really after.
Is it six-pack abs or simply losing some weight? Is it six-pack abs or feeling a little better about yourself? If you begin to make healthier choices, one at a time, maybe you’ll get six-pack abs eventually… But is that really what you want? Everyone is different, motivated in different ways and interested in different things. And though six-pack abs are not for me and, I think, not for most people, maybe they are for you. That’s totally OK, too. Just know what you’re going to have to sacrifice. And I’d recommend taking more than six weeks to get there.
Photos by Ian Spanier. Illustration by Bob Al-Greene.