Everyone can train and diet to make them more visible, but at the end of the day, they are not a measurement of fitness and health
This week, comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani posted a shirtless photo on Instagram, revealing a new, ripped physique with visible, countable abdominal muscles. Nanjiani, in his post, explained that he decided to get jacked for his role in the Marvel movie The Eternals and credits his new look to a full year spent with the “best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world.” The photo is one part flex, one part admission that celebrities have access to resources that normies do not.
Can anyone achieve ripped abs if they have the right diet and trainer? The fervor of Nanjiani’s abs is a good time to revisit the question: How much of your abs is in your control?
Several factors contribute to the look of a person’s abdominal muscles. One factor is diet, hence the phrase “abs are made in the kitchen.” The logic behind this statement is that diet is the most important component for “revealing” the abs. After all, everyone has the muscles, but they will only become visible if they are not obstructed by fat. Exercise also plays a factor, as resistance training can increase the size of the abdominals, just like any other muscle.
But other factors are completely genetic. Nanjiani, for example, has staggered, uneven abs, in what can arguably be called a seven-pack. The number of muscles in one’s “pack” is genetic. Nanjiani couldn’t continue working out to pop an eighth pack in there, even with the resources of Marvel Studios at his disposal.
Sports physiologist Mike Israetel says, “How visible they are, how they’re shaped, whether they’re aligned or crooked — it boils down to your DNA.”
In a conversation with Elemental, Israetel explained that the way to get defined abs is not one-size-fits-all, nor is the level of effort. “If your general body-fat percentage is already rather low, as evidenced by the fact that the rest of you is lean, but you’re still nowhere close to seeing your abs, it basically means you’re going to have to get close to bodybuilding-contest lean, which is the single digits of body fat [percentage].”
In other words, how people’s bodies distribute fat is genetic. Someone might have visible ab muscles at 10% body fat, while another person’s abs may show even when they’re heavier. In a 2014 study of 360,000 people, researchers in Germany found that there is “good evidence that body fat distribution (FD) is controlled by genetic factors.”
The actual segmentation of a person’s abs is also genetic. The lines that make up the “pack” in a six-pack are made of tissue called tendinous inscriptions. A study in the Journal of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences looked at 41 cadavers and reported that the number of tendinous inscriptions varies from person to person. The paper concluded that “more extensive studies are required to establish a definite pattern among local populations.”
The number of muscles in one’s “pack” is genetic. Nanjiani couldn’t continue working out to pop an eighth pack in there, even with the resources of Marvel Studios at his disposal.
While there are clear genetic determinants to whether a person has visible abdominals, Israetel says it would be wrong for someone to throw their hands up and 100% blame their genes for not having abs. “There’s no such thing as a real, actual plateau, but instead a question about diminishing returns and priorities,” he says. For some people, shedding the last bit of abdominal fat to uncover their abs can take “heaven and earth,” which Israetel compares to summiting a mountain. “It would be sweet if Mount Everest was just a staircase and you could just climb up, but sometimes you have to walk 600 miles to gain a foot, and then the question is: Why are you going there?”
Israetel argues the visibility of ab muscles should not be the be-all end-all of fitness.
“We don’t want folks who are already 99% or 100% of the way to excellent health, lifestyle, and longevity doing crazy things to themselves that actually detract from their health, like psychotic dieting, to get that last [fat] percent off because they’re saying, ‘Well, I’m not healthy unless I have abs,’” he says. “That’s absolutely not true.”
Obsessing over developing prominent ab muscles instead of overall fitness is an example of losing the forest for the trees. There’s a wisdom in accepting that fitness is more than the number of visible muscles on your stomach.