Is a six-pack bad for your body?

Certain experts call the coveted washboard into question.

If long, lean muscles are the goal, does a tight, solid six-pack fly in the face of that training objective? According to some experts, the reps after reps of ab-tightening moves most people gravitate to in an effort to achieve that compact look could actually do more harm than good.

“Healthy muscle fibers are long and lean,” says Deborah Stotzky, an acupuncturist in New York specializing in problems with the musculature. “Repetitive movements”—like crunches—“can encourage the tissues to become shortened.” That often leads to inhibited range of motion, poor posture, injury and even damage to organ function.

That’s not to say it’s possible to lengthen or shorten your muscles to the point that you suddenly need different inseams. But the common tendency to squeeze them into compliance—whether via sit-ups or a plank you hold for an eternity—can actually mess up their structure and behavior.

“If a movement or position is common enough, it tells the muscles, ‘we don’t need to get longer,’” says Matthew Berenc, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in Beverly Hills. “The body starts taking away pieces of muscle so it stays in that shortened position.”

Tight, truncated muscles—ones that are “always on,” as Berenc describes it—can pull bones, tendons and muscles out of place, causing a range of kinetic problems and potentially messing with surrounding organs’ ability to do their job. For example, Stotzky has seen a correlation in her clients between tight abs and gynecological issues.

So is it possible to sport those glorious ripples and still maintain proper muscle health? Yes. Some rules of thumb:

choose well-rounded moves

The best core whittlers require a range of motion much broader than the up-down-up-down of crunches. Berenc recommends anti-rotation exercises, like a chop: Position yourself in a kneel or half-kneel, and hold a medicine ball in both hands, moving it diagonally in front of you, working to keep your body from turning. Love planks? The key is to turn those muscles on and off, holding—perfectly still, with perfect form—for 10 seconds, then resting for 5. Refresh your plank routine.

balance front and back

Any workout that focuses attention on the core should be accompanied by stretches in the opposite direction, which help maintain length in the ab muscles. Stotzky, who is also a yoga instructor, recommends back bends.

mind your ratio

Perhaps the biggest factor of all for revealing that washboard, Berenc says, is body composition. “A lot of people with a six-pack don’t even have a strong core; they just have a low body-fat percentage.” Increasing leanness boils down to nutrition and resistance training.
The kneeling core workout

5 effective moves for your abs, glutes, and spine

Partner workout: kickboxing + strength

Can you handle our latest partner workout?