How to get six-pack abs and a solid reason why you might not want them

It's the ultimate summer fitness question: How do I get six-pack abs?

It's simple! There are only two things you need to do. Step one: build up your abdominal muscles in the gym, by doing a range of functional exercises that mimic how your core moves out in the real world.

"Think planks, woodchops, chins, kettlebell work, and many leg-lifting moves like supine leg raises and reformer Pilates," says exercise scientist and nutritionist Amelia Phillips

But the strongest abs in the world won't pop on the beach if they're hidden behind a layer of stomach fat. So unless you're one of those genetic unicorns who's naturally lean, you'll have to go hard on step two: cutting your calories.

"You would be very focused on what you ate," Phillips says.

She advises cooking almost all your meals from home; eating until you're 80 percent full; reducing alcohol intake to one or two days a week, and limiting it to spirits in zero-calorie soda; and carefully managing your protein levels (eating around 1-1.5g per kg bodyweight) to preserve and build muscle.

"Say goodbye to calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food such as fried food, pasta, pizza, desserts, and say hello to buddha bowls, veggies, legumes, lean meats, eggs and rice," she says.

Follow those two simple steps to a six-pack. Thanks for reading!

Not the end of the story

But of course, "simple" isn't the same thing as "easy" — despite what Instagram's led you to believe, a six-pack is a devilishly hard thing to earn and maintain.

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I've battled to get a six-pack, and can tell you that the extreme calorie restriction makes you obsessed with the foods you're not allowed to eat. And you can't even turn to your friends for relief from your punishing ab quest.

"Often your social life may suffer because it's no fun eating out when you can't have what you really want!" says Phillips.

The unhealthy side of a six-pack

While rippling abs are taken as a sign of peak fitness, the ultra-low body fat it takes to get them can have seriously unhealthy side-effects: Phillips says they include fatigue, a compromised immune system, vitamin deficiencies, muscle wastage, and organ shrinkage in severe cases.

Women, who naturally carry more body fat than men, may experience added consequences when it falls too low.

"Loss of period — aka amenorrhea — is one telltale sign that body fat has dropped below healthy levels and obviously leads to fertility issues," Phillips warns.

"Think of it as the body saying it is not capable of supporting the demanding nutrient needs of a growing baby," she says. "Chronic amenorrhea can lead to bone diseases such as osteoporosis, high cholesterol and premature aging."

And they're just the physical side-effects.

"There are also psychological risks such as body dysmorphia, disordered eating patterns, orthorexia, and anorexia nervosa," warns Phillips, who hosts the podcast Healthy Her.

The high cost of abs

Precision Nutrition's internet-famous infographic The Cost of Getting Lean breaks down how incredibly high that cost actually is. 

And take it from someone who's put in the hard work to get a six-pack (my lowest ever body fat checked in at 4 percent): it's not really worth it, and it won't make you happy.

Phillips agrees.

"I don't think it's worth all the effort, focus and deprivation. I would rather someone put that energy towards getting healthy, " she says — where healthy means staying within a normal body fat range; eating a diet that's low in processed foods, high in fruits, veggies and legumes; and cooking more from home.

She shares Boot Camp's philosophy of training and eating to feel better, not just look better.

"Set physical challenges such as a fun run, learning a new sport or skill, and do some mindful work on loving and respecting your body warts and all," she says. "Your body will respond way better, and you'll feel amazing."

According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.

Follow him on Twitter.