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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 07, 2008

Washboard Abs on a High-Fat Diet, No Ab Workouts and No Cardio?

By Mark Sisson
143 Comments

Mark SissonApologies in advance for the self-serving nature of this post, but I felt that it was time to answer more specifically many of your questions about my own program and to use myself as an example of how the Primal Blueprint works if you integrate all the elements.

As many of you know, I am coming off a three month rehab from knee surgery. I’m about 95% healed now and can even do my “Indigenous Peoples Stretch” (a full unloaded squat) – a sure sign that all is well. Throughout this time, I have maintained my usual diet and have done whatever upper-body lifting I could manage that didn’t also require substantial leg involvement (pushups, pull-ups, dips, cable-work, etc). Despite my (or should I say “because of my”) high-fat diet and doing pretty much zero cardio over the past four months (including a fair amount of down time before the knee surgery) my weight, my lean mass and my body fat have all remained steady.

I went on FitDay.com a few days ago (great site to reveal the truth about what you eat) and entered what was a typical full day of eating for me. The results were pretty much as I expected: 2,458 calories, 58% of which was from fat; 165 grams of protein (1 gram per pound of body weight) and 114 grams of carbs. Now some might say that eating less than 2500 calories is too low for a moderately active man, but there are two points to make here. First, I am never really hungry. On this Primal Blueprint eating style, I eat when I want to and stop when I no longer feel hungry. Pretty simple. If I skip meals, I don’t get light-headed or famished. I don’t ever feel like I need more calories or that I am missing out on anything or “sacrificing” some guilty pleasure. I get plenty of protein to spare muscle and add to protein turnover. I get plenty of fat for fuel – sometimes 65% of daily calories. Second – and this goes to the heart of the Primal concept – when you eat fewer carbs, your body readily accesses dietary and stored fat for fuel. Even at 8% body fat, I still have 46,000 calories of stored fat, at least 25,000 of which is available to use as fuel at any time. Theoretically, you could walk 250 miles on that. It’s a beautiful thing when you direct gene expression to “want” to burn fat instead of always storing it. You certainly don’t need cardio to produce the full effect (you can if you want, within guidelines). As we often say here “80% of your results come from how you eat.” Conversely, eating more carbs drives up insulin, drives carbs towards fat storage, decreases fat-burning by prompting fat cells to hold on to stored fat and makes you hungrier for more carbs. I could burn some or most of all that off again by doing tons of cardio, but that only makes me hungrier for more carbs and perpetuates the cycle. It’s like digging a hole to put the ladder in to wash the basement windows.

The other point I want to make is that I don’t do abs. By that I mean I don’t specifically do an ab routine or ab classes as any part of my workouts. On the other hand, I pretty much work my abs all day long without specifically focusing on them. And that’s an important distinction. Grok probably had a wicked set of abs. He had to. Abs are the center of the human movement universe. They are part of today’s “core”, the fulcrum, the key in Chi. But you don’t necessarily need to do endless crunches, sit-ups, roman chairs, leg raises or other isolation moves to strengthen them. Sure, you can if you want, but I think the best way to work your abs is involve them in almost every other movement you do. Every time you do it. When you do pushups, you should tighten your abs hard, likewise when you do pull-ups, squats, lunges, curls – you name it. And working your abs doesn’t stop in the gym. When you sit at your desk, you should take that opportunity to tighten your abs (and by abs, we mean the whole complex: rectis and transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, and pyrimidalis).

Tighten that belly as if you are going to be punched in the gut while blowing out the candles on your birthday cake. Hold it for 10, 20 or more seconds a few times every hour. Now do it while slightly tilted to one side. Now the other. For even better results and a stronger core, you would simultaneously contract your buttock muscles like you are trying to hold in the bean dinner you had at Barry’s last night. Do these short exercise bursts while you are driving to pick up the kids or when stuck in traffic. Hell, I do some of my best ab work bent over doing sprint work on the stationary bike. It’s really all about squeezing, tightening and trying to shorten the distance between your sternum and you pubic bone. This is all considered isometric work, but the abs respond extremely well to it. Eat right and those well-worked abs will show!

High-fat diet, no cardio, no ab workouts. Talk about thumbing your nose at Conventional Wisdom!

Further Reading:

What is the Primal Blueprint?

My Knee is Killing Me… No, Really.

My Daily Salad

Are There Any Good Carbs?

What I Eat in a Day

My Weekly Workout Routine

My Sprint Routine Video

Chronic Cardio

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds

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143 Comments on "Washboard Abs on a High-Fat Diet, No Ab Workouts and No Cardio?"

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Scott Kustes - Modern Forager
8 years 4 months ago

Great post Mark! I too avoid most all strict ab work. I do throw in some L-sits and situps on the Glute-Ham Developer in my warmup (though GHD Situps are truly a hip flexor exercise), but not a specific exercise session. Between real lifts like deadlifts, all types of squats (front, back, overhead), pullups, sprinting, and maintaining proper posture, the abs get plenty of work. Amazingly, I too have defined abs on my high-fat diet. It’s a wonder we aren’t both dead.

Cheers
Scott Kustes
Modern Forager

Donna
Donna
8 years 4 months ago

WOW! Great Pic. Mark,you’re a picture of health and of total fitness! You also look like you’re in your 20’s. You’re the perfect example to us all to eat healthy and to exercise,it pays off!!!

I did want to add that i tighten my abs when i ride my bicycle, which i’ve been doing alot of lately, that’s a fun way for me.

What a beautiful view of your back yard, lovely scenery!

Keenan
8 years 4 months ago

Great post Mark, and I don’t think it’s self serving at all. You’re showing the effectiveness of the paleo lifestyle, and providing a good example that will get people interested or motivated!

I’m curious about your carb intake. Is that 117g including fiber, and if so, how much? What are the main sourceS? Veggies, fruit, or both? It’s hard to get beyond 40g eating JUST veggies, so I’m assuming there is some fruit, wine, and possibly dark chocolate in that mix…

TonyR
TonyR
8 years 4 months ago
You are living proof of the Primal Blueprint. I’ve been strictly following your advice for about 6 months now. I started out at 215 lbs (6 feet tall). I am now done to 197, but have put muscle on. I cut out the carbs (down to about 200 grams a day tops), and have been following your workout routine of weight-bearing, sprints, low level aerobic. I’m even doing the daily salad (most days at least) something I never though I’d say. I don’t have those serious abs yet, but I’m on my way. More energy, less fat, more muscle… what’s… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 4 months ago
Keenan, On that day, I had a ton of vegetables. I wanted to show that if you eat like our ancestors (tons of veggies) you still can’t get much past 100 grams of carbs. As I recall, throughout the day I had 4 cups of mixed greens, 1 cup cherry tomotatoes, 1 medium red bell pepper, 2 cups of steamed brussel sprouts, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, 1/2 cup of blueberries, and a few other minor salad veggies. I did have a 2 x 5 rye-crisp-type cracker (with cheese and a glass of red wine) as added carbs, otherwise I would have… Read more »
Dave C. - DaveGetsFit
8 years 4 months ago

Dang, my invite to Barry’s Bean Bash must have ended up in my spam folder. 🙂

Mike OD - Fitness Spotlight
8 years 4 months ago

Great post…as a picture is worth 1000 words. Amazing too that high fat diets are “muscle sparing” as they have nitrogen retention properties…so you can still gain muscle and lose fat on a higher % of fat diet. Funny how we all have enough fat to fuel energy for days….yet most people think they need a Gatorade after running for 15 minutes.

Crystal
Crystal
8 years 4 months ago

You look great Mark. O.K., I don’t feel bad now. I as well haven’t been able to do any cardio in 4 months. I eat a high fat diet and haven’t gained weight.

Dave C. - DaveGetsFit
8 years 4 months ago

I can’t see the picture from behind the firewall at work, but I’m sure it’s eye-popping based on the one in my Mark vs. Art vs. Barry webpage. I still have a lot of bodyfat to get rid of before my abs will even begin to make an appearance, but thinking about getting there prompts a question. When I reach my target weight of around 185, that will represent a 55+ pound loss. I can already see what appears to be some loose skin hanging around my waist. Will the skin eventually retract to form fitting?

Barry
8 years 4 months ago
Mark, you look fantastic. I can only hope to look that good at 54. My only other comment would be to ask you to refrain from insinuating that a low carb diet is needed to achieve a lean and muscular body. I mean, that’s what you’re implying: here’s my body and this is how I eat. Correct me if I’m mistaken. A quick search of Google turns up literally hundreds of photos of body builders and figure competitors who are far leaner than even you who are consuming over 500 grams of carbohydrates each and every day. I’m sure Dave… Read more »
Puzzled
Puzzled
5 years 3 months ago
Well, a few things come to mind. First, I tend to agree that straight low carb dieting is not the most anabolic. For strong anabolic effects without gaining fat, or even while losing fat, I tend to think the Anabolic Diet/BodyOpus is the best. I’m also suspicious that the 80/20 rule might end up having the same effect, especially since most people are creatures of habit and would tend to cheat on a cyclic basis. Myself, I try not to rely on 80/20 too much, at least while I need to lose a lot of weight, but I do limit… Read more »
Keenan
8 years 4 months ago
Mark, Great, thanks for the reply. Even eating fruit, nuts, wine, AND dark chocolate, i find it VERY difficult to get above 120g of total carb per day without switching to non-paleo foods. Once fiber is subtracted, my carb is almost always around 70-80g/day and I’m generally getting 2000-3000 calories per day (22yrold male student with a desk job). Fiber supplements really don’t seem to do much in the absence of healthy gut flora, fat, and water, especially once you’ve got about 20-30g already. My personal experience: they irritate my stomach and cause all sorts of trouble. I do take… Read more »
Barry
8 years 4 months ago

Hey look, I was right. Dave’s comparing my physique to Mark’s.

That makes sense. Why don’t we compare Dave’s physique to Jay Cutler’s?

What? That doesn’t make any sense? Oh, right.. Dave hasn’t been lifting weights and eating right for the past 15 years. Sorry, my mistake.

Dave, when you are ready to make rational criticisms and draw reasonable comparisons, you let me know.

Keenan
8 years 4 months ago
Barry: You’re failing to take into account total health as well as effort vs output. Yes, you can eat a high-carb diet and be lean, but it will require HOURS of effort to burn off all of that glucose. Marathon runners are rarely fat, but they certainly aren’t healthy. You’re also forgetting that bodybuilders “cut up” prior to a competition, and they do this, generally, with a ketogenic diet or something very close to it. You must also consider that the ingestion and use of carbohydrate (ANY carbohydrate) by the body creates AGEs (Advanced Glycation Endproducts) that can be harmful… Read more »
Dave C. - DaveGetsFit
8 years 4 months ago
My only other comment would be to ask you to refrain from insinuating that a low carb diet is needed to achieve a lean and muscular body. I mean, that’s what you’re implying: here’s my body and this is how I eat. Correct me if I’m mistaken. With hesitation, I jump in again. No, Barry. The point is that YOU came in here saying that you can’t have a full, muscular, developed physique (not your exact words but I don’t have time to look ’em up) without eating a lot of carbs. All this shows is that you CAN have… Read more »
Barry
8 years 4 months ago
Sorry Dave, I NEVER said that or anything even close to that. Also, I submit to you that you can be healthy and still enjoy complex carbohydrates and even the occasional refined junk food treat. Keenan, you’re just flat out wrong. Do you know what an “ectomorph” is? Perhaps you’ve heard them called “hard gainers”. There are lots of people who can eat tons of carbs, even refined garbage, and not do ANY exercise, and they never get fat. These people struggle to put on even a little bit of muscle. Again, it’s different for everyone. Some people get fat,… Read more »
32Simon
32Simon
8 years 4 months ago

Barry-

Again with your bodybuilding talk. Just as Keenan and Dave are saying, even if it is true that a high-carb diet is the best environment for building unnatural (and difficult to maintain) amounts of muscle it isn’t the best environment for overall health. Just as Keenan pointed out, this health program is about seeing results without spending hours upon hours in the gym. It is a sustainable lifestyle designed for optimum health and longevity. Lean muscle mass, amongst other numerous health benefits, is a byproduct.

Barry
8 years 4 months ago
I’d also like to get some more information on this supposed diet our “ancestors” ate. Now, I can buy the idea that they ate lots of fat and protein, but vegetables? I like vegetables as much as the next guy, but I seriously doubt that the same primitive people who were chasing animals down with spears were also busy growing spinach and broccoli. At best they were eating wild berries, and some wild tubers. I confess my ignorance in anthropology, however, so I would love to know where this idea that our ancestors were big vegetable eaters comes from. I’ve… Read more »
Vince
Vince
6 years 2 months ago

“Substantiating this theory, the editors’ ultimate objective, requires an extensive exploration of early hominid diets, which comprises the bulk of the book (and is a wonderful read), followed by a demonstration of the ill effects of divergence from this diet.”

Wrong book perhaps?

Barry
8 years 4 months ago
Simon, I am not saying that everyone should aspire to build massive amounts of muscle! I’m simply pointing out that you don’t have to eat a low carb diet to enjoy a great physique, nor do you have to spend “hours and hours” in the gym. Additionally, I’d like you to submit actual proof that eating a diet high in complex carbohydrates is bad for your health. Is eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates bad for your health? Without a doubt. Please, show me some science that proves, or even presents compelling evidence, that eating oatmeal, brown rice, poatoes… Read more »
Ana
Ana
5 years 8 months ago

Hello Barry,

I would recommend to you that you watch the following documentary:
http://www.hulu.com/watch/196879/fat-head

The original idea is a little off topic from this line of posts, but more towards the middle and end they start to get into the difference between low-carb and high carb. They even have some very interesting interviews with some scientists to show the difference.

Keenan
8 years 4 months ago
Barry, You must differentiate between muscle and mass. Yes, you can put on *mass* with a high-carb diet, and then when you want to clean it up to actually show off the muscle you gained, you’ll have to cut up and lose all the excess fat. You completely ignored what I mentioned about health consequences. Yes, keeping insulin levels high all day will keep you “anabolic”, but you’ll be insulin resistant eventually and start suffering disorders of carbohydrate metabolism. Yes, you can fuel your high insulin levels and mass-growth via high carbs and might not get fat, but you won’t… Read more »
Keenan
8 years 4 months ago
Barry wrote: “Please, show me some science that proves, or even presents compelling evidence, that eating oatmeal, brown rice, poatoes – e.g. WHOLE FOOD carbohydrates, is going to harm a healthy (e.g. non-diabetic) person’s health.” You forgot already, but I mentioned AGEs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_glycation_endproduct And a baked potato spikes your blood sugar faster than jelly beans. Sugar is sugar is sugar. The only difference between complex and simple carbs is the speed at which it is converted to glucose in your body and then eventually stored as glycogen. This process always requires insulin and will therefore always raise insulin levels and… Read more »
32Simon
32Simon
8 years 4 months ago

I remember this article from awhile back: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/simple-complex-carbohydrates/
May shed some light on the debate…

Dave C. - DaveGetsFit
8 years 4 months ago
Sorry Dave, I NEVER said that or anything even close to that. You most certainly did. I can’t find the comments in the archived files but you said “a full, robust and muscular physique is achieved when glycogen stores are full, and glycogen stores are full when you are eating plenty of carbohydrates.” And that’s an exact quote because I copied it to my website. Again, my beef with you isn’t about what carb eaters CAN DO, it’s with your assertions about what low-carb eater’s CAN’T DO. There are some of Mark’s positions that are certainly open to debate, but… Read more »
32Simon
32Simon
8 years 4 months ago

Here you go Dave C. I remember it well…

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/artificial-sweeteners/#comments

Tee
Tee
8 years 4 months ago

Mark,

Is their a way for us to see your daily meal plan. I’m having a difficult time getting to 2500 cals per day.
Thanks

Aaron
8 years 4 months ago

Tee-

We plan on publishing Mark’s meal plan soon. Check back within the next couple weeks.

Thanks for the wonderful comments to Tee and everyone else!

tatsujin
8 years 4 months ago

Dave C and Keenan,
There used to be this wonderful tv show I enjoyed many years ago. I remember one of the great lines;
“Grasshopper…..
Don’t engage….if you no fight….there is no fight to be fought”

😉

Marc

L
L
8 years 4 months ago
“When I reach my target weight of around 185, that will represent a 55+ pound loss. I can already see what appears to be some loose skin hanging around my waist. Will the skin eventually retract to form fitting?” Dave, I think that answer will vary depending on a number of factors like age, diet, genetics, etc. Your skin will probably retract a bit, but it only works to a point and if you have stretch marks, you’re pretty much stuck with those. After my own 130lb or so weight loss, my skin has actually done a good deal of… Read more »
Steve
Steve
8 years 4 months ago

Your 54 and your ripped!! You’re better than Jack Lalanie!

I detest ab excercises, but alot of the work I do requires lifting, pulling, pushing and sometimes climbing and running. I’m sad to say my 20th b-day is next month and I have along way to go to be fit like you

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years 4 months ago

Mark, that is awesome!

By the way, what was your fiber grams for the day? I’m sure it was quite high! Way to go. 🙂

Showbuzz
Showbuzz
8 years 4 months ago

Mark,

What are your reasons for being opposed to fiber supplements?

I usually have a loaded teaspoon of milled flax and fenugreek seed in the morning and some days ill have psyllium husk too. I dunno if it really does anything – but it makes me feel like Im ‘cleanising’…

DaveC
DaveC
8 years 4 months ago

Simon: Thanks for the link.

L: I appreciate the response. I lost 55 pounds once before (back in ’75 when I first went to Thailand) and I didn’t have a problem then. I was just a little concern looking in the mirror last night, and all I could picture was Adam Sandler in “Click” 🙂

Marc: As a 19 year veteran of Usenet, I’ve typed “Please don’t feed the trolls” numerous times. I know better but sometimes I just can’t help myself!!

Aaron
8 years 4 months ago

Mark may chime in on his fiber intake and his take on fiber in general, but here is a good place to start: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fiber/

Migraineur
8 years 4 months ago

So I get this e-mail from Aaron saying, “Come and look at Mark’s abs.” Quel provocative! Don’t tell my husband I said that.

Dave C. - DaveGetsFit
8 years 4 months ago

He asked me too (not that there’s anything wrong with that)> 🙂

Barry
8 years 4 months ago
Keenan, your assertion that eating a diet high in complex carbohydrates will result in insulin resistance is complete and total hogwash. Aside from the fact that the complexity of the carbohydrates will ensure that insulin does not have to be excreted in large amounts to remove glucose from the blood, the very fact that we are exercising improves insulin sensitivity. Dave, you’re right I did say what you quote me as saying, but that’s not what you said I said before. I did say, and I stand by the statement that you achieve a full, robust and muscular physique when… Read more »
Barry
8 years 4 months ago

Oh, and Dave I have never said anything about what low carb dieters CAN’T do. I’ve only been pointing out what those who eat a diet high in complex carbohydrates can do BETTER.

As I’ve said before, not everyone’s priority is building muscle and that’s fine.

FYI, my wife is currently doing a ketogenic diet so I certainly see the value in low carb eating.

Barry
8 years 4 months ago

Keenan, a baked potato will only spike blood sugar if eaten ALONE.

NOBODY eats a baked potato alone. They eat it with a steak, with butter, with sour cream.. you know, things that SLOW digestion and make the GI totally irrelevant.

Thanks for the link on AGEs I will do some more reading up on the topic.

Barry
8 years 4 months ago

Kennan, from the wiki page on AGE it says that it results from the consumption of fructose and galactose.

Have you stopped eating fruit? As for galactose that’s primarily from milk.

Sorry but that doesn’t really cover all the other complex carbs. At best it appears you have a good case for a diet devoid of fruit (which is stupid) and milk (I’m actually contemplating cutting dairy for other reasons).

Anyway thanks for sharing!

Mike McCombs
Mike McCombs
8 years 4 months ago

Have I entered some type of alternate reality, where people who aren’t in shape and know nothing about Paleolithic nutrition (Barry) are telling others they need to learn more about high-carb diets?

Keenan
8 years 4 months ago
Ok Barry, one last comment. I have two pictures of me and two stories. The first was taken in 2005 at age 20 after I finished a big bulking session. I had spent the previous 4 years working out like a bodybuilder. I ate little to no sugar, only “complex” carbs (brown rice, baked/sweet potatoes, wheat bread, etc) and followed typical bodybuilding low-fat high-carb diet. I worked out 4-5 times/week, did steady state cardio (swimming, usually), etc. This picture is here: Around this time, I started developing severe anxiety and panic attacks, both of which are disorders of serotonin regulation.… Read more »
Brad
Brad
6 years 6 months ago

Wow, Keenan, that’s some amazing progress.

Sonagi
Sonagi
8 years 4 months ago

Your wife is a VERY LUCKY WOMAN, Mark! If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Hope the missus is secure enough not to be bothered by the ogling eyes of other women.

Katie
Katie
8 years 4 months ago
Actually, Barry, some of us do enjoy the taste of a plain baked potato, without steak. I, at least, have reverted to vegetarianism and do not enjoy the greasiness of butter or sour cream. (Truth be told, I prefer the skin of the potato more than anything.) So be careful before you say “nobody.” I choose not to eat the potato because I know it is not particularly healthy. The more time I spend trying to incorporate some of Mark’s ideas–not perfect, but I try–the more I’m becoming convinced that the fewer carbohydrates I eat the better, and those I… Read more »
Phillip
Phillip
8 years 4 months ago

Hey Mark,

Have you noticed a decline in mental energy or focus since not doing “cardio”?

I have read several reports that indicate that aerobic exercise is best for mental performance. Any thoughts?

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[…] Mark Sisson’s current regime, pics etc […]

Dana
8 years 4 months ago
Barry, the largest amount of weight I ever gained in my life, and in the shortest amount of time, was gained while I was eating a vegetarian/vegan (I tried both), whole-grain-based diet. Now, I was coming out of my second pregnancy (this weight gain occurred in the first six months after my daughter was born) and I probably already had issues with insulin sensitivity and so on, but I was also exclusively breastfeeding an infant on demand and “everybody knows” you lose weight doing that, just like “everybody knows” you lose weight on a low-fat, complex-carb, vegetarian or vegan diet.… Read more »
Fred
Fred
1 year 27 days ago

Wow! Well Said !

Mark Sisson
8 years 4 months ago

Dana,

Thanks for your passionate and very accurate response to Barry. Better late than never to start paleo/primal eating. Gene expression works both ways and I’m sure you can “recreate” yourself over time.

Unfortunately, after much debate at MDA, we had to politely suggest that Barry might enjoy other sites a little more than ours…We wish him the best on his body-building quest, but (we here) have better things to do than mix it up with someone who seems unable to enter into a debate without hurling insults.

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[…] for 30 seconds. Do twice an hour.Oblique Variation: To challenge your obliques (the abs on the side of the torso) a little more simply tilt your torso slightly to the right and […]

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[…] to reader Phillip for his question on the comment boards. I’ve talked a lot over the course of the last few months about chronic […]

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[…] Here’ a muscle pose after the 2-day fast.   I am pleased with my muscular development although it doesn’t come close to what 54-year-old Mark Sisson displays in this photo. […]

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