I never had abs, even when I was so disgustingly skinny in college that my grandmother would almost cry at the sight of me. I decided that this was simply something my body was incapable of and thought nothing of it. The problem was, every Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness cover—literally, every single one—screams in capital letters about getting a six-pack. It’s apparently the only muscle group that matters (or at least the most important one).
After a lifetime of being the skinniest kid, I was also convinced that my body in general was not open to change. Then one of my editors sat me down and knocked some sense into me. “It doesn’t matter how insane your metabolism is,” he insisted. “If you eat more, you will gain weight. You have to gain weight. The calories have nowhere else to go.”
Sure enough, I did start to eat more—a lot more—and I did gain weight. Well, this changed everything. I hadn’t considered this to be possible, and now it was happening. So despite being a writer from Brooklyn, I joined the gym. It was weird going there, since it was most certainly not my natural environment. But the very first day, a big dude asked me if I was done with the machine I was on. “Yep,” I told him. “That was my last set.”
“Thanks, brother!” he said unironically.
That was that. He called me “brother”! I belonged. Rather than being intimidated, I quickly saw that everyone in the place was extremely polite and no one ever stared at the not-as-skinny guy trying to figure his way around. They were there to exercise, not gawk. I went online and found a pretty straightforward routine and started going regularly. It did wonders for my mental health. If there was a day where I had nothing to do (say, waiting to hear back from an agent), I wouldn’t be antsy. I had still done something, some work for the day. It wasn’t wasted.
I never got into great shape, but that wasn’t really the point. I managed to have a normal, healthy build, something I never had in my life, and that was plenty. But after a certain point, gaining any more weight would do me more harm than good. My dad was the fat kid in school, while my mom still clocks in under 120 pounds. As I gained weight, my face turned into Dad’s big pumpkin head. It was not a look I was interested in achieving, let alone sustaining.
I had thought gaining weight was impossible and proved that false. Maybe I could get abs? So I went on a strict regimen (women have diets; men have regimens, I told myself) of very low-carb food every day. My natural metabolism did the rest. The weight kept coming off. Quickly I reached the point where more than one friend pulled me aside. “You look sick,” one told me.
“I’m trying to get abs,” I said.
“You can’t lose any more weight. I’m telling you.”
So I gave up. I didn’t really care, as I hadn’t thought it possible anyway. A while later I became friends with a fitness coach, and I asked him to write me up a program to follow. An author is every coach’s dream client, since we’re used to keeping a schedule and being extremely disciplined. He put me on what they call a bulk and I got heavier than at any point in my life.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s get you on a cut. I can get anyone to have abs. Anyone.”
He gave me a list of macros to meet, a certain amount of protein, fat, and carbs to consume on a given day. It didn’t matter where they came from, so I picked a regimen (not a diet) that I knew I could eat every day and not get sick of. I wasn’t interested in being healthy; I was interested in getting a six-pack. My intake was beef jerky, gummy candy, beef (not whey) protein, protein chips, grilled chicken, and potato. The weight started imploding, and my face started morphing back into my mom’s. Eventually I had a waist under 25 inches and a 38 or so inch chest. I was now one measurement away from having perfect proportions…for a woman.
Still no abs. I wore the smallest belt I found at the store, tightened to the furthest hole, and still I didn’t have definition in my stomach. I was losing body fat everywhere else (and visible abs is simply a function of low body fat) and didn’t know how much more weight I had to lose. Then one day, as I was changing, I caught sight of myself in the mirror with a six-pack.
I had such severe body dysmorphia that when I looked at my reflection I thought, “Wow, he’s [sic] got a decent build.” I quickly took a picture, certain this would vanish overnight. But no, the abs were still there in the morning, and the day after that. OK, so now I had abs. According to all the magazines, I should be getting laid every three seconds and people should be handing me big checks for no reason. I did it! Hurray!
So how did getting abs change my life? It didn’t. It was great to be able to say that I accomplished it, but I have never worked harder for as long for so little benefit. I tried putting up just an abs photo on Tinder as an experiment and got zero matches. Literally none. I understood why women wouldn’t read Men’s Fitness, but I’d assumed they’d be subliminally brainwashed as they saw the headlines on the newsstand or something. Nope.
Now, I am still sticking to my regimen in order to maintain my waistline. Why? I have no clue. Maybe because it represents getting something unattainable. Having abs (for me at least) is like having gone to Harvard: It’s the sort of thing you have to mention within minutes of meeting anyone, and it’s the sort of thing they genuinely find very impressive…for ninety seconds.