For many men the six-pack – or sharply defined abdominal muscles – is the Holy Grail of male fitness. Brad Pitt, David Beckham and Daniel Craig all sport them, and, if men's fitness magazines are to be believed, every man is just a few weeks away from a ripped, lean torso that will have girls swooning and guys gobsmacked with envy. But how easy is it to achieve perfect abs?
I'm always hearing about how desirable they make you, so I decide to see if I can become a fully fledged citizen of the Planet of the Abs.
I buy a copy of Men's Health magazine. This publication specialises in holding out the prospect of a perfectly toned body, often in six weeks or less.
I've never been fat, but Michelangelo wouldn't have used me as a life model either. I don't go to the gym or play any sports and to me the term "sit-up" was simply the posture I adopted to drink tea in bed.
I will follow to the letter the instructions in the magazine and in just 42 days will stride the streets, a veritable Adonis. Or, sidle along a miserable failure. It is, quite literally, crunch time.
I throw myself into the exercises with vigour. But on day four I wake up with an ache in my lower back. There's no way I can exercise so I take the next few days off until the pain has gone. I'm beginning to find the exercises – a mix of sit-ups, push-ups and weights – repetitious and I'm getting bored. Three weeks in and it's getting depressing. I'm not enjoying it, and it doesn't seem to be having any effect (although I have lost a little weight).
I seek advice. My friend Harjeet has a six-pack. The first thing he tells me is it will be very difficult to get a six-pack in six weeks. This seems the voice of sanity in a world of empty promises. He tells me that I can't just exercise one part of my body in isolation. "You're not just a torso, you've got legs and arms attached to the abdominals. You need to exercise the whole body." He also tells me I need to understand what muscles I'm exercising and what they do. I explain that I need a programme that will work for me. Like most people, I can't spend hours and hours exercising. I don't want to give up alcohol or drastically change my diet. I don't like gyms and I won't wear lycra. In short, I don't want it to govern my life.
That evening (over a couple of pints of lager) we devise a plan that we dub the Fast Living Workout – an exercise regime and diet that will deliver a six-pack without hampering my social life too much. I will start the next day. Harjeet tells me I have to cut out beer. I order another one from the bar as it's going to be my last for a while.
Given that I'm on a strict deadline my aim is to train at least five days a week for approximately one hour. Each session, I'll attempt to train until I begin to feel the muscles seize up – hopefully this will mean they'll build and I'll be able to do more exacting exercises as I progress.
The plan is to circuit train, going from one set of exercises to another. I will run, do sit-ups and press-ups and I will also use a piece of portable equipment called a TRX. It was invented by an American Marine as a way of keeping fit without going to the gym. It's basically a Y-shaped piece of webbing that can be attached to a bar or branch and used for pull-ups, supporting feet for press-ups or other exercises.
The first week feels like it's been one of hardest of my life. Some days I get home and collapse on the sofa, unable to move. I wouldn't say it's fun, but I'm enjoying the challenge.
Motivating myself to start each morning is almost the biggest challenge and the hardest thing to get used to is exercising with the TRX in public. People often stop and stare.
I go to an empty children's playground and do pull-ups on the climbing frame. I also use the slide but not for sliding. I attach my feet to the top, lay on my back with my head downwards and do sit-ups. The incline makes it incredibly hard. I manage about five.
I also do really hard press-ups. This involves placing my feet on a park bench and my hands on the ground. I've heard it's important to go for the burn, but this sometimes feels like I've set myself on fire. The only changes to my diet are that I have reduced saturated fats. No croissants, chocolate or cheese. I've increased my protein intake (bacon or smoked salmon and scrambled eggs most lunchtimes) and I'm trying not to have carbohydrates late at night.
I'm beginning to feel really good. I've got a lot more energy. This week the weather has been bad, but I haven't let this stop me. I head to the park in the drizzle and wind. Here I do lunge walks. This is an exercise in which I stand on one leg, raise my other so my thigh is parallel with the ground, lean forward as if taking a step but allow my bent leg (still bent) down to ground level and my body to sink to the ground. My other leg is stretched out behind me. I straighten my bent leg and raise myself up. I bring my other leg into the bent position. This is hard enough, but at the same time I have to make sure my abdominal muscles are locked.
I sprint back and forth between two trees to get my heart rate up (this is important for fat burn), occasionally dropping to the ground to do press-ups. Covered in mud, soaking wet and shattered, I return home. I look in the mirror. In a certain light I think I can see two abs. I think I've got a two-pack! Feeling like I've done very well, I eat some Stilton.
Exercising is becoming quite addictive. Rather than dreading the early morning workouts, I'm beginning to look forward to them.
I usually train in the local park or playground, but I've also trained at a friend's house in the country, on cliff-tops overlooking the North Sea and even on the banks of the Thames.
It's important to work your whole body. Each exercise should work the abs. When I'm doing a press-up using the TRX it shouldn't just be my arms and chest that I can feel, I should feel the strain in my abs, too.
I'm really pushing myself now. It's important to exercise your muscles to fatigue. This way you know you're working them hard. I alternate between press-ups and kick thrusts, keeping my heart rate high.
In the playground I'm now doing about 50 sit-ups on the slide.
The TRX is fun. With hands in the grips and the straps extended I jump up and down into a squat position. This keeps my heart rate high, exercises the abs and legs.
I'm spending a lot longer in the bathroom these days staring at my torso, trying to work out if anything's changed. Surely this isn't healthy.
For my final week I add another half an hour to my exercise routine. A lot of this extra time is spent doing a series of crunches. Careful to feel the pressure in the abs and not strain with my neck I'll do 50 or so. Then I'll do another 50 but turning to the left and right alternately. This develops my obliques – the muscles that run from below the armpit to the waist. Next up, I raise my legs to my chest and balance myself on my bottom, then I slowly extend my legs and lean back to maintain my balance with my arms out in front. I tell myself there's no pain without gain, which is fortunate because at times this is agony.
I can't believe I'm thinking this stuff, writing this stuff... pecs, abs, obliques, TRXs and kick-thrusts... the sort of thing I used to glance at in health magazines, shudder and turn the page. Now it's kind of taken over my life, and – scarier still – I'm loving it.
I'm the fittest I've ever been. I feel really good and have a stomach that looks like a washboard. It's not just my torso, though, that's changed; my whole body has developed a different shape. It was a tough six weeks, but I don't regret it. In fact, I'm quite proud.