The 24 Hour Fitness center on Midway Drive is in a large strip mall with a Vons and a Sport Chalet. It is a two-story club with a weight room; two aerobic studios; two large areas of treadmills, stationary bicycles, and stair climbers; and an “ab room,” filled with state-of-the-art abdominal exercise equipment. On a warm Saturday morning, the parking lot is full and the gym is busy. Most of the clientele are youthful and well-built. The relentless thump of electronic dance music blasts from ceiling speakers throughout the facility.

Ricky Ali, 24, has been a personal trainer for six years. He is tall, lean, and solid-looking. “I’ve always been interested in fitness. All through high school I played sports, and when I joined the Marine Corps, I got really serious about weight training and putting on the right kind of weight. I got a couple of national certifications, started training in the military, and when I got out, I thought, ‘This is one of the most satisfying jobs that I could have.’ I’m in here helping people achieve things that they’ve never achieved before.”

“There’s definitely a boom of interest in getting perfect abs — especially down here in San Diego. In this population, everybody wants to be thin. Everybody wants to have the perfect abs. I noticed that, when I started out as a trainer, there were only a couple of abdominal exercises, but now everyone’s coming out with these new abdominal machines. The AB Dolly, the AB Roller, the AB Tiger. There’s new ones every day.”

The proliferation of ab products reflects a growing demand. “All of my clients are obsessed about their stomachs. I have very few clients who come in here without saying they want to get a six-pack or they want flat abs. And most of my clients are women. I have about 3 men and 25 women.”

“Six-pack,” an inaccurate though popular term, describes a condition not easily achieved. “It comes from having every single front abdominal muscle showing. If you counted them all out, it wouldn’t be six but really eight abdominals. What most people don’t understand is, they think that if they do all these crunches and all these sit-ups that they’ll get a six-pack, and that’s not actually true. If your body-fat percentage is really high, then most of your muscles are covered by fat. Everybody has a six-pack, but if it’s covered by fat, you’re never going to be able to see it. You need to drop your body-fat percentage down so you’re able to see those abdominals.

“Now, women need to have a higher body-fat percentage, because they’re the ones who carry the babies. Men can drop to a lower level, but if it gets too low, it can be physically dangerous. A healthy level of body fat for men who want good-looking abdominals would be between 9 and 11 percent. For women, you want to be anywhere between 19 and 21 percent.”

Making the perfect stomach involves using all the muscles in the abdominal group. “We have our rectus abdominis, which is our eight muscles right here [he points to the front of his belly]. On our sides we have our external and internal obliques. Around that we have our transverse abdominis, which help in slimming up the waistline. You don’t want to sit there and just work your rectus abdominis without ever working your obliques. Your body is going to be better balanced if you’re hitting every single muscle. If you’re not working on your obliques, your love handles are going to be sticking out.”

In terms of time, effort, and discipline, getting a hard, rugged stomach is expensive. “It’s all going to come out with their lifestyle. It’s all about what you eat. Let’s say you’re about 20 pounds overweight. You can’t just come in here and work out. It doesn’t matter how much cardio or how much weight training you do: if you’re not taking in the recommended calories, you’re never going to get to your goal. The first thing you need to do is start eating right. When you start eating right, you’ll drop that body-fat percentage. Then you’ll want to spend between three to four days [a week] in here doing weight training and about five days doing cardio.”

Ali hasn’t measured his waist for a long time, and a lift of his shirt shows why he needn’t bother. His torso reminds one of a Greek statue — until you notice the nipple rings. “My pants have a 32 waist.”

Carlos Sanguinetti, 27, has been working out for 12 years. “I’ve spent the better part of the last year finally doing it right.” At 5'5", Sanguinetti looks like a flyweight boxer, only stronger. Muscles ripple and bulge through his tight-fitting tank top. He demonstrates a murderous-looking sit-up that is done atop a large, red “physio-ball,” a tool Ali insists is an essential for ab development. His body quivers with pain as he slowly moves up and down. “I just recently got a trainer. I’d been doing stuff on my own, but the trainer set up a whole new routine for me. I’d been doing this for a long time, but the stuff they’ve shown me here really works. The difference is technique and a few new ideas on what I could do to make my abs better. I’ve got a whole new diet plan. Honestly, eating and diet is almost 80 percent of your physique — shaping it into what you want it to be. I’m eating more! I used to only eat about three times a day, but they gave me this analogy about a sumo wrestler. They get so large by only eating one time every day, in the middle of the day; then they go to sleep and don’t do anything. The meal plan I’m on has me eating four to five times a day, and all good stuff. I eat a lot of protein and vegetables, grains, everything. I used to eat a lot more carbs — mostly pastas. My mom’s Italian, so I grew up eating that stuff all the time. When I told her I had a diet plan from my trainer, she said, ‘What are you on a diet for?’ I had to explain that it’s not that kind of diet. They’re just showing me how to eat the right things. As soon as I told her I was eating five times a day, she had no problem with it!”

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