I am the first to admit it: I hate working my abs. It’s uncomfortable, hard to breathe, strains my neck, kills my hip flexors and just flat out hurts! However, after many years of ignoring my abs and hoping that diet alone would take care of my mid-section, I discovered a severe muscular imbalance between my relatively weak core muscles and the rest of my regularly-worked arm and leg muscles. SO, it is with a goal of strengthening my core and hopefully adding some “chunkiness” to my abs, that I have started working them regularly. Sigh. BUT, along with a clean diet, consistent resistance training and interval cardio activity, I look forward to having some abs that “pop” for summer. Here is a closer look at how all of these factors can affect your mid-section and some tips to get you started.
Unfortunately for the “ab lounge”-ers among us, the tasks of uncovering the abdominal muscles, and also defining those newly revealed abs is a lot trickier than late-night infomercials would have us believe. The truth is that most of us would be excited to see any visible separation of muscles in the torso at all, from that elusive line down the middle to the coveted six-pack. Obtaining great ab development is daunting if done through exercise alone—well, actually, it is virtually impossible to achieve through exercise alone; so instead, let’s focus on attacking the abs with all the tools in our toolbox: weight-training, cardiovascular exercise, proper diet, and improved body composition.
1) The Big Reveal: Body Composition It is useless to perform hundreds and hundreds of crunches if there is a huge layer of fat on top, covering up these muscles. The truth is that everyone has a six-pack; it is just lodged underneath varying degrees of fat accumulation in the midsection. In effect, the amount of ab definition that an individual can achieve is based on two things: overall body composition (body fat %) and relative development of the ab muscles themselves (in other words, how “chunky” they are). Thus, the first step in revealing a sculpted set of abs is to improve body composition and decrease body fat percentage. Depending on how much definition you desire, body fat percentage goals will vary. Old wives tales report a full-on six-pack for women around 12%…ironically a body fat so low that many times there is a loss of menses…probably not the best idea to get and stay there! In fact, many figure competitors usually maintain an actual 6-pack for only a few days around showtime and that’s it. As a general rule, many fitness experts believe that a degree of definition is possible for women who attain a body fat percentage below 20%–and we agree that’s a great, healthy goal for most women.
2) Proper Nutrition The first place to look for improved body composition is in your cupboards. Proper nutrition is paramount in effecting your waistline, not only in terms of certain foods being fattier than others, but how certain foods affect hormones negatively to increase fat storing. Some of the common culprits include sweets, sodas, refined grains. These are no-brainers for fat loss—get rid of mid-afternoon vending machine trips, regular sodas, desserts, breakfast foods like sugary cereals, pop-tarts, muffins (even the low-fat ones!), pastries, high-sugar granola, pre-packaged oatmeal and every other cookie, cake, doughnut and potato chip. These foods are processed to a painful degree and will spike insulin mercilessly, forcing the body to store excess sugar as fat. Also, just as guilty are alcohol, artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils (such as used in fried foods) and carbonated sodas. Dairy can be tricky because though it is considered lower on the glycemic index, it is very insulinigenic, meaning that it raises insulin and has a greater potential for fat storing. If you are going to eat dairy, try low-fat versions and maintain the appropriate serving size.
On the other hand, some foods help maintain constant blood sugar levels; others can help with cravings; and still others help burn fat by affecting hunger hormones. These include lean protein, leafy green vegetables, and low glycemic index fruits. The following is a list of clean foods that if eaten from exclusively can not only increase fat burning, but help with cravings, balance energy and improve overall health and immune system function. Do your best to eat from this list only. For more information on fat burning nutrition, be sure to check out The Metabolic Effect Diet by Jade Teta & Keoni Teta.
Your Ab Attack Grocery List:
Whey protein powder
Turkey breasts/lean ground turkey
Wild Alaskan salmon
Natural peanut butter or almond butter (limit to 2 tbsp per serving)
Salsa (look for <100mg sodium/serving)
In addition to proper nutrition, both cardiovascular and weight-training exercise is needed to burn abdominal fat further. Though beginners will see a huge change once the proper diet is inserted, exercise is needed to maintain lower body fat levels.
3) Get Your Sweat On The most potently results-oriented cardiovascular exercise is interval training. Study after study shows that interval training is superior to steady-state cardio exercise in terms fat burning. Interval training can be done on any piece of cardio equipment and is designed so that there are alternated “working” and “resting” segments within the same workout. These types of programs focus on improving body composition, while also increasing performance.In order to reap the benefits of interval training, focus exertions on “peaks” and “valleys,” truly pushing as hard as possible for a given working segment (“peak”) and then truly resting during the “valley” segment. Attempt to push as hard as possible during the working segments, reaching towards your anaerobic threshold, deriving a pace of which you literally cannot do another minute. On the other end, use the recovery segments to go as slow and easy as possible. Creating a large differential in the working and resting phases enhances the caloric and fat burning effects of the workout. Intensity, not duration, is the key. Here is an example of an interval workout on the elliptical trainer, try to keep the SPM (strides per minute) above 130 on the pushing segments, go as slow as you want on the resting segments:
25 min Elliptical Trainer Interval Workout
4) Burn, baby, burn In addition, full-body resistance training is necessary to increase the fat-burning hormones testosterone and growth hormone (HGH). The optimization of hormones is a key tenet of the Metabolic Effect workouts. The extent to which these hormones are released greatly depends on the intensity of the exercise, particularly the heaviness of the weight, the exercises used (compound versus isolation), the amount of rest between sets and the extent to which an exerciser induces failure. Intensity must be such that the weight used is heavy enough to induce a muscular burn or induce failure so that the weight can no longer be lifted, it’s too heavy. Rests should be minimal to keep the heart rate elevated and maintain some lactic acid accumulation in the muscles. Performing free weight exercises are best for reducing belly fat since these exercises rely more heavily on the stabilizers of the torso. This, together with a heavy, failure-inducing weight, will surely burn fat and calories to the extent necessary to lower body fat percentage while optimizing powerful fat-burning hormones.
5) Ab Chunkiness We now know that proper, clean nutrition, efficient cardiovascular training and intense full-body weight-training can effectively lower body fat levels to the point where the abs become visible. Now comes the infinitely easier part, believe it or not: getting them to pop. Though many an unenthused exerciser will use this as a crutch: there actually is a genetic component to the shape of the abdominals, but it plays a much smaller role than we give it credit for! For example, some people have naturally thicker cartilage that outlines the rectus abdominus (the “six-pack”) and will tend to have more distinct “bricks” than others. However, how you moved as a child will also affect the shape or chunkiness of your abs too. If you played sports like soccer where you sprinted for small distances several times in a game—this type of movement (sprints) will help develop all the muscles of the torso including the rectus abdominus, but also the obliques, intercostals and deeper transverse abdominals. Picture the abs of a sprinter; they certainly don’t spend hours doing crunches. Instead, it is the sprinting motion that develops the lean, round muscle bellies of the torso.
However, with that said, there is still much that can be done now to improve ab development through targeted exercises. To acquire a completely lean, small midsection with visible abs, begin with a large library of ab exercises, some weighted and some unweighted. Use different rep ranges, and exercises that work the torso from different angles. Here are some great ab exercises, all old school, gimmick-free staples (say good bye to the Ab Lounge!):
- Weighted rope crunches – 10-20 reps/set
- Decline sit-ups (with or without weight) – as many as possible to failure
- Captain’s chair knee-ups – as many as possible to failure
- Hanging leg raises – as many as possible to failure
- Good old-fashioned crunches – 25-50 reps/set
- Reverse crunches – 25-50 reps/set
- Bicycles – 25-50 reps/set
- Crunches on the swiss ball – 25-50 reps/set
- Knee pull-ins using the swiss ball – as many as possible to failure
- V-sits – 10-20 reps/set
Using a good variety of exercises with different rep ranges will guarantee that the complete core is being stimulated, yielding complete development. Use twisting motions like side crunches and bicycles to target the obliques. Remember to sprinkle in low back exercises like supermans, hyperextensions and even squats. Abs can be worked up to 3-6 days per week, depending on the intensity of the workout and soreness. A workout consisting of many weighted ab exercises will merit more time off between workouts, while abs subjected to weightless exercises will recover more quickly.
Ab or Flab? Though it is convenient to think that a certain fat-burning pill or one special exercise machine will yield the most coveted set of abs, it is just not the case. Here we have examined numerous combined behaviors that if performed consistently and intensely will yield the most defined and sought-after mid-section. The continuum of ab development dictates that consistent training and attention to diet will move us closer towards great, sculpted abs, while giving indulging in sugary/fatty/salty foods and falling off the exercise bandwagon will most certainly move us in the other direction. Practice makes perfect! Good luck and I’ll see you on the beach! ox Jill