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November 29, 2011

How to Get an Abs-olutely Incredible Midsection

Last week on the JillFit Facebook page, we asked our friend which of the following midsections they preferred:

We received 92 comments in response, some giving their opinions and other dissecting the different photos, but in summary, here’s what we found:

57% preferred the harder midsection/six-pack
17% preferred the softer/flat look
15% preferred something in the middle
11% said they would take either :)

Compounded with this question was an article that Jade wrote for Metabolic Effect last week about ab development which got shared over 300 times on Facebook–so obviously, as fitness enthusiasts, we have a wee bit of an obsession with the midsection–and with good reason–a great set of abs can be the difference between a casual exerciser and a hard-core athlete. Six-packs are coveted and they are not easily attainable–they are perhaps THE holy grail of the fit physique, the most elusive of all. So, naturally, I thought I’d blog about ’em :)

Here are, in my experience, the key contributors to a lean and mean waistline, in order of importance:

1) Nutrition. It is that simple–the tighter the diet, the tighter the mid-section. The saying “abs are made in the kitchen” is one of the more true statements in the fitness industry, and while training is key also (as we will see), the impact of training is really small compared to the impact of diet. With that said, instead of spending hours on cardio and on mats doing sit-ups in last-ditch efforts to shed the circular fat pad around the belly button, spend that same time prepping clean, real food to eat for the week. You will be a hundred times better off using your time to prep for a tight weekly meal plan than to do all the sit-ups in the world.  My guidelines:

  • Lean proteins from white fish, egg whites, turkey, chicken, salmon, protein powders (watch whey and casein if you are sensitive to dairy because they may cause water retention),  lean beef and lean pork.
  • Fibrous veggies like crazy: spinach, kale, collards, swiss chard, asparagus, brussel sprouts, onions, pepper, mushrooms, cucumber, celery, etc.
  • Low GI fruits from grapefruits, apples, berries and pears, etc
  • A select few portions of clean, hypo-allergenic starchy carbs throughout the day: oats, brown rice, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini, eggplant, etc
  • A six-pack has no tolerance for refined grains (regularly) like candy, cakes, cookies, donuts, chips, etc–raising insulin too much will cause water retention which can kiss your visible abs good-bye
  • Correct nutrition not only helps you shed fat over time, but helps you shed subcutaneous water. It is important to note that water retention has to do not only with sodium, but also excess insulin, chronic dehydration, high cortisol, etc. So balancing hormones, minerals AND water all play a role. I would not recommend trying to actively limit sodium since if you are eating 95% real food, you are probably eating a very low sodium diet anyway. Plus, consuming 3-4L of plain water each day will help to balance sodiujm anyway. Watch beverages like diet sodas, flavored waters and others with alternative sweeteners like sucralose or sugar alcohols, all of which can cause mild water retention. Steer clear of sugar alcohols and alternative sweeteners in protein bars, sugar-free items, etc, all of which can cause bloat, gas, water retention, etc. And finally, too much exercise, too little sleep, going too long between meals, excessive dieting, injury and psychological stress can all contribute to excessive cortisol, which leads to sodium retention, thus water retention.

Phew! That’s a lot of rules! Well, luckily, nutrition is the biggie when it comes to a defined midsection so you will be well off if you spend 90% of your time in the nutrition realm. BUT, just for fun, let’s touch on the final few players:

2) Metabolic conditioning workouts that burn fat. Metabolic Effect workouts are of course my go-to workouts for full-body fat-burning workouts (here’s one free to download to your ipod!). The key to this type of exercise is that it essentially combines weight-training AND cardio into one. The pace is faster, the movements more varied, there is an element of sprinting paired with frequent muscle overload, generating muscular burning and cardio breathlessness together. Combination workouts like this have been shown in research to increase fat loss exponentially, due to the intense nature of the workout and the unique mode of exercise. Intensity trumps duration every time when talking about fat loss because intensity is the #1 determinant of the metabolic effect or “afterburn” of the workout–in other words, the length of time AFTER your workout when you enjoy an elevated metabolic rate.

3) Targeted ab training. As much as we want to believe that this is THE #1 determinant of a visible six-pack, as evidence by the dozens of individuals doing crunches ad nauseum at any given time in any gym in the world, this is a very, very distant 3rd. The key here is to understand that doing ab exercises do not, themselves, burn fat on the stomach. But instead, they serve to add mass to the actual ab muscles, making them “pop” more once the fat is gone. This also has a genetic component. How your abs are essentially laid down or outlined is genetic (the shape), which is why when you see bodybuilders on stage competing at 2% body fat, they all seem to have very different abs. Some long & thin, some short & stout, some with thick cartilage, some with barely any cartilage, etc. How “chunky” your abs are naturally is generally genetic, however you can use targeted abs movements to add bulk to them, same as you would do lateral raises to add mass to your shoulders :)

With that said, to make your abs pop more once the fat is gone, incorporate ab movements into your weekly workout split like you would any other muscle group. Do a mix of heavy moves like rope crunches, hanging leg raises and decline sit-ups at a rep range of 8-12, while also incorporating lighter weight, higher rep movements like bicycles, (yes) crunches, reverse crunches, ball crunches, etc.

4) High-intensity interval cardio. Many fat loss seekers immediately jump to the cardio, thinking it is a guaranteed ab-solution. But unfortunately, you cannot run off your midsection fat, and if you try, you will more likely end up with a relatively fatter middle and skinnier arms and legs (not ideal). This is because, once again, of the cortisol effect. Long-duration moderate intensity cardio like biking, running, swimming, aerobics, etc tend to increase cortisol relative to other exercise hormones like testosterone, growth hormone and catecholamines. This rise in cortisol unopposed can lead to, at the low end, water retention, and at the high end, fat storage in the middle (all the while eating your arm and leg muscle to make glucose for energy). SO, instead use cardio effectively to shed fat in the middle by doing short-duration (ideally 20 minutes or less) high-intensity interval training, like track sprints or incline treadmill sprints.

That’s it! There are certainly other players like supplements, sleep, stress management, etc all of which play a part. But if you can master these 4 things, you will have 99% of the equation figured out. Here it is, in a nutshell:

  • 80% Nutrition
  • 10% Weight-training
  • 4% Targeted ab movements
  • 3% Cardio
  • 2% Genetic
  • 1% The rest

Best of luck! Let me know how you do! :) ox Jill

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