One of the most common requests I get as a personal trainer is "I want abs.". Ahhhh... the Holy Grail of fitness - the 6
pack. It seems as though that is the thing that will validate everyone's hard work in the gym, and give everyone the confidence they need to finally love their bodies. To be able to strut around with a tight, toned midsection void of muffin top or "flab" of any kind... something everybody wants, but few are able to achieve.
Why is this? Well, the answer probably isn't what you want to hear... Most people focus on abdominal exercises, such as crunches, as their primary tool for building a toned mid-section... the problem is, that's not the answer. This is not the popular response, but it's the truth... you can do a 1,000 crunches a day, and you will not see an abdominal muscle of any kind, if those muscles are covered in a layer of fat. Period. Crunches, planks, leg lifts, etc. can strengthen ab/core muscles, but they do not do anything reduce fat to your abs or anywhere else for that matter.
So, how do you get your abs to show? Reduce the fat in your mid-section. That's it. We all have abdominal muscles, but whether someone has a 6-pack or a keg ;) is completely dependent on if they have extra fat over those muscles or not.
Here are the things that will affect the amount of abdominal fat you have, and ways to reduce it:
Clean up your diet - the phrase "abs are made in the kitchen" is 100% true. If you are overeating, and consuming more Calories than you burn, you will store those extra Calories as fat on your body.
Blame your Mom and Dad - not really. ;) lol... but, genetics is one of the main determinants as to where you store the extra fat on your body. Most people will either store body fat around their mid-section or around their hips, butt, and thighs. That's not to say you cannot store fat inboth areas, as you can. If you gain too much body fat, it will be dispersed all around your body. But, most people have an area that gains fat quicker than the rest of their body... this area also tends to hold onto fat longer than the rest of the body. If this problem area is your abs, they will be the last thing to be visible during body fat reduction. It's not impossible to have a 6-pack if this is your problem area, but it will take more work to achieve it than someone who carries most of their weight in their lower half.
Chill out - Chronically high stress levels are associated with a higher percentage of abdominal fat. Cortisol, our stress hormone, promotes fat storage. Specifically, visceral fat - a deep fat around the organs of the abdominal cavity. This fat is especially dangerous, as it is hormonal itself, and is linked to chronic inflammation and many diseases. Including practices such as meditation and mindfulness can reduce cortisol levels, thereby reducing your chance of storing extra Calories as abdominal fat.
Sprint - the best exercise to "get abs" actually has nothing to with a mat on the floor. High intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to be very effective in reducing body fat. HIIT training is where you go all out for a short period of time, followed by a longer recovery time. The key is to push yourself as hard as you possibly can for a brief period of time, and then recover for a longer period of time... alternating between high intensity work and low intensity work. This causes a physiological response that some studies have shown can increase your fat-burning ability for up to 24-48 hours post-exercise. What is considered high intensity is different for everyone. For a seasoned athlete, it may actually mean all-out sprints on a track or a bike. For someone new to fitness, it may mean walking at a fast pace. The key is to spike your heart rate, then let it come back down... do this 5-20 times, and you're good! HIIT training is all about intensity, not duration. You can get an effective HIIT workout done in 10 minutes or less.
Drink up - making sure you are well hydrated is also important. If you are dehydrated your body will release a hormone (antidiuretic hormone) that will cause you to retain water. Water is necessary for every metabolic process to stay alive, so it is essential that you have enough. The body is designed to preserve itself, so if you are not giving it the water it needs to survive, it will hold on to it as a way to save itself.
Eat your veggies - making sure you are consuming enough fiber is also important for a flat belly. Fiber moves food through our GI tract. If you are not having regular bowel movements, you will have a distended looking belly. Aim for AT LEAST 25-35 grams of fiber per day. This will keep everything moving smoothly, and a flatter belly will be the result. If you currently do not consume that much fiber, increase it slowly over time, as drastically increasing fiber in a GI tract that is not adapted to it will cause bloating. Consuming a lot of fiber from vegetables will also reduce the amount of overall Calories you consume in a day, because it will add bulk to your diet without adding a ton of Calories... leading to fat loss as well.
There you have it! These are the things that will have the most impact on how your abs look... there is a place for core/abdominal exercises, as a strong core is essential to good posture, and a strong body. Plank variations are much more effective core exercises than isolation exercise like crunches, in my opinion. So, plank up! It will strengthen those muscles, and keep your back protected from injury.
One more thing to consider... 6 pack abs will not change your life in anyway, and it doesn't necessarily mean you are healthy either. It does not erase your problems, and it does not instantly give you a healthy body image. Those are things that can only be solved by looking deeper within... So, maybe the quest for abs is not as important as we have made it out to be as a society. Instead strengthen your mindset muscles, and choose to love and accept yourself right now... as you continue to improve your health. That is the key to having a body you love. ;)
In good health,