Get the Stomach You’ve Always Wanted!
— By Nicole Nichols, Fitness Instructor
Whether you’re just starting an exercise program, or you’ve been at it for years, there is one thing on everyone’s wish list: a toned stomach. Well-defined abdominal muscles are glorified as being sexy, healthy and youthful. You may have seen one once—the rare person who seems to know the “secrets” of perfect abs. Does he know something that you don’t? Is it possible for you, a regular person, to achieve the abs of your dreams?
You may be surprised to learn that you can train less and see better results—yes it’s true! And you don’t have to buy any special equipment. All you need is your body and the proper training knowledge.
But first, it’s important to understand the anatomy of the rectus abdominis (or abs, for short). They run down the front of the torso, from the center of the ribcage to the pubic bone. It’s a common myth that the abs are made up of several different muscles (such as upper and lower abs). The fact that the word “abs” appears to be plural doesn’t help this case. But in fact, it is one long sheet of muscle that just happens to look like several small muscles. This is due to a unique feature called “tendinous inscriptions.” These inscriptions run across the muscle and down the center, giving it that “6-pack” (but more accurately, 8-pack) appearance.
“If the abs are one muscle,” you may be wondering, “then why do certain exercises seem to target different areas?” Actually, all abdominal exercises target the entire muscle, but during some exercises, you just happen to feel it in one region of the muscle a little more.
The abs are grouped with a few other muscles that are collectively referred to as the “core,” which also includes your obliques (which run diagonally across your middle), transverse abdominis (a long muscle that runs horizonally beneath the rectus abdominis), and lower back (erector spinae muscles along the spine). Some experts also consider the hips to be part of the core. Many people focus on training the abs but forget about these other muscles, which are also important. A good rule of thumb is that every time you train your abs, you should also target the obliques and lower back as well.
When it comes to training for abs of steel, here’s what you need to know:
Burn fat. You may be surprised to know that most people actually DO have strong, defined abs…they just happen to be covered by a layer of fat. This is because the abs are actually involved in balance and stabilization during all kinds of every day movements and exercises. All the crunches (or other exercises) in the world won’t burn the fat on top of the muscle. To accomplish this, you need a combination of regular cardio (aerobic) exercise and a healthy diet to create a caloric deficit necessary to lose weight. Your SparkDiet and exercise program will help you achieve your weight loss goals.
Don’t crash diet. Some people will swear that a key to their flat abs is what they eat—or don’t eat. Whether they omit dairy, milk, wheat, sugar, or something else, you do not have to drastically change your diet (or limit certain foods or food groups) to lose the belly bulge. Simple, healthy eating habits (not deprivation) will help you drop excess weight from all over the body.
Be realistic. For visible abdominal definition, your body fat percentage has to be pretty low—that’s about 8 percent body fat for men, and 14 percent body fat for women. To put this in perspective, “healthy” ranges of body fat are 14%-17% for men and 21%-24% for women. It may be impossible for some people to reach such low percentages without going to extreme measures. Remember that women are genetically predisposed to store more fat around the belly and need minimum levels of body fat to be healthy and menstruate. You’ll have to decide if washboard abs are worth going to extremes or not. For most people, simply flattening the stomach and losing a few extra pounds is a realistic, attainable goal.
Train the abs like you would any other muscle. You should strength train all of your major muscle groups, which typically involves 1-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions per exercise. There is no need to do 50, 100 or thousands of crunches each day. In fact, if you are doing your exercises correctly, 8-15 repetitions are all that you need to feel the muscles working and get results. The key is to focus on your form, by deeply engaging your abs throughout each movement. This is commonly described as “pulling your navel towards your spine,” or “scooping” the abs inward and it will help you engage more muscle fibers (especially the transverse abs), making each repetition more effective.
Just like you should allow your biceps, for example, to rest 1-2 days between workouts, the same is true for the abs. They also need time to rest, recover and rebuild to get stronger. Aim for no more than 3-4 abdominal training sessions per week.
Vary your program. Every exerciser should add variety to their exercises to keep the body surprised and continue seeing results. Try to change up your exercises (both cardio and strength) at least every 4-6 weeks, if not more often. This will help prevent plateaus and allow you to progress from easier to more advanced exercises as you become stronger.
Here are some of my favorite abdominal exercises. Be sure to read and follow the instructions for each to ensure proper form and effectiveness.
- 15-Minute Abs Workout Video. This video shows several effective exercises, but 15 minutes of abs is a lot of work! Try working your way up to finishing it gradually, and allow for plenty of rest between sessions.
- Modified Plank. This yoga pose is a great core strengthener—especially when you need a break from crunches.
- Crunches. As boring as they may seem, several studies show that crunches, when done correctly, are the most effective exercise for the abs. Add a ball to your crunches for even more challenge.
- Seated Twist with Medicine Ball. You don’t have to hold a weight to feel this exercise, which also works the obliques.
- Reverse Crunch with Ball. No, it doesn’t target your “lower abs” (we busted that myth above), but this is a great variation to regular crunches. The ball adds challenge, but you can do this with just bent legs and no ball.
- Pilates. This gentle, yet effective, form of exercise focuses on strengthening the body from the center. It involves precision and concentration. With practice, individuals can expect better core strength, flatter abs, and a more balanced body.
Don’t forget the lower back! Include at least one lower back exercise every time you work your abs. These muscles work together all the time. Strong abs help prevent lower back pain, but so does a strong back. Remember that when focusing on that muscle group, you should feel the muscles working—which is not the same as back pain. Do not attempt any exercise that actually hurts your back in any way. Pulling the abdominals in tight will offer greater support for the back during each of these exercises. Here are my top picks:
- Back Extensions. Simple and straightforward, you’ll feel the back working after just a few of these!
- Swimming. This Pilates exercise is a great for the entire core.
- Slow Swimming with Ball. This advanced move targets the whole core, as you use the abdominals to help you balance on the ball.
There you have it—the real “secrets” to getting toned, flat, and strong abdominals. Now that you understand the abs and how to train them, you are equipped to reach your goals. Soon your friends and family will want to know your secrets!