Everyone likes the idea of leaner, stronger abs. The question is how to get them?
Following the standard advice, you would gravitate towards crunches, sit-ups, and other ab machines. There are a couple of problems with this approach:
First, for 99 percent of the people out there, the main obstacle to a great midsection is too much fat covering up the abs. If this is you, you need to start by losing body fat, especially the belly fat that is centralized in the abdominal cavity. This can’t be done with ab training.
Case in point, a study had volunteers do 4 hours of abdominal exercises a week for 6 weeks (7). The subjects had no change in body fat percentage. There was also no decrease in abdominal circumference or android fat, which measure the amount of belly fat. The only positive result the volunteers experienced for their efforts was an increase in endurance in a sit-ups test. This has zero pay off besides being able to do more sit-ups. It doesn’t make you leaner, improve your speed, make you more powerful, or give you better posture.
The bottom line is that ab exercises won’t allow you to selectively lose abdominal fat, or fat from anywhere else for that matter. Instead, you need a plan to lower your total body fat, which will be covered below.
The second barrier to great abs is a weak midsection and lack of muscle development in the muscles that girdle your waist. Besides losing fat from the midsection, most people need to increase the size of the rectus abdominus and the obliques that make up the abdominal muscles.
Counterintuitively, “classic” ab exercises like sit-ups, crunches, and planks aren’t very effective for building these muscles. Planks are isometric exercises—a contraction that will build strength but is inferior for building muscle. Dynamic contractions on the other hand, especially those that emphasize an eccentric, lengthening component are well known for leading to the greatest muscle growth.
Unfortunately, sit-ups and other dynamic exercises that allow you to emphasize the eccentric motion are terrible for the spine, putting hundreds of pounds of compressive force on the vertebra of the lower back. Take sit-ups: Lying on your back with your knees bent in a sit-up position compresses the lumbar vertebra of the spine, placing them at risk of tissue damage. Combined with the repeated flexing motion, sit-ups can squeeze the discs of the spine, causing back pain and potentially leading to disc herniation.
The armed forces have caught on to the research, with some organizations removing sit-up tests from physical readiness tests. The Canadian Armed Forces removed sit-ups from their test in 2015 and the U.S. Army has engaged a pilot program that replaced sit-ups with a plank exercise.
Some coaches recommend variations, such as straight-leg sit-ups that they say are safer for the lower back. However, research doesn’t support this. A study from Stuart McGill, one of the leading researchers into the biomechanics of the lower back found that there was no significant difference in the compressive force placed on the spine during straight and bent-leg sit-ups (1). Of the 12 typical ab exercises tested in this study, none was found to optimally train the abdominal muscles, while at the same time incurring minimal intervertebral joint loads.
The exercises with a high-challenge-to compression ratio (meaning that the exercise worked the abs well, while minimizing the stress to the lower back), were a curl-up (a modified sit-up with the hands placed beneath the low back and the shoulders barely leaving the floor), a bicycle exercise, and a hanging straight-leg raise. A side plank placed the least compressive force on the lower back, making it a good option as well (a regular two-armed plank wasn't tested). The scientists recommend avoiding both bent and straight-leg sit ups and hanging bent-leg raises.
So, if sit-ups and other typical ab isolation exercise are out, what should you do for a sculpted mid-section?
The good news is a series of recently published studies show how to get the best-looking abs with the least amount of struggle:
#1: Lose Excess Fat With Interval Training
Interval training is a proven way of reducing total body fat and the abdominal fat that covers your midsection. For example, a 2008 study of normal-weight women found that 15 weeks of interval training on a stationary bike produced an average loss of 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs) of body fat and a significant decrease in abdominal fat compared to a control group that had no measurable change in body fat (6). A third group that did 40 minutes of aerobic exercise actually gained a small amount of body fat, likely due to compensation, whereby subjects increased the amount they were eating.
A new review of the use of interval training for reducing fat showed that the results of the 2008 study are repeatable: Scientists concluded that interval training is more likely to decrease abdominal fat than steady-state aerobic exercise (4). The average total loss of body fat from interval training is 2 kg or 6 percent of total body weight. Overweight subjects tend to lose significantly more body fat, with reductions being non-significant in people who are not overweight.
This study compared the effect of near maximal training intensities (such as all-out sprints) with “lower” interval intensities in the 80 to 90 percent of peak heart rate range and found that the lower intensities produced greater loss of abdominal fat.
Researchers had no theory as to why submaximal interval training resulted in more fat loss from the abdominal area, but the difference was small and they conclude that both maximal and submaximal intensities can be used. Both intensities will stimulate the release of catecholamine hormones that promote the fat burning during exercise and in the post-exercise recovery period. The catecholamine hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, are potent stimulators of belly fat loss because they activate the Beta-adrenergic fat receptors that are localized in abdominal fat.
Another benefit of interval training is that it stimulates a substantial afterburn whereby your body uses oxygen at an accelerated rate during the recovery period, which increases the number of calories your body uses.
Here are interval protocols that you can match to your conditioning level:
Beginners: Try the protocol used in the 2008 study mentioned above: On a resisted stationary bike do 8-second all-out efforts interspersed with 12 seconds active rest. Repeat for a total of 20 minutes.
Intermediate: Try the Wingate protocol that has repeatedly been shown to reduce abdominal and total body fat: On a resisted bike, do 4 30-second maximal sprints in which you give it your all interspersed with 4 minutes easy pedaling. Over time, work up to 6 interval repeats.
Well-Conditioned: Try a 1-to 1-interval-to-rest program. Do 30-second high-intensity intervals (90 percent of full speed) with 30-second jogging recovery. Repeat this 4 times for a total of 4 minutes—that’s one set. Work up to doing 3 to 4 sets.
#2: Strength Train, Focusing On Multi-Joint Exercises
Instead of wasting your time on sit-ups and other isolation ab exercises, a better approach is to perform a strength training program designed around multi-joint free weight exercises including squats, lunges, presses, etc. Free weight exercises are a highly efficient way of building abs for several reasons:
1) These exercises allow you to train with the heaviest weights for the greatest overload of the musculature and superior adaptations.
2) Free weight exercises trigger adaptations that help reduce body fat including an increase in lean mass so that metabolic rate accelerates.
3) The abs respond best to high load, low rep training because the abdominal musculature is principally composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
4) They optimally train the lower back and posterior chain to produce power and force. If you know anything about training anatomy, you’re aware that the true secret for building strong, defined abs is in optimizing function of these muscles to create a strong framework on which to build a great six-pack.
Therefore, the best training approach for beach-worthy abs is to adopt a 4-day a week training program of 5 to 7 exercises with predominantly free weight multi-joint lifts. Squats, chin-ups, lunges, overhead press, back extension, and deadlifts are all exercises that have been shown to require significant activity of the core abdominal musculature. Including these exercises along with pulls, rows, and other multi-joint lifts like step-ups, bench press, and Olympic lifts will produce the best results for your abs AND your whole body.
#3: Account For Nutrition & Recovery
There’s a popular saying that “abs are made in the kitchen.” It refers to the fact that for most people, the main obstacle to a six-pack is excess fat covering up the abdominal muscles. If they attend to their nutrition, they will create an energy deficit and lose the fat to reveal their abs.
This wisdom goes against the conventional belief that exercise is the solution to excess body fat. Although a properly designed training program is an integral part of losing body fat, it’s no magic bullet, especially if you are like a lot of people and end up compensating for energy burned during training and eating more.
Therefore, it’s important to keep an eye on portion control and watch to make sure you aren’t rewarding yourself after workouts with extra treats.
The other main obstacle to lean abdominals is chronic stress. You probably know this intuitively to be true but wonder about the mechanism.
Anytime you experience chronic stress, your adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, shifting your body into fat storage mode in the abdominal area. Another unfortunate effect of elevated cortisol is that it stimulates hunger, increasing cravings for high-carb junk foods. This is actually a protective mechanism because high-carb foods lead to the release of the hormone insulin, which is a cortisol antagonist. When insulin goes up, cortisol goes down, so carb cravings are the body’s way of shielding you from excessive stress.
Unfortunately, high-carb junk food is inherently easy to overeat, and as everyone knows, when you overshoot calories, you gain fat, which is the last thing that needs to happen if six-pack abs are on your horizon. The take away is that you want to pay just as much attention to managing your stress and optimizing recovery as you do on your training.
Final Words: Although the abdominals are a troublesome spot for many people, they don’t have to be. With a simple training program that focuses on total body lifts and a few interval training sessions, you can lay the ground work for a lean, amazing abs. Round it out with mindful nutrition and stress reduction and you’ll feel confident and lean revealing your midsection at the beach this summer.