Summer’s comin’ and you’re determined to have stronger, leaner abs. Good news is you’ve still got enough time to make it happen. Bad news is you’ll probably waste your time training the wrong exercises the wrong way.
This article will tell you how to avoid common mistakes and give you five true steps for revealing your abs.
#1: Lose the Belly Fat with Sprint Intervals
Chances are you need to lose some fat if you want strong, cut abs. This does not mean you need to spend hours a day killing yourself in the gym or starving yourself.
Simply adding in a few sprint interval sessions a week and tightening up your diet will start the fat removal process from your middle.
Research shows that “ab training” is not ideal for losing the fat that covers the abs: A 2011 study showed that when trainees spent 4 hours a week for 6 weeks doing abdominal training (crunches, bicycles, sit-ups, and the like) they lost zero body fat.
Meanwhile, interventions that test the effect of sprinting on body fat consistently lead to fat loss of 1 to 2 kg, with at least half of that coming from the trunk area, which includes the abdominal musculature.
Here are sprint protocols that you can match to your conditioning level:
Beginners: Try the 30-20-10 model in which you jog for 30 seconds, run at a moderate intensity for 20 seconds, and sprint for 10 seconds. Repeat for a 5-minute interval. Do 4 sets with 2 minutes rest in between.
Intermediate: Try a descending distance protocol at maximal intensity (all-out): 400 meters, rest 4 minutes, 300 m, rest 3 min., 200 m, rest 2 min., 100 m. Rest 4 min. and repeat up to 4 times.
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: Tighten Up Your Nutrition
There is no mystery how to promote optimal body composition with diet: A high-quality, high-protein intake with a lot of vegetables, fruit, beneficial fats, and other nutrient dense REAL foods.
Whether you opt for this tried and true method or work some other nutrition magic on your midsection, chiseled abs can’t have fat covering them up.
Here’s what we recommend: Eat protein and fat at every meal, focusing on getting 10 grams of essential aminos acids. This is most easily done by eating meat, fish, or eggs because animal products are more amino acid dense than plant proteins.
De-emphasize carbohydrates, getting the vast majority of carbs from veggies and fruit. If you go very low in carbs (below 50 grams a day, for example) consider cycling high-glycemic whole food carbs, such as starchy veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes) or boiled grains every 5 to 7 days.
#3: Killer Abs Are Built from the Big Lifts If You Engage the Trunk
In the hardcore training world we love to profess that killer abs are built by doing the big lifts such as deadlifts and squats. But what if you’re like a lot of people walking around out there and you don’t have the ability to safely stabilize your trunk?
If you’re just off the couch and learning to lift, chances are you’ll benefit from some of those conventional core exercises such as jackknife and reverse sit ups, which are explained in depth below.
Even if you have the ability to engage the core abdominal muscles during multi-joint movements, research shows that many trainees don’t automatically do so.
One study found that female athletes who were instructed to engage the abs had much better movement patterns and less hip side-to-side displacement during single-leg squats than those who received no verbal instructions.
Scientists point out that consciously engaging the abs has benefits other than protecting you from injury; it will also better train the leg and core abdominal musculature.
Here are useful ab stabilization exercises:
1) The single-leg jackknife sit-up: Lie on your back, extend your arms over your head, bend one leg, placing the entire foot in contact with the floor. Leave the other leg straight. Lift your leg and trunk simultaneously as rapidly as possible into a V position. Perform an equal number of reps for each side, and increase resistance with the use of wrist and ankle weights.
2) The reverse sit-up, with legs bent: Lie on your back with the legs bent and arms behind your head. Simply lift the hips straight up. Do not pull on your neck with your hands. Once you’ve mastered the legs bent variation, perform it with the legs straight up in the air.
3) Pullovers will also strengthen the rectus abdominus and tighten up your anterior core: Anchor your feet on a sit up board with the knees bent and perform the pull over while keeping your trunk stationary.
#4: Train The Best Ab Exercises: Deadlifts, Squats, Chins & Olympic Lifts
Once you’re physically prepared to stabilize the trunk through heavy multi-joint lifts, tighter abs will come from squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, lunges, and Olympic lifts.
For example, a new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that greatest activation of the core musculature comes from integration exercises that use the glutes and deltoid muscle rather than isolation lifts that use just the abs.
Researchers concluded that regularly training deadlifts with a load ranging from 70 to 85 percent of the 1RM in conjunction with other multi-joint “global” lifts will optimally strengthen the lower back and help prevent lower back pain.
Use It: Along with the big lower body lifts—deadlifts, squats, lunges, and step-ups—chin-ups are the perfect exercise around which to build a program to improve body composition. They are metabolically stressful and activate the abs and lower back to a significant degree.
Olympic lifts are also a good choice if you have the technique: A 2011 study found that elite weightlifters who compete in the snatch and the clean and jerk had significantly thicker and stronger obliques than a control group.
This study reinforced what most people don’t know about the abs: they respond best to high load, low rep training because the abdominal musculature is principally composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Avoid high rep training for best results.
#5: Abs Are Made On Vacation
Everyone likes to say that abs are made in the kitchen. As true as this is, the real secret to chiseled, visible abs is to manage your stress.
Here’s the thing: If you’re like 99 percent of the busy people out there, you haven’t figured out a way to deal with stress. True stress management is an everyday, all the time approach that includes nutrition, sleep, deep breathing, careful prioritization, and an optimistic outlook on life, among other things.
This is because stress hormones like cortisol are released each and every time you are under any form of physical or mental stress. You skip a meal—you get a cortisol spike. Problems at work? Stuck in traffic? Relationship problems? Eating junkfood? Yep, cortisol spike.
When cortisol is chronically elevated like this, your body shifts into fat storage mode in the abdominal area. People love to overlook this fact because stress is hard to deal with. It takes a complete lifestyle overhaul for most of us, which is the reason we say abs are made on vacation.
If you’re the sort of person whose vacations are just as stressful as regular life, or if your nutrition goes to pot and you don’t train when on holiday, you’re stress management plan is not working.
On the other hand, if you have a pretty good handle on it in your daily life, vacation can be the perfect time to clean your habits up a bit for better, leaner abs.
Minimize Your Stress: Play with your kids, clean up your nutrition, do yoga, sleep better, train hard but recover smart. In addition, check out these resources:
Nelson, G., Ben-Forsythe, D., et al. Electromyographic Activity of the Rectus Abdominis during a Traditional Crunch and the Basic Jackknife Exercise with the Ab Lounge. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(6), 1584-1588.
Sitilertpisan, P., Pirunsan, U., Puangmali, A., Ratanapinunchai, J., et al. Comparison of Lateral Abdominal Muscle Thickness between Weightlifters and Matched Controls. Physical Therapy in Sport. March 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Gottschall, j., et al. Integration Core Exercises Elicit Greater Muscle Activation Than Isolation Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. 27(3), 590—596.
Colado, J., Pablos, C., et al. The Progression of Paraspinal Muscle Recruitment Intensity in Localized and Global Strength Training Exercise is not Based on Instability Alone. Archives of Physical and Medical Rehabilitation. 2011. 92, 1875-1883.