What is it about abs? How many billions of dollars have been spent in pursuit of “washboard”, “chiseled”, or “six pack” abs?
It seems like every week there is some new gimmick that makes ridiculous claims like, “Get Six Pack Abs in just 30 Seconds a Day While You Watch TV!”, or “Mind over matter! Visualize Your Way to Six Pack Abs!”
And if you don’t fall for one of many such schemes, maybe you’ll find yourself cranking out hundreds of crunches or situps per day, hoping that these exercises will magically grow you a six pack. They won’t.
[Mark Pfeltz set the 1986 Guinness Book Of World Records for sit ups, completing 45,005 in 58.5hrs. A valiant effort, but still no six pack...]
Believe it or not, there is no need for fancy gadgets or hours of boring crunches and situps. There is definitely a LOT of value to directly training the abs, and we will get into specific exercises in a moment. BUT, if you have a bit of flab on your belly, all the stomach exercises in the world won’t give you a six pack!
The Myth of Spot Reduction
There is no stomach exercise that, in itself, will reduce belly fat. Fat loss occurs when your body burns more energy than it consumes. This leads us to our first step:
Step 1: Eat Less!
If you want to lose that belly fat, you will need to eat less. It’s that simple.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you suddenly cut your calories in half or starve yourself for long periods. Some people have had a lot of success with intermittent fasting, but I don’t like being on an empty stomach for more than a few hours at a time.
[Here I am, a little hungry after 5 hours on an empty stomach! Image by tambako]
Instead of torturing myself with hours and hours of fasting, I simply try to pay attention to how full I am while eating, and stop my meal while I am still slightly hungry.
Here is a good rule of thumb:
- If you stop eating when you are full, you will gain weight.
- If you stop eating when you are just satisfied, you will maintain your weight.
- If you leave the table when you are still a little bit hungry, you will lose weight.
This is a simplification, of course. Volumes have been written on WHAT to eat for maximum fat loss. But let’s just keep it simple for now: Eat less than you do usually.
Timing is Everything
People like fat loss expert Tom Venuto have gone into great detail on the benefits of nutrition microcycles. Basically, this approach describes how you can lose fat while maintaining or gaining muscle by changing your calorie consumption throughout each day and week.
Along these lines, what I have found to be extremely useful is meal timing. Basically, I try to eat a little less throughout the day while I am not active. On top of that, I try to go into my workouts in a fasted state, not having eaten for at least 4 hours. I save my larger meal for around an hour after my workout, when my body is begging for some nourishment.
By working out in a fasted state, your metabolism burns body fat instead of food.
But Won’t I Lose Muscle Mass?
Some experts have said that working out in a fasted state will make you lose muscle mass. This might be the case for some people, by in my experience, as long as I am doing a few sessions of resistance training per week, I don’t lose lean body mass. But I DO lose fat. Try it out for yourself.
And this brings us to our next step:
Step 2: Burn Fat with a HIIT/Cardio Workout Mix
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a sort of catch-all phrase for performing periods of intense effort followed by brief rests, again and again.
(As with any change in exercise habits, you should always consult your physician before beginning any new workout routine.)
[Running on the beach is a great option for HIIT. Photo by lostprophet / JDphotography]
HIIT, HGH, and Fat Loss
To burn that stomach fat and reveal the six pack abs that lie beneath, we will target our HIIT intervals for maximum release of fat-burning Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Don’t worry, you won’t be injecting anything!
Pushing yourself at a pace that you can’t maintain for longer than 30-60 seconds releases HGH into your blood. Your face gets flushed, your lungs open up, and you breathe heavily. HGH causes fat stores to release into your bloodstream, where they are eventually burned by steady state cardio exercise and your elevated post-workout metabolism.
- 3 days a week do HIIT for 15-20 minutes followed by 30 minutes of (target heart rate) steady state cardio.
- On the days between your HIIT workouts (2 or 3 times per week), do 30-45 minutes of moderate steady-state cardio.
For HIIT, don’t push it too hard at first, especially if you are not in the best shape to begin with. For starters, try a ratio of 1:2, that means 1 minute of intense activity (jump rope sprinting, sprinting, exercise bike, treadmill, etc.) followed by around 2 minutes of active rest (walking, lightly jumping rope, etc.). And if that is too difficult, increase your rest times. You will get into better shape slowly.
If you are pretty fit already, try a 1:1 ratio and work your way towards shorter rest periods.
I recommend changing up the timing of your intervals every month or so, to keep your body guessing. Try a 1:2 sprint/walk ratio for more explosive sprinting speed, or try a 2:1 ratio for more of a fat burning focus.
I like to switch up my exercises as well. One day I might jump rope, another I might run on a track. Another day I might do HIIT on an exercise bike. I might even bite the bullet and join a local pool to do some swimming intervals (intense!)
Switching things up regularly will help you to avoid overuse injuries like shin splints and knee problems.
Step 3: Ab Exercises!
And now, here is the one piece of equipment you ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE if you are serious about getting six pack abs:
[Hahaha. Got ya!]
Eating right and working out to burning fat are the lion’s share of what needs to happen for you to have a six pack. However, it is definitely still important to do some exercises that directly target the abdominal muscles.
Why? First of all, having a strong core will prevent injuries to the lower back. And as for your quest to become Joe or Jane Six Pack, these exercises will tone and strengthen all of your major abdominal muscles without the risk of harm to your spine that can come from crunches and situps.
Incorporate the following exercises into your resistance training workouts a couple times per week:
This exercise is excellent for training the outer and inner abdominal muscles and developing core stability.
Also, the plank helps train your body to keep your abs flexed without having to bend your spine forward. This way, you don’t have to crunch forward to show off your abs to that pretty girl walking by on the beach! You will have a six pack all day long.
Work up to holding for 2 minutes. If 2 minutes is easy, try placing your arms (slightly more difficult) or feet (much more difficult) onto a stability ball.
This variation develops excellent lower back / oblique / abdominal stability, helping prevent lower back injuries while defining the love-handle / oblique area.
Work up to 2 minutes on each side.
Abdominal Vacuum Exercise
This exercise trains the transverse abdominus (TA), the deepest abdominal muscles which help to stabilize the spine. The TA, when activated, tightens the thoracolumbar fascia (TF), the band of connective tissue that envelops the lower back muscles. The TF acts as a sort of stabilizing weight belt, supporting and preventing serious injury to the spine while lifting.
Studies have shown that people who have trouble activating the TA often tend to injure their back while lifting things. So learn this exercise. You will prevent injury, be able to lift more and decrease lower back pain.
And, to top it off, doing the abdominal vacuum (and you can do it anywhere, waiting in line at the store, at a stoplight, etc.) will shrink your waist! Here are some tips:
- Start by lying on the floor, feeling your ability to contract this muscle against the spine. (as shown in the video above)
- Once you have a good feel for this, practice while sitting and standing.
- Gradually hold the stomach vacuum for longer and longer.
- Reduce your waistline by not overfilling your stomach when eating.
3 Steps to Six Pack Abs:
- Eat less.
- Do HIIT/Cardio workouts as described above to burn fat. Also include resistance training so that you don’t lose muscle mass.
- Do planks, side planks, and abdominal vacuum exercises to tighten up your abdominal muscles and prevent injury.
Good luck with your six pack!
For a detailed, no-BS approach to getting lean and ripped, WITHOUT gimmicks or supplements, check out Tom Venuto’s Holy Grail Fat Loss system. Tom, a world-renowned fitness model and nutrition expert, shares his strategies to cut fat without losing muscle. I personally have purchased this book and have been extremely impressed with the results I have achieved while using the strategies it describes.