By Dan Gwartney, MD
The entire “abs” phenomenon has become overly complicated. Videos and trainers talk about upper abs, lower abs, mid abs, etc; devices have been constructed whose origins could possibly be traced to the Marquis de Sade; fitness routines gyrate the mid-section in directions Elvis couldn’t match. People are certain that the secret to showing off a great set of abs involves some specific geometric angle that can only be achieved in a zero-gravity environment.
Here are the cold, hard facts: abs can be developed by performing about 5 minutes of a combination of floor exercises, probably the same ones taught in gym classes in the 1950s. The single-most common mistake that can be made in regard to getting a “six-pack” is overtraining
The “abs” refer to the rectus abdominis, a set of connected muscle bellies separated by fibrous bands that give the hallmark six-pack. Additionally, the obliques provide those serrations along the frontal sides, seen so often on magazine covers, but rarely in one’s everyday experience. [Purists will point out that there are two layers to the obliques and alert uncaring fellow commuters to the failure to acknowledge the transversalis muscle, but the internal obliques and transversalis are not visible.] The abs are predominantly fast-twitch fibers, meaning they respond best to brief, high-intensity contractions.
Bear in mind, focusing on the abs for 5 minutes does not suggest that the muscle is resting the remainder of the day. The abs are involved in core stabilization (somehow, this became a trendy phrase) and stabilizes the trunk during other high-intensity movements. In fact, the abs can be incorporated into many other lifts to augment the daily training volume and intensity. Take for example the lat pulldown. Using an underhand grip and bringing the bar down in front of your face/body/frontal plane, you can contract and relax the abs with the movement, allowing the muscle to participate in the exercise and benefit from increasing resistance as the lats get stronger. Focusing on the abs during the lat pull will also tend to slow the movement, preventing the jerky motion seen frequently in the gym and hopefully reducing the risk of soft tissue injury. Similar involvement can be included in the triceps pushdown, bar curls, dips, etc. The possible exception to the brief, high-intensity movements for abdominal muscle development may be, shockingly enough, Pilates. The “lengthening and strengthening” techniques have provided impressive results for some practitioners.
The final words in regard to developing the abs are a) brief, high-intensity sessions for focusing on the abs; b) abdominal muscles inclusion in other movements and for core stabilization is highly beneficial; c) Pilates-like activities can provide complementary benefits; d) overtraining is detrimental to abdominal development.
DROP THAT BODY FAT
What is truly amazing, when one steps back and considers the issue, is that most people trying to “get abs” often have good-to-excellent abdominal muscle development. The failing most people have in realizing abdominal success is an inability to see (or display) their abs due to the blanketing effect of subcutaneous fat. What is necessary to reveal abs developed through dedicated exercise is a reduction in body fat. Regardless of how well developed a person’s abs are, they will remain hidden unless a person can drop his or her body fat. How lean the body composition needs to be varies a bit from person to person, but most people will need to drop the body fat percentage below 10 percent, without catabolizing away the hard-earned muscle.
Unfortunately, this requires hypocaloric dieting in addition to exercise. However, there have not been any clear recommendations from the scientific literature as to what combination of diet and exercise best preserves (or builds) muscle mass while reducing body fat. Certainly, there are shelves of books from diet and exercise gurus, but with rare exception, most of these are concerned with merely dropping pounds, not developing a muscular physique.
It is old news by now, but just a few years ago, the concept of low-carbohydrate diets was considered innovative by some, blasphemous by others. Over time, this method of dieting has been proven to be at least as effective as traditional, low-fat diets and appears to have equal or better clinical safety.1 While low-carbohydrate diets have shown themselves to be effective in weight loss, there has not been as much research beyond the most basic designs. Surprisingly, until this last year, researchers have not looked at relative effectiveness of low-carbohydrate diets compared to low-fat diets, when combined with exercise, in maintaining/building lean mass during fat loss.
Undoubtedly, many bodybuilders and fitness buffs already realize the value in maintaining a higher protein intake and cutting high-glycemic foods, especially during catabolic times such as the precontest period, when body fat is stripped to low single-digit percentages. Further, the practice of carb-depletion has been used for decades to tighten the skin. Thus, there is a body of “field experience” in regard to using low-carbohydrate diets to maintain/build lean mass while “cutting up.” Now, there is black-and-white evidence about what the best way to train is, if lean mass maintenance/growth during fat loss is the goal. Many personal trainers will likely look at the results and begin applying the formula for many of their clients after reviewing the data presented in these three studies.
LOW CARBS + EXERCISE WORKS BEST
The first study, performed at the University of Illinois, studied 48 overweight or obese women who were placed on a high-protein diet (1:1 ratio carbohydrates to protein) or high-carbohydrate diet (4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein).2 The diet groups were then divided, with half exercising (five days walking, two days weight training each week), the others not. The high-protein diet groups lost more weight, more fat mass and preserved more lean mass. Exercise helped preserve lean mass in the high-carbohydrate group as well.
The second, performed at the University of Guelph, Canada, compared four groups of overweight and obese women.3 The subjects were randomly assigned to exercise or non-exercise, and then those two classes were further divided to high-carbohydrate or low-carbohydrate weight-loss programs. The high-carbohydrate group consumed carbohydrates to protein at a ratio of 3:1, whereas the low-carbohydrate group consumed a ratio of 1:1. All the groups lost weight over 12 weeks, ranging from 4.5 pounds for the high-carb, no exercise group to over 15 pounds in the low-carb, exercise group. In fact, the low-carb, no exercise group lost more than the high-carb, exercise group by more than a pound. The authors concluded that a high-protein diet combined with a mix of aerobic/resistance training was superior to a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet with or without exercise in promoting weight loss and improving body composition.
A third study was performed at the University of Connecticut; professors William Kraemer and Jeff Volek participated in the research, familiar to those well-read in the field of exercise science, in addition to lead author Kevin Ballard.4 This study compared a low-carbohydrate diet to a low-fat diet; alone or in combination with resistance exercise in middle-aged, overweight or obese men. Consistent with previous studies comparing low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets, the low-carbohydrate diet was superior in reducing weight, BMI, percent body fat and abdominal fat. Adding resistance training to a low-carbohydrate diet improved percent body fat lost further. Exercise increased lean mass in subjects consuming both types of diets similarly. In communication with Dr. Volek, he noted that the results reported in this latest study were more dramatic, with the greater weight loss being due, perhaps, to the greater carbohydrate restriction (this diet was ketogenic).5 Also, an increase in lean mass and strength was noted in these subjects (15 percent increase in bench press and squat), as opposed to a reduction in lean mass loss noted in the earlier studies. This may represent a gender effect, as the male subjects would have a greater propensity to build muscle in response to weight training.
What is the take-home message from these studies? People looking to maintain or even build lean muscle while losing body fat are best served by combining a low-carbohydrate diet with exercise. In men, following a very low-carbohydrate diet sufficient to induce ketosis may be the optimal plan. Further, the exercise should include a significant weightlifting component to stimulate muscle growth, something that does not occur to the same degree with exclusively aerobic exercise.
Is this likely to be a case where science actually applies to real life? It is highly likely, as it supports the decades-long experiences of bodybuilders who have combined carbohydrate restriction and weight training to develop the washboard abs the drive fitness magazine sales.
1. Gardner CD, Kiazand A, et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets for change in weight and related risk factors among overweight premenopausal women. JAMA, 2007;297:969-77.
2. Layman DK, Evans E, et al. Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr, 2005;135:1903-10.
3. Meckling KA, Sherfey R. A randomized trial of hypocaloric high-protein diet, with and without exercise, on weight loss, fitness, and markers of the Metabolic Syndrome in overweight and obese women. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2007;32:743-52.
4. Ballard KD, Quann EE, et al. Effects of diets restricted in fat and carbohydrate with and without resistance training on body composition and cardiovascular risk. (Abstract). Presented at Experimental Biology 2008, San Diego, CA; April 5-9, 2008.
5. Personal communication with Jeff Volek, via e-mail, April 17, 2008.
6. Volek J, Campbell A. Men’s Health TNT Diet: The Explosive New Plan to Blast Fat, Build Muscle, and Get Healthy in 12 Weeks. Rodale Books, New York;2007. ISBN-13: 978-1594866593