By Daniel Gwartney, M.D.
The average person not only is seeking to lose fat for the overall health benefit; he or she is typically fixated on one “problem area.” Many women are concerned about the appearance of “fleshy arms” or the eternal nemesis – cellulite. Yet, for men and women alike, the primary culprit is the belly. Late at night, or throughout the weekend, informercials hawk all varieties of exercise programs and widgets that promise a tight, ripped midsection. The implication is that working the abs will not only provide a rigid washboard of muscle, but also melt the overlying fat away in a tsunami of spot reduction. Is that the whole story? Not by a long shot. There is no such thing as spot reduction; furthermore, sporting a flat, fit and hard midsection takes consistent, hard work and your journey begins with the knowledge of what is really required to get the job done.
Exercise + Hypocaloric Diet = Fat Loss
Perhaps you have been wondering, “Can I get a six-pack in six minutes, or even 60? Even scientists wondered, given the ubiquity of the claim. Thus, there have been several studies published. The general consensus is that unless the exercise volume meets the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) recommendations of 150 minutes weekly and is coupled with a hypocaloric diet, there will not be any overall fat loss.1 But there have been some conflicting reports. A study published in 1965 demonstrated a statistically significant decrease in the waistline following four weeks of abdominal exercise training without weight loss.2 This would probably impress the men and women in the math club more than the rest of us. However, it is supported by a study that compared subcutaneous fat of a trained arm versus the untrained arm after 12 weeks in subjects. In that study, the trained arm had less subcutaneous fat as measured by skinfold technique.3 The change in skinfold is not considered the “gold standard” way to measure fat loss. Finally, a reduction in the fat cell size was noted in subcutaneous fat overlying muscles exercised using isometric techniques.4
Couch Potatoes With A Six-Pack?
Researchers recruited 24 subjects (sedentary, non-smokers of stable weight) to follow a six-week course of exercise consisting of a five-minute treadmill warm-up at a gentle pace, followed by approximately 10 minutes of abdominal exercise.5 The “ab” workout consisted of seven common exercises performed for 2 sets of 10 repetitions, with 10-15 seconds rest between sets. The exercises were bent knee sit-ups, lateral trunk flexion, leg lifts, oblique crunches, stability ball crunches, stability ball twists and abdominal crunches. Yep, pretty much the summer camp gym class routine. Most of you can guess the results. No weight was lost, no abdominal fat was lost and body fat, waistline and skinfolds were all unchanged. So, was it wasted time? Not completely. The exercising group did perform better on an abdominal challenge compared to their baseline and the control group who did not follow the exercise protocol. Amazingly, even as little work as this improved the muscular function of this group. Of course, these were “couch potatoes” coming into the study.
Now, it is important to note that body fat and abdominal fat were measured by DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) rather than relying upon tape measures or calipers. Thus, it is fair to say that these subjects did not experience any favorable body composition changes or fat loss following this protocol. The energy expended would not account for very many calories, and the diet was not controlled – subjects were advised to continue to eat their typical diet. Food diaries showed that the diets did not change for the control group or the exercisers.
For generations of men who dream of walking the beach, along the boardwalk or across the college campus with a rigid, tortoise-shell torso, this is a disappointment. Day after day spent lying on those rubber-matted gym floors that retain more odors than a box of baking soda – crunching, curling and contorting the body, only to discover it was effort wasted in vain.
This might make many people consider scrapping exercise plans. After all, if the goal is to develop the physique, as much or more so than improving health by developing the core muscles and dropping fat, there seems to be little incentive for working out.
Au contraire, it can and should be done – easily but over time. Six weeks is a short time, and to expect such a limited amount of exercise to have any effect when the diet isn’t controlled is silly. To bring out the abs, two things have to be done – develop the abdominal muscles and reduce the overlying fat that covers those muscles like a blanket of lard.
Think of the specimens who have admirable abs. Sure, there are physique competitors – but also boxers, gymnasts and martial artists. The abs is a group of several muscles responsible for supporting posture, aiding in breathing and generating movement/force. The “six-pack” can be developed using simple crunches and pelvic tilts. People spend too much time flopping around like a salmon spent after spawning. The abs move the torso, not the legs or the neck/head. Tight, full contractions working the upper and lower range in controlled fashion are best for the rectus abdominis. These movements can be intensified using angled benches, stability balls or weights. The obliques “twist” the torso – this is the movement that creates much of the force of a bat swing, hook punch or certain kicks. Movements that mimic these actions will work the obliques, but to hypertrophy these muscles, the contractions need to be made against resistance.
Drop the Body Fat to Show the Abs
In addition to weight training and cardio, given that many of us are training at home and not in a gym, dance may be the most enjoyable and effective while yoga can aid in developing the abs. Most men avoid training that improves flexibility. Yoga postures strengthen the abs, and controlling breathing through pranayama has many benefits. Besides the typical “abs,” the muscles of the pelvic floor are strengthened. Ask 10 men in the gym if they do Kegel exercises to strengthen their pelvic muscles. Half the guys will probably say the wife did Kegels when pregnant. Failure to strengthen the pelvic muscles will result in an imbalance that can increase the risk of injury, hemorrhoids, etc.6,7
Now, what good is a set of abs when nobody can see them? Well, a person is healthier, stronger and probably a bit tougher. However, if the goal is to show off the results, it is necessary to be able to see the abs. For men, this will require dropping body fat below 11 percent or so. To really show the abs, body fat needs to be around 7 percent or less. There are many different diets – it really depends on which one will follow. Nonetheless, it is critical to fat loss to keep calories at or below maintenance to allow the body to tap into stored fat reserves to make the abs apparent.
The take-home – even if you do it every day, just doing ab exercises for 10 or 15 minutes will not create a six-pack. Like any exercise, it will strengthen the muscles doing the work, but work and hypertrophy are not so tightly linked as to suggest that a dozen sets of 10 reps will promote bigger, more obvious abs. The muscles that form the core, including the pelvic floor muscles, can be undertrained or overtrained.
Approach the muscles of the core like you would other muscle groups. Keep a log, monitor your diet and training and correct the mistakes we all make along the way. Children and teenagers have abs because they are young, active and amped-up. Age, inactivity and overeating keep many adults from ever removing the T-shirt in public. Follow a common sense path. If you ever see an informercial for an ab-developing device, perform 10 reps of turning off the tube and then go to bed – you are up too late. Go to bed, as lack of sleep will keep the pounds on and obscure the abs that we all have within. They are there, trust me on that – you just have to work to show them off. And your main area of job deployment will be in the kitchen, because that’s where abs are really made.
FitnessRx Ultimate Ab, Fat-Loss Diet
Let’s be clear – exercise is a vital component to developing the ab musculature, including the various muscles that form the “core.” Exercise is also a major factor involved in reducing body fat and it is very effective when combined with a maintenance or hypocaloric diet. But you can exercise until the cows come home and if you don’t incorporate healthy eating into your plan, your abs will remain hidden. Diet is the key no matter what your goals are – to drop fat, add muscle or stay in good shape. Here are some pointers to get you started.
16 ounces water, 200 milligrams of caffeine (from 2 cups of sugar-free coffee or thermogenic fat-loss supplement), a sugar-free/low-carb whey protein isolate shake (30 to 40 grams of whey protein isolate), a branched-chain amino acid supplement (preferably a 2:1:1 leucine, isoleucine, valine ratio)
6:30 a.m.–7:30 a.m.
Train (cardio, weights, ab exercises)
Post-workout meal: 5 egg whites + 1 whole egg, 1 serving of oatmeal; or Labrada Lean Body shake
9 ounces of salmon, sautéed spinach or other vegetable and small salad with extra-virgin olive oil dressing
Unsweetened yogurt, a handful of almonds
8 to 16 ounces of lean steak, steamed broccoli and cauliflower and a small salad with extra-virgin olive oil dressing and 3 grams of fish oil capsules
Unsweetened yogurt, a handful of almonds
Drink Lots of Water. During the day, drink at least 2 to 4 liters of water (shoot for a gallon a day). Staying hydrated will keep you satiated and cause you to eat less. Your body often mistakes dehydration for hunger, and you end up eating when you are really dehydrated. People who are successful in their weight-loss journey drink plenty of water.
Watch Your Carbs. Avoid starchy carbs after 3:00 p.m. and select healthier starchy carbs such as brown rice cakes, oatmeal, and sweet potato chips.
Limit Sugar and Sodium. They will both add pounds (and hide your abs) when part of your diet in significant amounts. Yogurt with no sugar (or any artificial sweeteners) such as Oikos Triple Zero is better than yogurt with 5 grams of sugar.
Before Bed, take a slow-acting casein powder shake or lean meat such as turkey breast. If you are still hungry, munch on celery dipped in humus, sugar-free jello or a handful of nuts.
Note: The above sample diet and tips should be used as general guidelines for healthy eating with a goal of reducing of body fat. For your optimal diet, consult a nutritionist who can prepare a customized meal plan to meet your needs.
1. Donnelly JE, Blair SN, et al. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009, Feb;41(2):459-71.
2. Mohr DR. Changes in waistline and abdominal girth and subcutaneous fat following isometric exercises. Res Q 1965, May;36:168-73.
3. Kostek MA, Pescatello LS, et al. Subcutaneous fat alterations resulting from an upper-body resistance training program. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007, Jul;39(7):1177-85.
4. Katch FL, Clarkson PM, et al. Effects of sit up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. Res Q 1984;55:242-7.
5. Vispute SS, Smith JD, et al. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res 2011, Sep;25(9):2559-64.
6. Hides JA, Brown CT, et al. Screening the Lumbo-pelvic Muscles for a Relationship to Injury of the Quadriceps, Hamstrings, and Adductor Muscles Among Elite Australian Football League Players. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2011, Sep 4.
7. Telles S, Dash M, et al. Effect of yoga on musculoskeletal discomfort and motor functions in professional computer users. Work 2009;33(3):297-306.