There is nothing like standing in line at the grocery store only to be surrounded by glossy magazine covers of perfect, chiseled abs. Glistening, rippling six-packs all blur together into one massive reminder that your waistline could probably stand some improvement. And perhaps it sends you back on your mission to burn belly fat with ab workouts.
Maybe you sheepishly look at the items in your cart and question some of your choices. Maybe you stand up a little straighter and suck in your tummy a little more. But often you’re left with a nagging feeling that it can’t be done.
That’s because while almost everyone wants great abs, nobody seems entirely sure how to get them. For most folks, they become just short of mythical, like unicorns. Finding a unicorn would actually seem easier to acquire than elusive six-pack abs.
However, there are tried-and-true ab workouts that can strengthen and define your midsection as long as you also address the diet side of the ab equation. For some, that might mean learning how to lose 20 pounds alongside beginning specific workouts that target the midsection. Let’s find out more.
Where We Went Wrong with Our Middle
How did we become hyper-obsessed with this one particular body part? In the 1970s, you probably wouldn’t hear “abs” used outside of Venice Beach and bodybuilding circles. Only in the late ’80s, with the influx of magazines like Men’s Health and Shape that figured out how to prey on our vanity with their monthly covers of Photoshopped sculpted bare torsos, did our obsession really kick in.
Along with that incessant desire came a constant barrage of late-night infomercials not-so-subtly suggesting we needed a particular contraption to help us rock, sway and roll our way to abdominal perfection. As you’ve guessed, most of those devices didn’t work but instead found their way to remote shelves in thrift stores and garage sales around the country.
Meanwhile, our ever-increasing girth continued to vex us.
Why? Without changing your body composition and significantly reducing your overall percentage of body fat, you simply won’t have visible abs.
First Steps to Flat, Defined Abs?
1. Start Burst or High-Intensity Interval Training
One of the most effective and efficient ways to lose unwanted pounds is by doing burst training or HIIT workouts. High-intensity interval training-style, ab-friendly workouts are known to be an excellent way to burn fat in a short period of time and help improve the physical performance of athletes of all kinds. (1)
It turns out that those endless hours of cardio we were told were good for us actually wear down our joints and increase our stress hormones — causing us to store fat rather than lose it!
2. Consume Fat-Burning Foods & Follow an Eating Plan Full of Them
On top of adding this efficient, calorie-scorching burst workout, you also want to consider adding some fat-burning foods to your meals. Adding blueberries, grapefruit and green tea to your diet is effective for fat loss because they contain compounds that help burn belly fat. Sometimes losing fat around our midsection isn’t always as easy as “eat less, move more.”
What types of eating plans include these kinds of foods and, more, can boost weight loss? You may want to try a ketogenic diet, which basically puts your body in ketosis, a metabolic state where most of the body’s energy comes from ketone bodies in the blood. This in contrast to a glycosis state, where blood glucose — sugar — provides most of the energy. That means your body is burning fat for energy rather than carbohydrates.
More simply, you can follow a low-carb diet that also can shift your body from a fat burner to a sugar burner.
3. Stop Eating Metabolism Death Foods
We want to try and rev our metabolism rather than slow it down, but that’s exactly what certain foods like fruit juice, grains and canola oil can do for many people. These metabolism death foods can shock your body into a fight-or-flight response, altering the focus of your metabolism and causing multiple health problems, including hormone imbalance, fatigue, digestive disease and, yes, weight around the middle.
4. Don’t Forget About Supplements & Essential Oils
Often, in the pursuit to lose weight, you may only rely on diet and exercise, leaving two valuable tools out of the equation. Supplements like whey protein can help you gain lean muscle while losing fat, no easy feat.
Also, you can even turn to essential oils for weight loss. For example, cinnamon oil can balance blood sugar, which can help with weight loss and reduce those cravings for sugar over the long term.
FYI: The Crunch Is NOT the Go-To Ab Move Anymore
As much as late night television, infomercials and that cute group-exercise instructor want us to believe we can crunch our way to a cut core, science doesn’t arrive at that conclusion.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville set out to determine the efficacy of abdominal-only exercises on abdominal fat. They took 24 healthy, sedentary people (14 men and 10 women between the ages of 18–40) and put them into two groups. Researchers tested abdominal muscular endurance and body composition of both groups at the beginning. (2)
During the next six weeks, one group performed 10 repetitions of seven different abdominal exercises, five days a week. The other group members continued their lives as normal. They didn’t do one single crunch.
The results? Neither group experienced weight loss, reduced body fat percentage or reduced their abdominal circumference. The only noticeable change: The abs group increased their muscular endurance and could perform more crunches at the end of the six weeks.
Let’s say you’re determined to get chiseled abs. The first step requires figuring out what exactly our “abs” are and what purpose they serve.
For better or worse in recent years, “core” has become synonymous with “abs.” We have now become “core-crazy.” While emphasis still focuses primarily on the aesthetics of the rectus abdominis, abdominal training has become more comprehensive and less reliant on just doing thousands of crunches.
Let’s briefly look at what we mean by “abs”:
- The rectus abdominis is the relatively large, most visible muscle of your abdominals. Its main task involves moving your spine forward and to the sides.
- Obliques — internal (3) and external (4) — run along your sides and are key players in trunk rotation.
- Way below the surface lie the transverse abdominis (5), working hard to stabilize your spine.
In other words, several muscles make up your core, so a single exercise like the crunch is going to be an ineffective way to train them.
What’s their purpose?
Why should we even bother working our abs and trying to strengthen our core? There are several compelling benefits aside from looking better in a swimsuit. A strong core helps with balance and stability, improves your posture, and can help eliminate back pain. (6) Those reasons alone far outweigh the superficiality of just having a six-pack.
Let’s move beyond crunches and examine some other ab workouts to include in your core repertoire. There are several sports that can help you strengthen your core and still manage to have fun, all while performing exactly zero crunches. Basketball, tennis, volleyball, cross-country skiing, boxing and wrestling (!) all work the core.
If you happen to live near the beach, surfing is an excellent way to burn calories and work all the major muscles in your midsection. If you live near water but surfing isn’t your thing, kayaking is another great way to workout. Similar to kayaking, a rowing machine, also known as an ergometer, can be be used indoors, year-round, regardless of whether or not you are near water.
If chronic stress is something you need to address, consider going to that kickboxing class at your gym. Not only will it burn hundreds of calories and challenge your abs through various kicks and punches, but hitting a bag does wonders for reducing your overall stress levels.
Although not as exciting and not nearly as efficient at caloric expenditure, Pilates has been shown to effectively activate the transverse abdominis and internal obliques. (7)
Meanwhile, there are many popular workouts on the market that promise washboard abs. Many of these push you to your limits, until you get injured or suffer overtraining syndrome. Also, there is research indicating that these extreme workouts may not be so good for us either. (8) With the fast-paced, advanced moves paired with little to no rest, these ab workouts are definitely not for beginners. If you suffer from any type of knee pain or arthritis, you may want to choose an easier option.
Best Ab Workouts
If you aren’t ready to take up surfing or kayaking just yet, let’s take a look at some more traditional moves you can incorporate into your ab workouts. To keep things simple and effective, these are all bodyweight moves. Just you and gravity, no additional equipment necessary.
Perform each of the following moves for 30–45 seconds, 3 times through. Do this routine 3 times a week, coupling with a burst-style workout or, at the very least, walking workout.
1. The V-Up
This move really targets those upper abs. To do this one, lie down on your back with your arms and legs extended. At the same time, raise your arms and legs up off the floor. Your goal is to touch your toes with your fingers.
2. Reverse Crunch
If you are looking for an effective way to challenge your lower abs, this one will definitely do the job. You’ll want to lie down on your back again and really press your lower back into the ground. Next, place your arms down at your sides, palms down. Lift your feet off the ground and make a 90-degree angle at your knees. Contract your rectus-abdominis and raise your legs toward the ceiling.
3. Knee to Elbow Crossunder
To begin this one you’ll want to be in plank position on your hands and toes. From there, with as much control as possible, tuck one knee in and over to your opposite elbow. Pause there for just a second and bring it back to the starting position and switch sides.
4. Flutter Kicks
Another lower abs burner! On your backside with your hands placed under glutes, you’re simply going to lift both legs off the ground a few inches and alternate gentle, little kicks. This is a small movement, remember they are called “flutter” kicks not “giant flailing legs kicks.”
5. Side Plank
Lie down on your side for this one, we’re going to challenge those internal and external obliques. With your arm at a 90-degree angle make sure your elbow is directly beneath your shoulder. Then, imagine if you were stuck between two panes of glass, you are trying to make your entire body in a straight as line as possible. With your legs stacked on top of each other, lift your whole body up toward the ceiling, supporting yourself with your elbow and the bottom foot.
Parting Words …
For all the emphasis society tends to put on having a well-defined torso, I think you have to answer a very important question before you wage full-out assault on your midsection. Is it worth it? While the achievement of having visible abs may make you the envy of your friends, it does nothing to increase your functionality. The reason being, as we discussed earlier, the fact that you can see them is essentially a byproduct of being super lean, not increased strength. In other words, a strong midsection is important, but visibility is optional.
The never-ending quest for the leanness required to have visible abs can become dangerous for some. Constantly obsessing about everything you eat can lead to not eating enough for your body to heal and repair itself after workouts — or even worse, starvation mode. Not getting enough calories and quality nutrients your body needs can wreak havoc on your metabolism as well. (9)
For women, the consequences can be even more severe. Not eating enough calories can cause hormonal issues and lead to irregular periods. Women with irregular periods can also have a decrease in bone mass and are subject to significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety. (10)
Developing great abs takes a lot of work and discipline. But there are lot of other things to pursue that would pay far better dividends than having rock-hard abs. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar or pick up another language?
Fitness should be about having fun and discovering all the amazing things your body can do. It shouldn’t be about waging war and going to battle every day for such a superficial and elusive goal. And lastly, let me leave you with this question. If your desire for six-packs abs is to gain approval and acceptance from other people, do you want to be approved and accepted by people who use that as criteria?