Getting a lean / muscular midsection could possibly be the most common fitness goal, as well as the most misunderstood. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen more time and effort wasted on abdominal exercises that are ineffective, than I have for any other body part. And yet, it’s really very simple. That doesn’t mean “without effort”. It just means “uncomplicated”. Here’s the scoop.
There are three reasons WHY achieving a lean midsection is so misunderstood:
1. Misleading advertising and/or misguided instruction
2. Wishful thinking
3. Lack of understanding of how the body works
It might seem reasonable to believe that abdominal fat can be reduced or eliminated by “working” that area (i.e. doing sit-ups, leg raises, twists, side bends, etc.) – but, if you believe that, you would be mistaken – in a big way. Companies trying to sell you an abdominal exercise product, a course or a book – often LIE to you (what a surprise!) – so they can make a profit. They tell you that you CAN exclusively reduce abdominal fat – by using their product, and you believe them.
The truth is that your lifestyle created the problem – and the solution must address your lifestyle – both your diet as well as your overall exercise program. The idea that one exercise, or a “killer ab routine” alone, will make your abs “ripped” is – wishful thinking. For those of you who are guilty of that sort of idealistic optimism, “ripped abs” will remain a fantasy, until you understand how the body loses fat, and then do the correct homework.
The Myth of Spot Reduction
You cannot specifically lose abdominal fat by doing abdominal exercise. Period.
That bears repeating for the simple reason that, although people have heard that they cannot “spot reduce” their midsection, and they say they understand it, they continue doing things that demonstrate a belief in “spot reduction”. It is impossible to lose ANY abdominal fat, by doing abdominal exercises.
When you perform abdominal exercise, the muscle – which is underneath the fat layer – does the work. But the muscle is not what needs “fixing”. Ab exercises benefit the muscle under the fat, but do nothing for the fat layer which covers the muscle.
That jiggly stuff that is on your midsection is not un-toned muscle; nor is it “flab” that can be “firmed up” or converted into muscle. It’s fat, and can only be reduced as part of a whole-body-fat-loss-plan. You might indeed have a well-developed abdominal muscle under that fat, but you will never see it, and that fat layer will remain the same, until you address your overall diet and overall exercise program – regardless of how many sit-ups, or crunches, or leg raises, you do.
If you do daily abdominal exercises and/or high repetition ab crunches, or leg raises, you are demonstrating a belief in spot reduction. Stop it. It’s a waste of time. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t work in the future. If you believe that your abdominal muscles “burning”, during your high-rep crunches, is proof that your abdominal fat is melting away, you are seriously mistaken. That burning sensation is occurring in the muscle (i.e. lactic acid) – it is not occurring in the fat.
You cannot choose where to take fat off your body – just as you cannot choose where to add fat onto your body. This is a physiological fact. You must put your entire body into “fat loss mode”, in order to lose fat around your midsection. Have you ever seen anyone with ripped abs – who was fat everywhere else ? Of course not. And you never will. You must get leaner overall, to get a lean midsection.
How Fat Gets “Burned”
Fat is stored on the body in a specific molecular form, called “adipose tissue”. The body cannot, and does not, burn adipose tissue. In order for body fat loss to occur, the body must first convert adipose tissue into “free fatty acids”, which is the useable form of fuel. Only then, can the body actually use it (spend it, burn it, whatever you want to call it).
When this conversion takes place, it does so “systemically” (throughout the entire body) – not locally (nearest to where the muscle is working). After this conversion takes place, free fatty acids enter the bloodstream, and go to the working muscle. In other words, tiny amounts of “free fatty acids”, which were converted from tiny amounts of “adipose tissue”, which came from all over your entire body simultaneously, provide whichever muscle is working at that particular time, with its necessary fuel. And it’s the larger muscles – like the leg muscles – which are more likely to require that sort of fuel.
That is why people lose fat everywhere on their body – including their face – when they peddle a stationary bicycle – even though they are only peddling with their legs. Fat only comes off the body as a whole. It cannot, and will not, come off only the area of your choosing.
This process only happens if your diet is right. If your diet is wrong, and there is plenty of fuel in the bloodstream from foods you’ve recently eaten, the body will not have to resort to spending it’s “fat storage”. Further, if your insulin level is high during your workout, because you ate some candy or bread (or other sugary / starchy carbohydrate) – mistakenly believing it would give you “energy” – just before the workout, your body will resist giving up its reserve fat, even if your total caloric intake is fairly low. These are two of the reasons people often do not lose body fat, even though they’re exercising: they’re still eating too much, and/or they’re eating the wrong kinds of foods.
How To Get Leaner Overall – Part One: The Diet
You must make dietary changes in order to lose body fat. Specifically, you must reduce your calories, but – perhaps more importantly – you must reduce or eliminate certain types of food, and replace them with better choices. Starches and sugars cause the body to produce more insulin, and that will cause your body to store more body fat – and/or restrict fat loss – even if you are exercising every day, and even if your caloric intake is not exceptionally high. Some people produce more insulin than others. If you tend to have a weight problem, it’s likely that you are one of those people. Dietary fat is actually less of a problem – in terms of body fat – than are starches and sugars.
Starches and sugars are considered “high-glycemic”, which means that they convert quickly to glucose, and therefore result in a dramatic rise in your insulin production. Instead, try getting your carbohydrates from vegetables (brocolli, cauliflower, zuccini, squash, tomatoes, peas, carrots, etc.) and legumes (lentils, black beans, kidney beans, etc.) and – to a lesser degree – some fruits. Try to reduce – as much as possible – flour products (breads, pasta, crackers, flour tortillas, etc .), as well as potatoes, white rice, and sugar. And don’t be afraid to eat nuts, avocadoes, olive oil, cheese, etc. Although there are still those who advocate a low-fat, high-carb diet, there is plenty of evidence that obesity levels rise dramatically with that type of diet. Further, new research has demonstrated that a reduction of starches and sugars, and a slight increase of healthy fats, has produced more fat loss and better health.
Try eating four or five small meals, and make sure that each of them has a protein source, a low-glycemic carbohydrate source, and a little fat. For example, grilled chicken, steamed vegetables with a little olive oil, and an avocado. Or, scrambled eggs, with ham and black beans. Or, a steak, a salad with dressing, and some fruit.
Note: Here are some sample diets that follow all of these principles:
How To Get Leaner Overall – Part Two: The Exercise Program
The best approach is a combination of aerobic exercise and whole-body resistance training. Both types of exercise have a different fat loss effect. Resistance training makes all of your muscles more metabolically active, meaning that they burn more calories all day long, when they are strong. Plus, those who do only aerobic exercise tend to become more “efficient” at it. Meaning that their body eventually learns to conserve fuel while doing aerobic exercise, which means less fat loss. Those who combine weight training with aerobic exercise have a much better rate of fat loss.
Also, interval training works best, when doing cardiovascular exercise. Low intensity / long duration exercise is ultimately less effective, than either high intensity / short duration (15 – 20 minutes)… or alternating between high intensity (for one minute) and then low intensity (for one minute). High intensity burns more overall calories (in a shorter period of time), plus it stimulates your metabolism more – than low intensity aerobic exercise.
When doing your weight training, try to emphasize working the larger muscle groups, like your legs, your back and your pectoral muscles. The smaller muscles, like the shoulders and arms, contribute much less to the overall metabolism. For best results, try weight training 2 – 5 days per week (with either a full-body workout, or a split program where you work different body parts on different days). The more often you exercise, the better the result, obviously.
Work your abdominal muscles the same way you would work any other muscle in your body – 2 to 3 times per week (not on consecutive days), approximately 3 to 8 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions, with full-range-of-motion, a deliberate contraction at each repetition, and a resistance that challenges the muscle. In other words, think of your ab exercises like you would your chest or back exercises. You would never think to do 100 partial-range-of-motion reps of a chest or back exercise. Instead, you do slow, deliberate, full-range of motion reps, for 15 – 20. Do the same thing for your abs.
When doing ab exercises, choose exercises that emphasize spinal movement, rather than hip movement. In other words, crunches are infinitely better than leg-raises. My favorites are “decline crunches” and “kneeling cable crunches”.
Now hear this: there is no such thing as a “lower ab”. It doesn’t exist. The abdominal muscle is one continuous muscle, that begins at the base of the rib-cage, and ends at the pubic bone of the pelvis. And you cannot work one end of the muscle more than the other end. The whole muscle works evenly.
When someone says “this works the lower abs”, they are either grossly mistaken or fibbing (for the sake of marketing). First, you cannot lose lower abdominal fat – because spot reduction is impossible. Second, you cannot work the only lower part of the muscle (the rectus abdominus – aka the “six pack”) – because it isn’t a separate muscle. You also cannot add “notches” to your abs. The shape of your “notches”, and number of grooves your ab muscle shows are “fixed” (set in stone). It is determined by genetics. You cannot add a third or fourth row of ab muscles, simply by working them. It’s a fibrous divider that is either there, or not, since birth. All you can do is accentuate the ones you already have (hiding under your fat layer, if you aren’t yet lean), by thickening those muscle fibers with ab exercises, and reduce the fat that covers them, with diet and a good over-all exercise plan that lowers your total body fat.
When the abdominal muscle contracts, the rib-cage and the pelvis move closer together, which creates a “curling” of the torso. And when the muscle extends (stretches), it allows the rib-cage and pelvis to get farther apart, which creates an arching of the torso. That should be the goal of any abdominal exercise: to arch the spine and then curl the spine. That is a classic “crunching” movement.
Too often I see people doing something they might call an abdominal crunch, but is little more than a head and neck lift. To say that this is an incomplete range of motion is an understatement ! It’s about 10% range of motion. You gotta crank out the rest of that 90% (range of motion) – if you want to develop that muscle. And if that means that you do fewer repetitions, it’s fine. 15 – 20 solid, forceful repetitions of full range of motion crunches, with a deliberate contraction at each rep, is FAR better than 100 reps of 10% range of motion, with no deliberate contraction. Remember, crunches are for building the muscle – not for reducing the fat in that area.
If you are one of those people who does endless reps of teeny-tiny ab crunches, you are wasting your time and energy. You will not get any sort of result that way. You are neither burning fat, nor developing muscle. Instead, use a 3-prong approach.
1. Make the appropriate changes to your diet
2. Combine smart aerobic exercise with full-body resistance training
3. Work your ab muscles no differently than you would any other muscle (non-consecutive days, 15-20 reps per set, 4-8 total sets per workout, full-range of motion with deliberate contraction)
This type of program will give you the best odds of achieving your goal. Genetics also plays a role in determining your ultimate result, as does any hormonal or metabolic problems you may have. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone who uses the same program gets the same result. As they say, “results may vary”. I recommend that the amount of effort you use should be “reasonable”, as determined by your own sensibilities – unless you’re preparing for physique competition, or you have a temporary, short-term goal, like a high school reunion, after which you can return to a more balanced program.
The bottom line is that the ONLY smart way to achieve a lean midsection is by addressing the big picture: your overall body fat level. And the way to do that is by addressing your diet and your overall exercise program – of which your actual abdominal exercises are only a small part, as ironic as that may seem.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition. Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe, Doug now has his sights set the World Championship of 2014.
He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book. He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.