ATTAINING “FAB ABS” OR A “SIX PACK” CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED WITH A HEALTHY MIX OF BOTH DIET AND EXERCISE.
Judging by the late night infomercials for exercise contraptions – which are about as common as hair replacement advertising – there is a serious hunger for tight abs in this country. This hits a particular point of irony: it’s most likely your appetite – and how you satisfy it – that gives (or denies) you the “six pack” contours of noticeable abdominals.
Put another way, the place to achieve an enviably flat (with ridges) stomach is in the kitchen, less so the gym. This is because your abdominal muscles might be very well developed, but if you have a sufficiently high body fat percentage (greater than 10% for guys, 14% for women), those muscles are hidden. It’s like when a fluffy down comforter is laid atop a crisp, fitted sheet. While the comforter can be lifted off in two seconds, losing body fat requires considerably more time and effort.
That said, it’s a worthy goal. Striving for abs may sound superficial, but the net result is a healthy state of being. If you can reduce body fat while simultaneously strengthening your core muscles, you stave off a host of health problems.
How so? Extra fat concentrated in the midsection – deposited around organs and between muscles – directly correlates hard, calcified plaque in the body, a condition directly tied to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), according to a study (Ding, et al. 2008) on body fat distribution conducted at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. And the muscles that everyone has in these areas can affect your back health, how you walk, move, lift objects and pretty much every other demand that life, work and exercise place on your body.
Let’s attack the abs on both fronts, understanding that diet and exercise synergistically work together.
Fab abs and diet (yes, we really mean diet here)
I am typically uncomfortable with this word, “diet”. The difficult business of food deprivation established this idea that a diet means “suffer for short term weight loss.” The word originally referred to the structure of how you ate, taking into account the breadth of nutrients and proportions of carbohydrates, fats, proteins and fiber you consumed. Appropriately, it’s about consciously eating, understanding that every bite has a consequence – good, bad and often, both.
To achieve abdominals, fat loss is almost always required. And to lose fat, you must turn it into fuel; your caloric intake has to be less than your metabolic expenditure, the calories you burn. Fewer calories in than out. It’s simple math.
So what’s your plan? Almost everyone has a daily vice, some calories here and there that are habitual – frothy coffees, mid-morning snacks, full-sugar sodas, hearty dinners. Or, maybe you simply graze your way through the day, eating whatever is near when you are hungry. If so, make changes. Opt for something better. It’s a fact of food commerce in the western world that larger, excessive portions are the norm. I know one successful dieter who simply ate everything on salad plates – she lost 20 pounds in six months. Conscious eating pays attention to every bite.
In strict numbers, men (being larger) take in 2500-3500 calories per day, with more active guys able to handle more. Women are more typically in the 2000-2500 range. For anyone at any weight level, a reduction of 600 calories per day can mean a ten pound weight loss in three months, all other factors held equal.
Make the numbers work in your favor and you are more than halfway to your goal.
Fab abs and exercise
While of lesser impact, working the muscles in and around the abdominal region is complex, varied and essential. And it goes way beyond aesthetics – most back problems are due to poor strength and flexibility in muscles that connect to the core region. These include stomach muscles (transverse abdominals, obliques and rectus abdominus), the back (erector spinae, flanking the lower vertebrae), hip (hip flexors and gluteus maximus, medius and minimus). The hamstrings (legs) are also important as they directly connect with the hip muscles. For a detailed look at each of these muscles, visit this website.
A systematic approach to strengthening each of these muscles would be to follow a combination of yoga, Pilates and strength training, preferably under supervision of a qualified fitness trainer. Yoga creates both strength and flexibility, Pilates much the same but with greater emphasis on strength, while full-on strength training would develop muscles that are as important functionally as they are aesthetically.
I have a few favorite strength training exercises that require almost no equipment (sorry infomercial marketers). Try these at home or at the gym, perhaps with a towel or workout mat for cushioning:
- Side planks: Lying sideways on the floor, stack your right foot and leg on top the left. With the left hand on the floor below the left shoulder, press up so that the shoulders and torso rise up (allow left hip to remain on the floor). Now, raise the hip up as high as possible, drop it slowly and lift again, 10-20 times. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Clams: Lie flat on a floor face up and hold a light, compact object (block of Styrofoam, soccer ball, box of pasta) between your ankles. Balancing on your tailbone, simultaneously raise your legs, shoulders and arms to grab the object with your hands. Return to a flat position on the floor then lift up again, clam-like, to replace the object between the ankles. Repeat 10 or more times.
- Good mornings: Stand with feet spread shoulder-distance apart. Bend at the waist, slowly, placing hands lightly on your thighs, then to knees and shins on down as far as you can comfortably drop. At the bottom position, take three deep breaths and with each exhalation reach a bit closer to the floor. From this deepest dropped position, rise up, then drop and repeat, using hands for assistance if necessary. When you know your back is strong enough, add weights (5, then 10, 15 and 20 pound dumbbells, or more).
Think of this as a three-month endeavor. With more pluck than luck, you’ll maintain your abs for a long time – a lot longer than most infomercial products stay on the market.