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Striving for Six-Pack Abs

Flat stomach, tight abs -- we all dream about it. Here's how to get them, with step-by-step instructions and photographs.

WebMD the Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

"How do I get a flat stomach?" Fitness trainers hear this question more than any other.

"To get defined abs, it's going to take work," says exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese. "A lean midsection takes a combination of good nutrition, cardiovascular conditioning, and abdominal training. Those who see the best results combine all three."

Shortening the Road to a Six-Pack

Good nutrition, Calabrese says, is absolutely essential for overall physique. Calabrese employs the garbage-in, garbage-out theory. Consuming most of your calories from processed and fast foods, she says, is going to produce an unhealthy body lacking in nutrients. Make good food choices, on the other hand, and you're on your way to a leaner you.

"If you're eating natural and whole foods you can eat more than if you're eating processed foods," says Calabrese.

Though Calabrese says it comes down to the equation of calories-in, calories-out, she doesn't recommend counting calories. She advises eating five to six small meals a day. This way, she says, your metabolism keeps stoked all day long, which gives you energy and keeps you from overeating.

"Exercise alone is great for expending calories, but without watching your diet, it's going to be a long, slow road to getting a six-pack." For your abdominal muscles to show, you have to shed the fat that lies on top.

Cardiovascular conditioning, whether it's running, walking, or taking a cycling or dance class, can help burn calories. Combined with a balanced diet, aerobic exercise helps you lose the fat built up above the muscle.

Experts agree that the combination of a healthful, nutritious diet and cardiovascular exercise are needed to train your abdominal muscles.

Ab Workout: More Is Not Better

"You're not going to reduce fat content without either a whole heck of a lot of abdominal work -- which is unnecessary and a waste of time -- or some kind of aerobic activity," says Richard Cotton, exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Abdominal muscles consist of three layers. The very deepest layer is the transversus abdominis, which acts as the body's girdle, providing support and stability and plays a critical role in exhalation. Next is the rectus abdominis, which flexes the spine. Closest to the surface are the internal and external obliques, which turn the trunk and provide the body with rotation and lateral movement.

Exercise physiologist and certified diabetes expert Rich Weil recommends training the abdominals much the way you would any other part of the body.

"Abdominal muscles are no different than any other muscle group. They should respond the same way." Hence, if you wouldn't do 50 bicep curls, you don't need to do 50 abdominal crunches, he says. Just work smarter by slowing down to try to isolate the muscles you're working.

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