By Jessica Cassity
The Rumor: Quick bouts of crunches will reveal your six-pack
Magazine headlines and infomercials suggest that the only thing standing between you and washboard abs is a few minutes of intense training. But if six minutes was all it took, wouldn't we all have six-packs? We asked two ultra-knowledgable Pilates and fitness pros to weigh in on this theory and reveal what it really takes to tone your tummy.
The Verdict: Don't hold your breath for washboard abs. Instead, focus on shedding fat and strengthening your core
Sculpting your abs takes a lot more than a round of crunches or an as-seen-on TV gadget. For most people, cardio is also paramount to a flat belly -- how else can you shrink that layer of fat that resides around your middle section? To get closer to your goal of flat abs, Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Alabama's Auburn University Montgomery, suggests running, spinning, swimming or using stair-stepper or the elliptical machines. “These activities use most of the limbs and major muscles in your body,” she says. “The more of your body mass you have moving at an increased pace, the more calories your body has to eat to fuel it through your workout.”
To burn fat, Olson says, do 40 to 50 minutes of exercise, five days a week. To speed up the process, do intervals (such as Tabata training) during your cardio routine. Here's how: Go hard for 20 seconds, halt for 10 seconds, then repeat for eight total rounds. (Warm up for 10 minutes before blasting into an interval session.)
Traditional gym exercises like the plank and side plank are great for sculpting and carving the abs, says Olson -- and so are many of the Pilates moves she's studied in her labs. Her favorites include the Pilates Hundred and the bicycle (aka the Pilates Criss Cross). Olson also recommends doing exercises like back rows or lat pull-downs. (These help strengthen the postural muscles along the spine and can give your waistline an enhanced “V” shape.) Aim to do at least 10 minutes of focused core work every other day.
This approach of training the abs from several angles is in line with the recommendations of Kristi Anderson, owner of PilatesRx in San Diego. “The abs are a group of interrelated muscles that never work in isolation, and always work best as a well-balanced team,” says Anderson. “During a typical Pilates session, we might do some gentle therapeutic isolation work as a prep to more full-body movements.”
These movements include standing exercises, as well as planks and complex core exercises that work all four layers of the abs: the rectus abdominus, the transverse abdominus and both sets of obliques. As your core gets stronger, you may notice that your balance improves and that other activities, such as running and yoga, seem to get easier. That's because the core is ultimately responsible for most of our movements. Strengthen it, and you'll have an easier time with everything, from standing with good posture to swinging a golf club.
But let's get back to that six-pack. If you truly want a sculpted belly, you'll likely need to make a third change: switching your diet. What you eat -- and how your body processes it -- also factors in to how firm and flat your core is. For some people, switching to a low-calorie or low-carb diet may help reveal those newly toned abs. For other people, a more specialized approach may be necessary. "I ask all of my clients about their digestive habits when they begin with me," says Anderson, "and we continue to discuss this as they progress." Some of these clients find that eliminating a food they're sensitive to, such as gluten or soy, changes their protruding belly into a flat one within a few weeks.