"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.
Six-Pack Abs: Reality or Pipe Dream?
So what about the six-pack? Is it attainable? Can anyone get it?
Although possible, most experts say it's rare.
"Six-pack abs is really a pre-cellulite phenomenon. It tends to be reserved for those in their teens and 20s," says Cotton. "It gets more difficult as we age because we get more subcutaneous body fat." However, with the right genetics and strict program, even people in their 30s and 40s can have six-pack abs.
Genetically, women have a disadvantage when it comes to that. Their bodies store more fat than men. For good reason, says Calabrese. Women's bodies are designed to bear and nourish babies and fat is the primary energy source to support fetal development. In addition, Calabrese says, men generally lose weight quicker as a result of regular exercise.
For women to lower body fat enough to have a six-pack, says Cotton, "that might even interrupt their menstrual cycle."
That's why Cotton doesn't encourage such extreme goals.
"I personally think it's on the order of ridiculous," he says. "If you're spending that much time on your abs, you're wasting time and taking time away from other muscle groups. It's a show muscle.
"When I have clients that are obsessed with that, I work on values and self-acceptance. People want a perfect body, they want a Lexus and they want a 3,000 square foot home. They're objectifying the body."
There are important reasons to train the midsection, however. The core muscles of the abdominals strengthen the torso, improve posture, decrease low back pain, and reduce risk of injury.
Abdominal training can also improve other areas of fitness. If you're a golfer or tennis player, working with a stronger core is going to give you more power behind your stroke or serve and reduce risk of shoulder injury. A stronger torso, for example, will put less strain on your knees while running.
So let's get to it. Here are the experts' choices on the most effective abdominal exercises. These should be performed two to three times weekly (for beginners, two is plenty to start). Each exercise should be executed until the point of momentary muscular failure, which should happen between 30 and 90 seconds. This is considered one set, which should be no more than 15 to 20 repetitions. Rest for 30 to 60 seconds. Concentrate on performing each exercise slowly with good form. Work up to completing two to three sets of each exercise.
Reverse Crunch: Lie flat on the floor with a neutral spine, with knees at a 90-degree angle, feet a few inches off the floor and legs together, hands by your sides (behind your ears if you're more experienced). Focus on contracting your abdominals to lift your hips up and in toward your rib case. Exhale as you contract; inhale to return to starting position. Done correctly, this exercise isolates the lower half of the rectus abdominis and the transverus.
Bent-Elbow Plank: This exercise works the whole trunk, particularly the transversus abdominis. Start by lying on your belly and then lift yourself up onto your toes and forearms (elbows in line with shoulders) while contracting your abdominals and keeping your back neutral. Hold that position for five seconds, then rest and repeat. Ultimately, strive to hold the pose for 90 seconds without any rest -- for one set. If you're more experienced, you can also do this exercise on your hands and toes. (As a beginner, start on your hands and knees with a neutral spine and simply contract the abdominals on an exhale without moving your back.)
Bicycle: This exercise works your obliques as well as your rectus abdominis. Lie on your back, hips and knees bent at 90-degrees, chest curled over ribs, hands behind your head. Extend the left leg out while bringing the right knee in towards the chest and rotating the left shoulder toward the right knee. Keep the arm from crossing the face. Rotate from the trunk through the center to the other side without dropping your chest. Move in slow, controlled movements without shifting your hips.
If you perform these exercises consistently, says Calabrese, you will notice a significant difference in the strength and tone of your entire torso within six weeks.
"Be consistent," she says. "Be patient and believe a flat stomach is possible."