I’m not sure where our abdominal fixation came from. In an older episode of Tonos Radio, Sabrena and I explored this fixation a little bit and even gave some suggestions on approaching the core and abs dilemma.
Let’s explore the purpose of abs first before we discuss how to properly train them. The abdominal muscles – or “core” muscles – wrap around your midsection and serve 3 primary functions: 1. The protect your internal organs, 2. Provide postural support, and 3. Assist with breathing.
Part of that second function (postural support) is to protect your spine against any extreme flexion (rounding), hyperextension (arch), and rotation (twisting). Your spine does possess the ability to manage these ranges of motion to a certain degree, but can become injured when you over flex, extend, and rotate.
The second part of “having abs” is simply being able to see those abdominal muscles. When people say “I want abs” they’re typically not saying: “I would like better posture and to exhale more efficiently”. “Wanting abs” really means you just want to see them. Can you see someone’s “abs” and they also possess an incredibly weak core? You bet. Can someone have a very healthy spine and core without being able to see “abs”? 100%.
Assuming your goal in cranking out a hundred sit-ups is to see “abs”, let’s explore the 5 things you can do that are more effective than sit-ups and will give you a stronger, healthier core as well (win-win!).
The plank is the king of all “ab” workouts. Problem is, very few people actually do a plank properly. With the plank you get the double-benefit of improved spinal and postural support all while working those coveted beach muscles. Here’s a quick test to see if you’re doing your planks properly: when doing a plank, have a friend put a PVC pipe on your back running from your butt to your shoulders. There should be no air or space between your lower back and the PVC pipe. If there is, bend your knees slightly to progress to a better position.
2. Large, heavy, compound movements.
Squat, deadlift, press, pull. Super-simple but super-effective. When you do large compound movements like the back squat you’re forcing yourself to brace against weight using your “core”. This bracing engages your midsection through a big contraction of your abdominals. As far as seeing your “abs”, these large compound movements will build lean muscle tissue which ultimately will elevate your resting metabolism and burn fat throughout the day and while you sleep.
HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training involves training at high rates of intensity followed by interspersed rest periods. CrossFit, bootcamps, and sprint workouts are all good examples of HIIT. Remember how your “abs” help with breathing? HIIT will have you breathing hard during the working periods followed by rest. Your “core” muscles will need to be fully engaged to manage these big bursts of exhalation. An added bonus (when it comes to seeing those “abs”) is that HIIT is an incredibly effective fat loss program.
4. Sleep well
It’s during sleep that your body does the important work of repairing itself from the day’s work. During deep sleep your body releases growth hormone, a key ingredient in lean tissue production (i.e. building that “core”). It also releases leptin and ghrelin – hormones that regulate your appetite. Remember, your “core” is probably strong enough already if you do regular resistance training. If you want to be able to see those muscles, you’ll need to work toward body-fat reduction – something that cannot be achieved by more crunches.
5. Eat better, drink less.
The 5th and most important thing you can do to finally “get abs” is to drink less booze and eat more reasonably. Don’t get caught up with dumb diets or challenges. Fill ½ your plate with veggies and the other half with lean meats and healthy fats. Make sure 90% of what you eat each week was prepared from raw ingredients with your hands or someone else’s (a meal prep service). Eat little to no sugar. Guess what? Alcohol is sugar and it prevents you from utilizing your proteins and carbs as fuel. So cut it down or out.
5.1 Do it consistently.
Just as doing 100 crunches a day will never reveal your abs, sleeping and eating well for two or three weeks will also not reveal your abs. To shed tough-to-tackle belly fat, you must stick to these principles for the long haul. I’m talking months and months. I’ve seen people get super-motivated for 3 weeks only to go back to eating crap and drinking booze at the first sign of difficulty. There’s really no shortcut here. Enjoy the process.
Hopefully this can help you dispel some “ab” myths. If your goal is to see your abs by summer, focus on the things that will yield positive returns all around.