Abs…easily one of the most obsessed about body parts.  But what exactly are abs?  The name seems to be thrown around without even a general understanding of what they consist.  Believe it or not abs, or more exactly, abdominal muscles, consist of more than just that six pack (or rather 8 pack) that you see on the likes of NFL star Adrian Peterson, entertainer Mario Lopez, and U.S Women’s soccer star Hope Solo.  The abdominal muscles include the external obliques (closest to the surface); rectus abdominus; internal oblique; and transverses abdominus (farthest from the surface).

OK, I know that may sound like a lot of gibberish, but I am trying to illustrate a point – the abs are more than just those 6-8 bumps you see on Calvin Klein underwear models.  Abs make up an entire girdle around your midsection.  This means, just doing crunches everyday ain’t gonna give you that flat tummy you’ve been working towards.

So how DO you get a tight, flat stomach?  Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as popping a magic pill, or strapping on a vibrating belly belt; fortunately, there is a combination of very doable things you can do to get a flatter, more toned tummy:

First, stop doing 5000 crunches everyday, and start doing exercises that will strengthen all the abdominal muscles previously mentioned.  Doing 5000 crunches a day is merely increasing your endurance to do more crunches, it isn’t necessarily strengthening or toning your abdominal muscles.  You can get a great midsection doing ab exercises just three or four times a week.  You want to focus on quality over quantity.  And when it comes to abs, a quality exercise that you can perform a few times a week to really strengthen all the abdominal muscles from the superficial to the deep is….drum roll please…the plank!

The plank

I used to hate doing planks, but after seeing and feeling what it has done for my mid section, you can’t keep me from doing them now!  Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but now that I’m stronger, planks are much more pleasant and, dare I say, slightly enjoyable.  If you’ve attempted a plank before but were not able to hold it for an extended period of time, don’t give up on it, try modifying it.  Try starting out on your knees and elbows rather than your toes and elbows.  Keep your hips down so that your torso is in a straight line from the crown of your head to your knees.  Try holding it for 10 seconds (or whatever duration you can handle), and then work your way up over the next few days, weeks, months, etc.  If doing the plank on your knees is too easy, but a plank on your toes is still too difficult, try placing your feet farther apart.  Remember, everyone is different, so go at your own pace and do what you can do.

Modified plank

Second, you must exercise your entire body!    Spot training, the theory that you can lose fat in just one area, does not work.  You must incorporate total body strength training (using weights, resistance bands, or even your own body weight) and cardio throughout the week.  I’m not talking about ‘walking on a treadmill while texting your friends and reading the latest tabloid, while occasionally glancing up at your favorite reality show on TV’ cardio.  I’m talking about ‘increased-heart rate’ cardio.  This doesn’t mean you need to run 10 miles a day, but you do need to do something that will, as I stated before, increase your heart rate and make you breathe heavily.  You must tax your respiratory system.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise for 5-7 days per week and 3-5 days per week of strength training (ACSM’s strength training guidelines are listed at the end of this blog post*).  What counts as cardio?  Check out a step, spin, dance, or kickboxing class at your local gym; do jumping jacks, run in place, jump rope, or follow a fitness video at home; go Florida style and grab a pair of 2 lb hand weights and go for a power walk, or, if you’re in Atlanta, come to Dance 101 and try my Dance Fitness or Cardio Jazz classes or even my Body Shock class if you want to get in your cardio and resistance training!  (A little self promotion never hurt anyone.)

Third, you MUST, MUST, MUST eat a balanced diet!  You can plank until the cows come home, but a six pack with a layer of fat over it does not look like a six pack.  And that layer of fat is not going away unless you combine the previously mentioned points with a balanced, well-timed diet.  Well-balanced, meaning lots of veggies and fruits, complex carbohydrates (e.g. oatmeal, quinoa, farro, whole grains, brown rice, etc), lean meats, legumes (beans, they have a ton of fiber), and low fat dairy products.  Well-timed, meaning eating small meals every 2 1/2 – 3 hours throughout the day (and a small extra value meal does not count as a small meal).  Here’s a sample of a one day balanced diet (calorie needs will vary based on gender, age, weight, activity level, etc):

Breakfast: 1 cup shredded wheat (Publix brand is great, no additives), 1 cup skim milk, 1 banana sliced, coffee if you need it! (try to use skim milk and go easy on the sweeteners)

Snack 1 (about 3 hours after b-fast): 1 pear, 1/4 cup unsalted almonds

Lunch: Turkey sandwich (whole wheat bread or pita, 3 oz low sodium Boar’s Head turkey, 1 oz fat free cheese, tomato slices, onion slices, lettuce, mustard), 1 Orange

Snack 2: 1 sliced bell pepper, 1/2 cup hummus

Dinner: Grilled, baked, or broiled chicken breast, 1/2 cup brown rice, Spinach salad (1 cup fresh spinach leaves, 1/4 cup chopped onions, 1/4 cup sliced mushrooms, 1/4 cup cucumber slices, 1 Tbsp fresh grated parmesan cheese, 1 Tbsp lemon juice or a fat free vinaigrette dressing)

Snack 3: 1 cup Greek yogurt

My final thoughts on obtaining a flat stomach:

Do not obsess over your diet or exercise regimen, you will have cravings and those should be honored; honor them with small portions rather than a binge.

Be patient, washboard abs are not going to happen over night, it takes time and work.

Don’t lie to yourself, when it comes to both working out and eating.  Walking into a gym does not mean you worked out, you must put time in to achieving your dream body.   Recognize the amount and type of food that you are eating; it’s Girl Scout cookie season, eating a whole box of Thin Mints but convincing yourself they’re small cookies, so 4 of them count as one cookie, is going to set you back.  Acknowledge what you have really eaten and give your second box of those evil (but fantastically, delicious) cookies to a friend.

Work with what you have.  Accept that the toned tummy lurking in your future may not necessarily be what you imagined, and know that awesome abs come in all different shapes.  Ciara, Shakira, Gwen Stefani, Madonna, and Jada Pinkett-Smith all have rockin abs, but in different packages.  Aren’t you excited to see what kind of strong abdominal muscles you’re hiding?!

*ACSM’s Strength Training Guidelines:

  • 8 to 10 exercises for the major muscles
  • 1 set of each exercise
  • 8 to 12 repetitions per set of exercise
  • 2 or 3 nonconsecutive training days per week
  • Full-range movements (pain free)
  • Moderate speed movements (appx. 6 sec/ rep)

  1. #1 by Amrita on January 22, 2012 - 11:50 pm

    So, I really enjoy doing the plank (the full plank with knees up) ever since taking your classes… but my back always hurts in the process of doing them. Is that normal? My back doesn’t hurt the next day or even about 30 seconds after I finish but it definitely aches while doing them… I always wonder if I should stop but then I pull through anyway, just wanted to check if it’s something I need to worry about! Thanks fitness guru!

    • #2 by fitdesiree on January 23, 2012 - 6:21 pm

      Hi Amrita! I can’t say for sure why your back is sore, I will need to see you do a plank the next time you come to class. My theory, for now, is that your lower abs are not very strong yet so your back is overcompensating for that weakness. I would try doing the modified plank and focus on tightening your lower abs by tucking your pelvis slightly to engage them, and see how that feels. You definitely don’t want to push through any pain! Discomfort is okay, but pain is not. Let me know how the modified plank goes:)

  2. #3 by Manu on January 23, 2012 - 9:14 pm

    Great post, Des. Luckily I already have a six pack so I don’t need any of this. Ha Ha Ha. 🙂

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