Forget for a moment that the shape of your midsection largely determines how good you’ll look on the beach this summer – and how well you’ll play volleyball. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
The pursuit of abs goes deeper. You strive for a six-pack as if your life depended on it, and now science proves that it does. At ameeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, research was presented declaring that waist circumference is more conclusive than either weight or body-mass index (BMI) as a measure of disease risk.
Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston, M.D., author of The South Beach Diet, puts it this way: “Abdominal fat is different and more dangerous than fat elsewhere. Unlike fat directly under the skin, belly fat, which adheres to organs, is associated with increases in C-reactive protein (CRP) and other markers of inflammation that can lead to heart disease.”
Motivated yet? Good. We trust you’ll lay off the fries and onion rings. Remember, if your body fat is too high, it doesn’t matter how wisely you work your abs-they won’t show. (For most men, anything over 10 percent body fat keeps your abs in hiding.)
For the next month, work your abs according to the following steps and try this eating tip from Nancy Clark, R.D., author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook: “I make two peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches every day; I eat one for lunch at 11 and one for my second lunch at 3,” Clark says. Notice that the 3 o’clock feeding is a “second lunch,” not an “afternoon snack.” Too many men equate snack time with, well, snacks—junk food. You’ll eat smarter (whole grains and muscle-building protein) and not need as big a dinner if you allow for a second lunch. Plus, you’ll have more energy for a better workout in the afternoon or evening.
This, in turn, will keep your insulin levels steady. When insulin is in excess (from too much sugar and not enough exercise), it can turn on you, depositing fat into your gut. Or worse. “When the pancreas burns out after years of producing excess insulin, that’s when buildup begins in arteries; that can cause heart attacks and strokes,” Dr. Agatston says.
But enough scary stuff. Time to hit the gym—and then the beach.
1. Train your abs with two types of exercise
Some abdominal exercises are based on movement. Others focus more on balance, so your abs contract harder to keep your body stable. “Most men have difficulty with either stabilization or mobilization,” says Carter Hays, C.S.C.S., a Houston-based personal trainer and a performance-enhancement specialist for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Include both types of moves in a workout to challenge your abs.
For instance, try performing a Swiss-ball rollout (mobilization), followed by a Swiss-ball crunch (stabilization). To do the rollout, kneel in front of the ball with your forearms pressed against it. Keeping your knees and feet in place, roll the ball in front of you so your hips, torso, and arms slide forward. Advance as far as you can without arching your back, then pull back to the starting position.
2. Get more from your cardio
Strip away abdominal fat by switching around your cardio routine so you run hard early. In a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, eight men ran for 30 minutes on 2 separate days. In the first session, the men ran at a relatively high intensity-80 percent of their maximum heart rate-for 15 minutes, then slowed to 60 percent for the final 15 minutes. In the other session, they ran the slower part first. The men burned 5 to 10 percent more fat when they ran faster at the start of the workout. “And this is only a 30-minute workout,” says Jie Kang, Ph.D., the study’s lead author. “If you extrapolate that to a longer workout three to five times a week, things can add up.”
Here’s why it works: To burn fat, your body first breaks down fat tissue into fat molecules. “Our study found that this works better when you exercise at a relatively high intensity,” says Kang. Next, molecules go to your cells to be burned, which Kang says can occur at relatively lower intensities.
The best part: You’ll feel as if you’re burning fat easier than ever. Kang measured the participants’ perceived exertion-how hard they felt they were working. Turns out the body feels fatigued late in a workout, regardless of what you do.
3. Stay hydrated
This one’s almost too easy, but drinking plenty of water not only helps you burn fat, but also builds more muscle. “All creatine does is force fluid into the muscle,” says Hays. “Your body will do that itself if there’s enough water available.”
4. Skip the bonus abs routine
Edging closer to sharp abs can tempt you to work them every day. Don’t. Training more can actually make your abs show less. “You don’t need to overwork your abs-they’re no different from any other muscle,” says Hays. “If you’re always in a state of overtraining, you’re going to get more laxity in your muscles.” In other words, they’ll appear soft. Instead, add resistance to make moves you already do more challenging. For instance, hold a light weight plate during a Russian twist or Swiss-ball crunch. Then give your muscles time to rest.
5. Do more total-body exercise
Isolation moves like crunches are great for developing your muscles, but they don’t burn much fat. You’re better off training multiple muscle groups at once, says Hays. Total-body exercise burns more calories and also causes a greater release of muscle-building hormones.
Try combination moves, like the reverse lunge to cable chest fly. Stand between a cable station’s weight stacks and grab a pulley handle with each hand. Hold your arms straight in front of you. Then step back with one leg, bend your knees, and let your arms move out to the sides. Pause when your back knee is just off the floor and your upper body looks like a T, then push yourself back up while you pull your arms together. Repeat the move with your other leg in the back position.
6. Get off the floor
Define the lower portion of the rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscle) with a Swiss-ball reverse crunch, but instead of doing the move on the floor, hop on a bench. “It allows for a greater range of motion,” says Gregory Joujon-Roche, C.P.T., president of Holistic Fitness, in Los Angeles.
Lie faceup on the edge of a bench with a Swiss ball pinched between your heels and hamstrings. Keeping your abs drawn in, roll your pelvis off the bench and, maintaining the same knee angle, bring your knees toward your chest. Slowly lower the ball. As soon as your back begins to arch on the way down, that’s the end of your range of motion. Pause at this point for a few seconds before finishing your set. Try five sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
7. Go deep
Abdominal muscles are multilayered, but most men focus only on the outermost layer with exercises like the crunch. So look for moves that work the abdominal muscles closest to the spine, such asthe plank. Strengthening these tiny stabilizers will provide a solid foundation to allow your six-pack muscles to grow stronger and bigger.
By Scott Quill, Men’s Health