Q. I want abs. I know it's not just about doing a million crunches, but what's the best way to lose belly fat and get them?
A. I can't imagine there's a personal trainer out there who hasn't heard this question. It is the driving force behind the billion-dollar fitness industry -- from TV shows such as The Biggest Loser to ridiculous shock-wave ab machines and pills that will do the work for you. As we all know, the answer is not so easy and the shredded fitness models hawking these products all have a few things in common: freakishly good genes, a monotonous yet rock-solid diet, and potentially hours and hours a day of dedicated gym time. Back in August 2013, we did an article on functional core principles, which should never be forgotten, but here is a bit more insight into how an abdomen becomes abdominals.
The unfortunate, unmodifiable factor for many people. Fat (adipose tissue) can be stored anywhere when you gain weight, with the most common sites being the abdomen and thighs. But everyone's body does it differently. Consequently, it can be used as an energy source from anywhere in your body while losing weight. Since we cannot choose where we add or reduce fat stores, 'spot-training' fat is a myth. It's science. It sucks. Deal with it. Another cruel scientific fact is that once the body creates a fat cell -- it's there for good. It can shrink, but you're stuck with it.
The second genetic factor is the shape and size of your abdominal muscles and how they respond to training. The fabled '6-pack' is possible because of these interesting things called aponeuroses, which are thin, flat pieces of connective tissue that in this case divide our rectus abdominus into sections. Some people have more sections while some have fewer and they are more distinct in certain individuals -- regardless of centrally located body fat.
To have these abdominal muscles visible, your total body-fat percentage and more specifically, your centrally located body fat must be reduced (we will talk about how in the exercise section). Specific numbers are up for debate and vary from person to person, but easy numbers are about 10 per cent body fat in males and 12 to 15 per cent in females.
I've quoted it before, but I'll say it again: "You get abs in the kitchen, not in the gym." Coupled with less-than-optimum genetics, most of us lack the nutritional dedication required to obtain a chiseled midsection. If it's your ultimate goal, it's essential to maintain a small negative caloric balance for a prolonged period and eat a lean, balanced diet. Without going into too much detail, a negative caloric balance means in a day, you're burning more calories than you ingest; it's simple math. As for the quality of what you eat -- preparation is paramount. Your meals may not be fancy, and you'll need to nix the beloved 'cheat-day,' but consistent, quality eating is the best road to reduced abdominal weight (among many other health benefits).
Don't be fooled by 'fat-free' labels that are often euphemisms for 'full of sugar and other junk.' What many people fail to realize is sugar and carbohydrates can easily be turned into fat stores by the body, so look for quality ingredients -- found in this crazy publication called Canada's Food Guide. I know, weird place to look for advice, right?
This needs to be broken into two sections, exercise intended to reduce adipose tissue, and exercise to strengthen your abdominal muscles. To shrink fat stores, you need to use fat as an energy source, which can be done by doing longer-duration cardio and also high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This can take many different forms and we have discussed HIIT training before. To strengthen your abdominals so there is something to show through, you've got to perform plenty of safe, multidirectional exercises -- and we will go into detail next week.
Until then, find a Canada's Food Guide and get on top of that eating thing. While vanity may not be my favourite training goal, it is a powerful motivator. It will be a long, arduous journey but, in the short term, that trip to Hawaii on spring break may be that much more satisfying.
We appreciate your questions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and you may be featured in a future article. Tim Shantz is a certified athletic therapist and trainer.