What is it with abs?
They’re undeniably one of the most desired features among people that take their body composition seriously. Having a lean and sleek midsection has always been considered sexy and desirable, but this hyper-focus on walking around with a body part that you can grate cheese on is a development of the last decade or so.
A lot of it is probably just the relative rarity and difficulty of having “showy” abs. Getting a six-pack is one of the most uphill battles in the fitness world. You’re battling a natural biological tendency to shift stored fat to the midsection, and you’re also battling best practice for increasing overall muscle volume and tone!
So will ab workouts get us there, or are there better things we can be focusing on?
The “Spot Reduction” Hustle
If something is desirable and difficult, it’s a sure bet hucksters will swarm to it offering bogus shortcuts. The idea of “spot reduction”, or taking certain supplements and doing certain exercises to specifically “burn belly fat”, is one of them.
Let’s make this clear right up front – there’s no such thing as spot reduction. There’s no legitimate science backing the idea.
The best evidence for it so far is a lone study in which area-specific exercises (leg extensions) showed an increase in lipolysis in that particular area when they were done for at least 30 minutes. Here’s the problem — the increase was so tiny as to be insignificant, especially considering the amount and duration of work performed!
The Muscle Problem
Doing ab exercises to get six-pack abs can actually be counterproductive if you’ve got a bunch of stored fat down there.
The ab exercises will strengthen your abs and your core, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. But it will also add volume to the muscles. If the layer of fat over them hasn’t gone anywhere, however, it just gets pushed out more prominently!
So How Do I Get Abs?
By reducing total body fat and performing whole-body, compound movements. It’s that simple.
The trick to showboat abs is a combination of eating a clean diet in which you run a caloric deficit along with a major emphasis on ab-strengthening exercises.
Here we run into another problem, though — genetics. Genetics play a huge role in how likely your abs are to “show.”
Overall, human beings have a predisposition to stash fat in the abdominal area, because it helps protect all the vital organs in the region. But some have it more than others, and it gets worse for most people as they get into their 30s and beyond.
They only way to get rid of this fat is to burn ALL body fat in total, which in the end is all about running a caloric deficit. You can do that simply by restricting your food, but exercise adds to the running caloric need total, especially cardiovascular work.
The “Fat vs Muscle” Conundrum
People looking to shed significant amounts of weight too often think that they should forget about building muscle until they get thin. Maintaining muscle bulk means increased caloric intake, which is the enemy of burning stored fat. To burn fat, you ideally want to have a caloric deficit every day, which means muscle is likely to get strip-mined by the metabolism.
To a certain extent, that’s true. You can’t go straight from being severely obese to being Mr. Olympia just by lifting weights. It’s just not completely true, however. Resistance training is a very good thing — possibly the best thing — for those who are dieting, and muscles can be further supported by a high-protein diet.
You won’t be Captain Stacked And Jacked if your primary goal is losing weight, but you can definitely be strong and maintain noticeable muscle tone while also shedding pounds.
Time To Evaluate
Is the grueling battle for abs really worth it from where you’re at right now?
If you’re naturally lean and you don’t tend to put on belly fat, it probably won’t hurt anything to work in a strong ab routine and go for those “celebrity abs.”
If your priorities are in other places — like overall health, losing overall body weight, or putting on full-body muscle bulk — you’re probably going to find that doing obsessive amount of ab work isn’t worth your time, at least until you fulfill your other fitness goals and complete the rest of your workout. If you have 90 minutes to train, then go ahead and put them at the end. But if you’re pressed for time, they’re not top priority.
Abs are a supplementary exercise
There’s nothing wrong with getting some ab workouts in and strengthening your core, and it won’t hurt your fat-loss program as long as you don’t overdo it. But they should definitely be a supplementary exercise, added in after you’ve taken care of your primary resistance training, your HIIT cardio, and any supplemental LISS cardio sessions you want to add.
Ultimately, abs are made in the kitchen.
Focus on getting your diet on point, hitting your macros, counting calories and weighing food, and sticking to your exercise regimen. You might just see some abs popping out before you even expect it!
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