The washboard abs. The six-pack. The slim waist. Whatever you want to call it, you probably have wondered once in your life how to get a flat stomach.
When I interview my new clients, I almost always hear them cite their stomach as one of their biggest problem areas. Now, I would prefer that all my clients forget what they look like and focus on what their bodies can do. I believe that if you train for function -- getting stronger, moving better, feeling healthier -- then the changes within your body will start to show in your appearance. I think "looking good while naked" starts by "moving better and stronger while clothed." I also honestly believe that "having abs" is an arbitrary and silly aesthetic goal. MANY people are healthy and attractive even though they don't have visible abs. In fact, some people, especially women, would have to diet down to dangerously low body fat percentages to get to a range that would allow their abs to become visible through their skin.
Your body is unique. Where you tend to accumulate fat and what your body fat level may be at homeostasis is (mostly) up to your genes. Maybe you SHOULD have visible abs at the body fat range that is healthiest for you, and maybe you SHOULDN'T. That depends on a lot of things that are beyond your control.
Ultimately, I want you to be healthy and happy with your body no matter what it looks like. But people always ask me about how they can get abs, and that's what I'm going to tell you now.
You're limited in how much you can alter your genes (hello, epigenetics), but that doesn’t mean belly fat can’t be budged. If you want to get a flatter stomach, you have to first incorporate both strength training and cardio to your daily routine.
Lift Heavy Things
Abs are short for abdominals, a muscle group that keeps your internal organs in place and helps your spine stay in line during daily activities. Pretty much all your movement relies on your abs. So to say that you "want abs" is illogical because everyone has them! You just might not be able to see them.
To build your abs, you’ve got to strengthen them. You can start off by incorporating core exercises into your workout routine. Each session should include at least one movement that is anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, anti-rotation (rotary) training, or hip flexion with a neutral spine. Exercises like ab wheels, off-set farmer carries, Pallof press variations, and jackknifes are excellent ways to focus on your core muscles, making them bigger and stronger.
Lifting heavy weights through functional movements like squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups will also lead to fast development of a stronger core. Skip the weight machines and incorporate free weights whenever possible.
But no matter how big and strong your abs grow, you still won’t be able to see them if they’re covered in a layer of fat. This is where cardio comes in.
Include Cardiovascular Exercise
An effective strategy for losing that fat is through cardiovascular exercises. These exercises force the body to use up energy in calories. A few cardio exercises you can incorporate are burpees, rowing, cycling, and plain ol’ fashion running.
But I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “abs are made in the gym and revealed in the kitchen.” In other words, exercising is only half the battle.
Eat Nutrient Dense Foods at a Caloric Deficit
Five words: YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT. If you eat cookies and burgers all day, you’ll look and feel like you eat cookies and burgers all day. Being aware of the food choices you make is essential for losing belly fat and getting a flatter stomach.
Here are a few things to try to help you make smarter decisions with what you eat:
- Keep a food diary of everything you eat. I recommend using MyFitnessPal. Track your food but NOT your exercise, and calibrate the settings to accommodate for all the calories you want to consume on an average day (find this with IIFYM). Do this for as long as it takes you to understand how many macronutrients (calories of protein, carbs, and fat) are in the foods you usually consume. This will help you make healthy decisions.
- Skip out on the fast food every week (grab a cookbook and prepare your own meals). Try to eat the freshest, most nutrient-dense foods that you can find.
- Always read food labels! Food producers are sneaky about including a lot of hidden sugars and other nonsense in their products. Don't get caught off guard by what you're eating.
- DON'T BUY THINGS THAT YOU KNOW YOU SHOULDN'T EAT. When you go to the grocery store, don't even look at Oreos, Doritos, and other useless packaged junk. If you don't bring it into your house, you can't accidentally binge on it.
Accept Your Abs as They Are
Unless you're a professional model, no one that you care about is going to judge you negatively because they can't see a your rectus abdominis poking through your skin -- and if they do, they suck. Like, really, really suck.
If you are one of those lucky individuals who can healthfully have visible abs, hooray for you! If you got it, flaunt it! But if you aren't, remember that most people can be fit, healthy, and happy without visible abs. Work to get to a body fat percentage that is healthy for your age and gender and try to be as strong and functional as possible. I promise that if you do that, you will be VERY happy with your abs.