A perfect midsection is one of the most sought after goals in the fitness world. It is also one of the hardest because of both the diet and exercise sacrifices needed to get there. While difficult, getting a six pack is not impossible. It simply takes time, dedication and the right steps.
Abs are Hard to Get
Getting a perfectly defined midsection is a lot harder than getting equally defined arms or shoulders because the body generally loves to store fat in the midsection. While you can have descent definition in your chest and shoulders with a 15% body fat percentage, definition in your abs will generally not show until you get under 10% body fat. That takes a lot of work in both your diet and exercise habits.
The 101 of Getting Abs
Your abdominal muscles are the same as any other muscle group in the body. You workout which causes small amounts of damage to the muscle tissue. The damage is treated by the body as an injury and when repaired, is slightly bigger and stronger than it used to be. The only difference is that for most people, the midsection is prime real estate for fat storage. Areas that are not used mainly for fat storage are a lot easier to get defined because there isn't that extra step of burning the fat.
In addition to building the muscle, getting a toned six pack requires you to burn the fat that gets stored in that area of the body. If you have a high body fat percentage with a perfect set of abs, that six pack will most likely be covered by a layer of fat. The best way to burn fat is by creating a calorie deficit.
A calorie deficit is a state in which you burn more calories than you eat. For example, if your body burns 2,500 calories per day and you only eat 2,000 calories, you have create a 500 calorie deficit per day. Since your body is burning 500 more calories than you eat, it needs to find that energy from non-food sources. The biggest non-food source your body has is stored fat.
Overtime, a calorie deficit forces your body to burn up fat for energy causing weight loss, a reduction in body fat percentage and most importantly, an increase in muscle definition.
Forcing your body to start using fat stores for energy is the first step in the road to getting a six pack. The only sure way of knowing if you are indeed creating a calorie deficit is by knowing how many calories you burn and eat.
To figure out how many calories your body burns each day, use the calorie calculator. Subtract 500-750 calories off of the calorie calculator estimate to get to the number of calories you need to eat each day to create a calorie deficit. If you want to avoid cutting that many calories, consider exercising more. You can create a calorie deficit by either eating less, exercising more or combining both. Play with the exercise level on the calorie calculator to see how many calories you could be burning with increased exercise. Tools such as MyFitnessPal and EatThisMuch make counting calories and planning meals very simple to do.
Food to Eat and Avoid
In addition to the amount of calories you eat, the types of food that make up your diet can help or hurt your six pack goals. Foods that are digested quickly promote fat storage because your body is inundated with a large amount of energy in a very short period of time. Your body will burn what it can but store the rest as fat for later use. Foods that are digested slowly give your body a much more controlled release of energy which helps it to use it in a more efficient manner. This typically means less fat storage.
Avoid foods that contain a lot of sugar (soda, cookies, fruit juice, sweet tea, energy drinks and sweets) and refined carbohydrates (white flour - bread/pasta, white rice). Instead, eat 100% whole wheat grains (whole wheat bread/pasta, brown rice, beans, old fashioned oatmeal and vegetables), lean proteins (chicken and seafood) and unsaturated fats (canola/olive oils, avacados, nuts and seeds).
Exercise plays a very important role in how defined your midsection appears. There are plenty types of exercise that can help you get a defined midsection and a lot of misconceptions surrounding each.
Cardiovascular exercise is any type of workout that elevates your heart rate for an extended period of time. Cardio is good for burning large amounts of energy which helps increase the size of your calorie deficit. The size of your calorie deficit will largely determine how quickly your body burns off excess fat. A bigger calorie deficit that is created by exercising more will lead to quicker results. Your workout routine should include 3-5 sessions of cardio per week lasting 30-60 minutes. Good examples of cardio include running, biking, swimming, stair climbing, playing most sports and circuit training such as Crossfit.
Strength training (or resistance training) is a type of workout that causes strength and size gains. Strength training can be done by lifting weights, using resistance bands or by simply doing body weight exercises such as push ups, pull ups or sit ups. Those who want a six pack usually engage in strength training that specifically targets the abdominal muscles while ignoring every other form of exercise. If you ever see an obese gym goer spend 30-60 minutes doing sit ups or crunches, know that they are not helping themselves.
Targeting a certain area of the body with exercise (for example sit ups to get abs) will work only if your body fat percentage is low. Doing sit ups will make your abs bigger and better looking. If your body fat percentage is high, targeting an area of your body like this will do nothing to solve your number one problem: too much body fat. Spot reducing doesn't work. Targeting excessive body fat with specific exercises is called spot reducing and it doesn't work. Targeting your abs with specific exercises is important, but not at the cost of other types of exercise that will burn more body fat.
The solution to excess body fat is creating calorie deficit by eating less and exercising more. Cardio is the best way to burn calories. Sit ups do not burn very many calories and devoting too much of your gym time to them will not create a large enough calorie deficit to burn a meaningful amount of body fat.
You should engage in strength training 2-4 times per week and target each of your major muscle groups with compound exercises. A compound exercise is one that targets more than one muscle group at a time which is different than an isolation exercise which targets only one. Good examples of compound exercises include: squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, push ups and pull ups. Examples of isolation exercises include: bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions and leg curls.
Strength training is important because it builds muscle. Muscle is important for burning fat because it burns calories even at rest. A 200 pound man with 10% body fat will burn more calories throughout the day (even at rest) than a 200 pound man that is 25% body fat because the 10% body fat individual has more muscle. Building muscle will make it easier for you to create a larger calorie deficit.
The Bottom Line
Getting and maintaining a six pack requires proper diet AND exercise. The first step is figuring out how many calories your body needs each day. Next, create a calorie deficit by eating less and exercising more. Different types of exercise are needed if you want to get a six pack including cardio to burn calories and strength training to build muscle. Targeting your abs with exercises such as sit ups and crunches is important, but if you have a high body fat percentage, you need to devote most of your time to cardio and compound exercises. Changing the way your body looks takes time. Patience and hard work will lead to success.