How many times have you heard that getting a flat, sexy tummy is based mainly on what you eat? But on the flip side, how many times have you seen fitness infomercials touting the latest and greatest 6-pack routine to "disintegrate" belly fat in minutes? Which one is it? Are flat abs made in the kitchen or at the gym?
Back in August, Healthy Living readers left a lot of comments focusing on this exact topic when "Beginners Guide To A Beach Body, Part 3," was posted. Viewers pointed out that to get "those abs" you needed to eat "right." That's true. But eating a healthy diet won't work on its own. You can certainly lose weight, but without strong musculature, you'll never have a sculpted midsection. And doing crunches for an entire hour at the gym but capping off your night with a decaf mocha latte and take out stir-fry won't work either. You'll end up sweating a ton, but never get to see the results of your work!
The truth is, getting a toned, sculpted tummy requires both healthy eating and exercise, consistently, and in a specific way. Here I lay out some guiding principals when it comes to food and fitness for a flat tummy. These generalized exercise tips and healthy eating tips are a good start for most people, and will help you get on your way to being "bikini ready" -- year round! Remember, however, that every individual is unique. We all have a different set of daily life stresses, activity levels, time and rates of metabolism. So what might work very well for you, may not work as well for someone else. It's all about finding your balance. Here we go!
Tip #1: Stop Working Just the Rectus Abdominus
For flatter abs, just "exercising" without being specific in what you're doing, won't work. This is what happens to most people who only do crunches, and focus exclusively on one muscle, for example, the rectus abdominus (aka, the "6-pack muscle"), while neglecting the other three that make up your midsection and have a say in the "look" of your abs. The internal and external obliques help with side bending and rotation of the spine, and the transverse adbominus ("TVA") is the deep muscle, which shares fibers with the diaphragm and wraps horizontally around your body. Ab muscles work symbiotically, so you have to pay equal attention to all four of them and share the love, or you won't get love back! I call this "functional ab fitness."
Tip #2: Keep Your Abs Guessing and Make Them Tired
Muscles are amazing creatures in that they react and adapt in very smart and complex ways. In order to challenge your abdominal muscles to a point where they are continually exhausted and stimulated and thus, can make changes to your body tone, you need to do more than just 25 sit-ups five times a week. Your ab exercises need to change from week to week. Develop a tool chest of 10 or more exercises you like, and continually switch them up. You can also expand your repertoire by using external weights to modify exercises you are already doing. For example, you can attach weights at your ankles or squeeze a weighted ball between your legs when performing reverse crunches. Get creative! The smarter you are with your abdominal muscles, the more results you will see!
Tip #3: Use Your Exhale
Using your breathing to engage your ab muscles, particularly the TVA, may be the single most effective tip I can give you. Pilates exercises do this very effectively. When you exhale, imagine squeezing your belly button to your spine, making the space between the two smaller. Each time you mindfully pull in this way, you activate your ab muscles in a more comprehensive way.
Tip #4: Don't Forget Cardio!
We cannot forget cardio when talking about flat abs! Doing the above alone, won't help if there's still fat covering muscle. This is also why you hear you hear people saying you can't "spot reduce" at the midsection. Cardio allows you to get rid of the junk that's hiding the masterpiece you're creating in your midsection. So several times a week is mandatory.
Here are some moves you can try today to take your ab routine to the next level and practice the tips I've talked about above.
Reverse Crunch With Weights: Here I used a 5-lb ankle weight on both legs, giving me 10-lb of external weight to lift during this reverse crunch. Keep your arms at your sides, but lift only from your abdominals. Squeeze for 1 to 2 seconds at the tops before releasing.
Single Leg Stretch: Start by lying on your back, knees bent, shins parallel to floor. Lift your head and shoulder blades off the ground, and on the exhale, bring one knee into your chest, stretching the opposite leg out at 45 degrees. On the inhale begin to switch. On the next exhale, repeat with opposing knee. Keep your body in this scooped position throughout.
Rotations With Weighted Ball: For this exercise, make sure your legs are kept a few inches off the ground throughout, and your upper body remains at near 45 degrees from the floor. I used a weighted 10-lb ball. With each rotation, extend as far to the side as you can.
HEALTHY EATING TIPS
At the foundation of your eating lifestyle, must be the concept of eating "clean" -- consuming mainly whole, minimally processed, fresh and natural foods, and getting most of your calories and nourishment from foods, not beverages! While these tips below will help you in your quest for a lean midsection, they're certainly not comprehensive, but meant to enhance your current foundation or help you build a new one!
Tip #1: Make Your Dessert Count
Instead of munching on "low-fat" cookies and never getting satisfied, stop the madness by purchasing the highest quality dessert, made with the purist ingredients you can find, and take a small bite or two. One rich chocolate truffle made with the best cacao and minimally processed sugar cane, is a better bite of pleasure than a handful of "low sugar" cookies out of a box.
Tip #2: Stop Making Breakfast a "Sugarfest"
When it comes to breakfast, use your right brain! Breakfast is not a one size fits all meal that's always composed of coffee, a bagel with cream cheese, and orange juice. Don't let Dunkin Donuts define breakfast for you, and leave you will a boatload of refined carbohydrates! Do it like the Japanese and always throw some protein into your morning meal, weather its beans, fish, miso soup or a small amount of pasture raised, sustainable meats. You're not being "weird" -- you're being smart!
Tip #3: Go Gluten-Free as Much as You Can
Although the term "gluten-free" has become a buzzword in the world of healthy living as of late, it's for a pretty good reason. Gluten, particularly in the form of refined wheat, is EVERYWHERE! Try going wheat-free a few days a week or longer and notice how many foods you can't eat! Try quinoa, brown rice or my all-time favorite, American wild rice, instead!
Tip #4: Stop Eating at 80 Percent Full
Take a note from the playbook of the Okinawan population, which boasts one of the highest percentages of centenarians on earth, and who make practicing "Hara Hachi Bu," which means eat until you are 80 percent full, a daily practice. Be mindful with each bite, respect your food and make it a point to check in with your tummy. Eating this way is much more satisfying and energy-boosting than feeling like you need to take a nap after your lunch break. You'll be so much more productive, more vital and happier!
Tip #5: Just Say "No" to Liquid Calories
You want to make sure you're not drinking unhealthy calories instead of eating healthy ones! These days, drinks are chalk full of sugars and artificial junk. Drink water instead, and find your favorite, natural ways of making it tasty!