Shredded Abs: Myths and Realities

Shredded Abs

Me performing a Triangle crunch.
Me performing a Triangle crunch.

The Mystery of Shredded Abs

Getting a toned mid section is one of the most elusive goals for exercisers. Just about everybody wants it, but most exercise enthusiasts never achieve it. Why? People I talk to make the assumption that it mainly has to do with genetics...or hormones...or just being lucky. There are also many myths and half truths that mislead people about what it really takes to get a good looking mid section. The next section of this article will examine the many myths out there. Later on I will talk about what does work, and by the end of this article you will have a good idea what it takes to get the coveted shredded abs.

Myths and Half Truths

Here are some of the myths that seem to never go away.

  • I must do 300 crunches a day...or 400...or 500...The truth is that doing a large number of crunches or sit ups will not get you a ripped set of abs. If you are doing high volume like that, you are using the endurance type slow twitch fibers. Not the high force fast twitch fibers. The slow twitch fibers do not change much in appearance, no matter how long you work them. The fast twitch fibers do, and yes, you want to train the fast twitch fibers in your mid section if you want to see tone and definition there. It is also better for lumbar support if you develop the fast twitch fibers for your core. How to do it? Add resistance to your sets, do a fuller range of motion and slow down your movement speed and to make your abs work harder. You should fatigue your muscles within 1 to 2 minutes.
  • I must starve myself. Not true. You do need to take in less calories than you burn on a daily basis, but if you starve yourself, you will fall of the wagon to easily and eventually overeat. It is better to take a more realistic approach to your nutrition. I will discuss that below.
  • I must do a lot of aerobic training to get lean. This is not true. My wife and I rarely do any aerobic work, yet we maintain very lean body fat levels. We focus primarily on strength training. Why not aerobic work? In large part because the body attenuates to it, meaning you have to keep adding more volume to see the same amount of calorie burn. The other problem with aerobic training is that it makes it easier for one to overtrain, whereby the body starts breaking down. Thus, it is harder to get well defined abs. Does this mean I think you shouldn't do aerobic work? Not at all. I have many clients that like to do aerobic work, and they can. It just needs to be moderately done (2 to 3 times a week for 20 to 30 minutes on average).
  • I need to do a special diet. Fad diets come and go, but it always boils down to eating nutrient dense foods, having regular meals throughout the day, and taking in less calories a day than you burn off. In other words, simply eating well.
  • Tummy tucks or liposuction helps get shredded abs. I do not recommend this. For one thing, you still need to exercise and eat right to keep it off, meaning you still need to change your behavior for the long haul. Besides, I have seen two major issues from this route: a) when the fat comes back (and it will if you do not change your ways), it gets stored in different areas of the body. This creates a funny look to the body. Secondly, when someone loses weight that fast, the skin is not able to "shrink" back to the smaller size of the body. The skin is loose and does not look good. Bottom line is that you should just focus on proper exercise and diet from the get go.
  • Diet pills help to get ripped abs. They do help...a little bit. All the over the counter fat loss pills are some form of stimulant. Caffeine is the most popular. The problem with diet pills is the same problem as aerobic training: the body attenuates to it. So to see continued fat loss, you need to keep upping the dosage. Next thing you know, you are wired all day and can't sleep...and you still will not reach your goal.
  • I can spot reduce from doing certain exercises. This is not true. It is also this myth that leads to poor exercise choices. As the example above relating to doing tons of crunches alludes to, many people think that by working the abs for a long period of time they will burn more fat specifically from that area. Doing a lot of crunches does not burn very many calories, and certainly not from the mid section. One would burn more calories working the large muscles harder, such as the legs or back muscles. Here is what you need to know about the order of fat loss: when you start accumulating fat, the first place it gets stored is around the mid section for men and the hips for women. As you store more fat, it accumulates more around the outer extremities such as the upper back, legs, the face and arms. When you lose fat, it happens the other way. You will lose fat in your arms, face, and legs first before you start losing it to a noticeable degree from your mid section. You cannot change this order. It is programmed in our bodies. Here is, however, why having a well defined mid section is so coveted. You cannot get it quickly or with magical potions. You have to work hard and be disciplined for a long time to see it. How long? If your body fat is around 25% or higher, figure a good two years of steady work to get there. Well defined abs take time...and commitment.
  • Cleanses help with fat loss. This one puzzles me. Why do people believe it? I know ex-personal trainers that will do a "cleanse" when they try to lose fat, believing that the reason why he/she cannot lose fat is because the body is "toxic" and needs to be flushed out. People do lose weight when they do these cleanses, but not because the cleanse is getting rid of toxins. It is because for a given period of time (10 days seems to be the average), the "patient" is required to only drink a certain shake or eat a certain type of food or soup for this period of time. Well, guess what? It is a very low calorie diet. More often then not, the person is eating around 500 calories a day. Of course you will lose weight, but most of it is water weight and muscle. You will lose some fat, but not much. The following is an example of a "cleanse":

The program involves fasting on a drink of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for up to 10 days. It is very effective for weight loss. Celebrities like Beyonce Knowles and Robin Quivers have recently lost a lot of weight using the Master Cleanse and made it even more popular. However, the program is also quite challenging to complete. The original instructions and recipe calls for complete abstinence from food. Many people find this very difficult and quit the program after just a day or two.

This quote is from thecleansediet.

I ask you, what is so "cleansing" about that?

  • Yoga helps with getting ripped abs. Yoga does help a little bit, but it can only go so far. It does not burn very many calories nor does it have a big after-burn (calories the body burns recovering from intense exercise), nor does it put on much muscle which increases energy metabolism.
  • Vibration machines break up fat. This is a good one for laughs. The implication is that the reason one cannot lose fat is because it is clotted up and packed tight, and all one has to do is "loosen" it up to start losing it. Sorry, but it does not work that way. The body has no problem calling on fat stores for energy if the calories coming in is less than what is going out. No special machine would speed that up.
  • The HCG diet works because it is a hormone. This one is amazing in it's marketing. HCG is basically a hormone created during pregnancy that is bottled up and sold as a diet aid. The claim is it burns calories at an unbelievable rate. But just like the cleansing diets, you have to eat a "special" diet the promoters give you. Guess what? The diet is around 500 calories a day, and yes, you will lose weight on that just like you would with the cleanse diet. When someone my wife and I knew asked what we thought, I told her if you really want to know if the hormone works like they say it would, run an experiment: do a 500 calorie a day diet without the hormone for a while, then do a 500 calorie a day diet with the hormone for a while. And finally, take the hormone without the diet for a few weeks and see if you lose fat. If it works so well, you shouldn't need a 500 calorie a day diet for it to work. I already know what the answer would be, but if you need convincing, try it. And please e-mail me with the results.

This is me performing an iso-cable press lunge. It is a great exercise for working the mid-section without endless crunches that do not work.
This is me performing an iso-cable press lunge. It is a great exercise for working the mid-section without endless crunches that do not work.

What Does Work?

So what is the tried and true steps one can take to see shredded abs? The following advice is from my 19 years as a personal trainer, as well as from my own experience and experimentation on my own body.

  • First of all, you need to be realistic. As mentioned above, if your body fat is around 25 to 30% (this is typical, by the way), it will take some time to get there. You can average about one to one and a half percent of body fat loss a month in a sustainable way. For your abs to start showing, your body fat level needs to be around 10 to 13% for men and 17 to 20% for women. By looking at these numbers it means you will need about 2 to 3 years of consistent work to get there.
  • Make strength training your primary form of exercise. I am not talking about a high rep, low weight or moderately intense strength training program. I am talking about hard work. Why? Among other things that are beneficial about strength training, the main two benefits as far as getting well defined abs are concerned are that strength training boosts your metabolic rate very well and you get a positive hormonal response that keeps the body running lean and mean your whole life.
  • Train your core harder, not longer. As mentioned above, don't go crazy with a lot of ab exercises. Do make them harder and don't do them as often. For example, instead of doing 200 crunches, you can hold a 10 pound weight behind your head and slowly lift and lower your upper body as far as you can. You should feel a deeper burn in your muscles and fatigue sooner.
  • Use aerobic exercise sparingly. It is my opinion that too much aerobic exercise tears the body down and does not do a good job of burning fat. It is far better to focus on strength training.
  • Eat a healthy diet. The cool thing is you do not have to be draconian with your diet to see you abs. Eat whole foods like lean meats, veggies, fruits and high fiber grains. Do not use heavy sauces and have moderate portion sizes...and you do need to take in less calories than you burn off for an extended time. My general recommendation is as follows: 1,500 to 1,700 calories a day for women and 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day for men. If you can hit those calorie ranges consistently while strength training, you will lose body fat...and get a shapely body to boot!
  • (Addendum circa June 2014). Eat a Low Carb Diet. I have researched at great lengths about the Paleo diet and the Atkins diet, both recommending a low carb approach. I even put into practice their eating plans. I have to admit that I am more successful losing body fat and staying lean with this approach as compared to a high carb/low fat/low calorie approach. As a matter of fact, I lost about 14 pounds of fat eating this way. There is truth to the fact that insulin spikes, caused by eating carbohydrates, affect body fat stores. The spikes and crashed make you hungry sooner, and tells the body to store fat. Furthermore, the muscles store a portion of your carbohydrate intake as glycogen for immediate use, and shuttles the remainder into fat stores. Before the body will ever tap into the fat stores, it will burn the glycogen stored in the muscles first. What this means is that when a dieter eats a low calorie/high carb diet, she will have a hard time losing fat because every time she eats something, the glycogen stores will get filled up. These glycogen stores would have to be depleted again before it gets to the stored fat. By switching to a low carb diet, the body will tap into the fat stores sooner. The truth is, you want to switch your body from a sugar burning machine to a fat burning machine. You do this by consistent low carb eating. To lose fat at a good pace, 100 grams a day or less of carbs will work. Maintenance would be around 150 grams a day or less. Do remember that it still is a calorie/calorie in issue as well. You will be more satisfied with less calories on a low carb diet than a high carb diet.
  • Practice intermittent fasting. This is a remarkable strategy that I started using about 9 months ago. Simply skip a meal or two a day, or take one day a week to eat almost nothing at all. By small periods of fasting, the body gets used to tapping into the fat stores more easily. On top of that, research is showing that intermittent fasting has anti-aging benefits as well. It somehow shifts our gene expression to stay young. I use intermittent fasting by skipping breakfast and not eating anything until around noon. More often than not, I only eat some nuts at that time. Then I'll snack as needed to not feel hungry (no carb, of course) until dinner time. I cut out about 800 calories a day from my diet eating this way, and I never feel hungry or deprived. Oh, and I no longer have a protein shake after my workouts for the same reason. I have not seen a drop off of my strength, nor have I seen a dip of my energy levels.


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Me getting ready to perform a barbell press on the ball. Follow my advice, and you could have a well defined mid-section too.
Me getting ready to perform a barbell press on the ball. Follow my advice, and you could have a well defined mid-section too.
Me getting ready to perform a barbell press on the ball. Follow my advice, and you could have a well defined mid-section too.

Denouement

You can have a shredded set of abs. I don't believe that genetics can prevent you from having them (it is a great excuse, but that is all it is), but you have to be willing to work for them. You have to train hard, be diligent with your diet, and give it time. Most people simply do not want to pay the price it takes to get a great looking mid-section. After examining the above myths, it is clear that there is no such thing as a quick fix. Do not be fooled into thinking there is a short cut. Do not believe the myth that there is a magic diet, drug, or piece of exercise equipment that tones the mid section. There is not. There never will be. Understand what it takes to get solid abs, commit to it, and do it. The rewards will come.

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