Who wants a flat tummy when it could be defined? [UPDATED]

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I’m not the biggest fan of the phrase, “flat tummy”. Instead, I want to talk about ways of achieving a sexy, strong & defined midsection. This subject isn’t really something that should be glossed over quickly, so I’ve broken it up into smaller sections, because I’m nice.

Section 1: WIZARDRY OR TRICKERY?

Now you may have heard of various quick-fire ways of achieving the ever sought-after ‘washboard abs’. I’m really sorry to be a buzzkill, but the first thing I want to do is call out 3 of the most common (and untrue) concepts that get thrown around the fitness industry:

  1. Spot reduction. This one really infuriates me. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, a workout routine or special piece of exercise equipment that promises spot reduction fat loss. It’s just a bare-faced lie. You can’t choose where you lose fat from, it’s a whole-body process – there is no amount of crunches you can do that’s going to burn the fat on your tummy in isolation. Sorry. 
  2. ‘Quick fix’ restrictive diets. Unfortunately this one is just another scam. Sure, you might lose 20 pounds in a month, but at least half of that is going to be muscle (the good stuff!) and the half that is fat will quickly be regained after you can’t bring yourself to eat another bowl of cabbage soup and instead binge on 5 large Dominos pizzas for breakfast. On top of that, your metabolism will slow down so much to accommodate the tiny amount of food you’re putting into your body, that even if you were to start eating a healthy diet, it would be extremely hard to lose or even maintain your weight. Side note: the ‘quick fix’ scam doesn’t just apply to dieting; If ever you see a workout, (or pretty much anything advertised as a quick fix), please do yourself a favour and ignore it.
  3. Light weights to avoid getting ‘bulky’. PLEEEEEASE. Aside from the fact that you would have to lift a LOT of weight, a lot of times, a lot of the time, to get ‘bulky’ (and what’s wrong with that anyways), without lifting heavy weights you’re never going to make any improvements; I’m going to attempt to explain this one through the art of conversation. With myself. Don’t judge me.
    Me: You want a ‘defined’ physique, right?
    Me: Yes! And you know that ‘definition’ = muscle definition right?
    Me: For sure, so how might one acquire muscle definition?
    Me: Well, I’m glad you’ve asked, that would be by increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat so that you can see these muscles in all their glory.
    Me: OK, cool… But how do we do that?
    Me: Well we know how to lose fat (calorie deficit achieved by appropriate diet, supplemented by exercise). But to gain muscle size and strength we need to overload the muscles by adding stress to them (making them work harder than normal), therefore making them grow to adapt to the new challenges we’ve put them through. Despite what you may have been told, you’re not going to overload them by lifting a weight equivalent to a can of baked beans – unless you’re one of the Borrowers, that’s just not going to cut it. Each lift should feel like you’re actually having to exert some effort. Different amounts for different training goals, but that’s another post for another day.

Section 2: ONWARDS & UPWARDS

So since I’ve taken away 3 things that you might have been relying on to get you that sexy midsection, it’s only fair that I replace them with 3 things that aren’t just a bunch of ruthless scams, but instead are honest, reliable and useful tips:

  1. All over fat reduction. Quite literally the opposite of ‘spot reduction’. Also opposite in that it actually is a thing! As mentioned before, when we burn fat, we don’t get to pick and choose where it comes from. However, for the majority of us there will be a similar pattern in the order of which we lose it – it basically works its way from the furthest points of the body, i.e. wrists and ankles, to the mid section, i.e. tummy, thighs and booty. I know, it sucks, I’m sorry, but unfortunately that’s just how it works.
  2. Build muscle to burn fat. I’m not going jump on the hype train and tell you that muscle burns 50x more calories than fat, per pound, per day, sorry again; Muscle does burn more calories than fat, roughly 3 times as many per pound per day. But that really isn’t that much when we’re talking about muscle burning 6 calories per pound, per day as opposed to fat burning 2. So yes the differences are small, but they do add up.If you have, lets say, 50lbs of muscle, it’s going to be burning roughly 300 calories per day, which when compared to the 100 calories that the equivalent 50lbs of fat would be burning, becomes a little more valuable. Did I mention that these numbers are based on what happens when you’re at rest, meaning this is all going on whilst you’re mid-episode into GOT? Also, it’s worth considering the fact that the stronger you are, the more effort you can exert during calorie-crushing HIIT workouts (or LISS work if that’s your thing), as strong muscles won’t give up & get in the way of you performing at your full cardiorespiratory capabilities.
  3. A big thumbs up to the good ol’ saying, “Abs are made in the kitchen”. This saying never seems to go away and I hope it never does. You can run 10 miles a day, attend Insanity classes 5x per week and plank on a swiss ball for an hour, but if your eating habits revolve around processed food and refined sugar, you’re not going to get very far. Without going all 1000-word-essay on you here, let’s just say that a good place to start is to eat real food, when you’re hungry, with the occasional treat. Forget self-hate and micro-tracking. Sure, if you reach a point where you have maybe under 10lbs to lose and your progress is starting to plateau, maybe then, start logging your food and tracking your macros, but if you have a fairly long road ahead of you and/or the ideas of eating vegetables everyday & considering pizza to be a treat rather than a diet staple, are still uncomfortable, then my advice would be to start by focussing on making healthier lifestyle choices. Different types of eating habits work for different people, I personally favour a pretty even split between protein, healthy fats & carbs, but I do make sure I’m getting 1g of protein per lb of lean body mass, I eat a huge amounts of veggies, I don’t avoid carbs or fat but I do avoid trans fats & refined sugar like the plague. Lastly, PLEASE do not buy into the whole “fat makes you fat” facade, it really is BS. If you want to know more about that, have a look here & if you really want something to blame have a look here.

Section 3: THE CORE DEBATE (read my article re-visit below this section for an updated input)

So now that we know what we should and shouldn’t be doing, obviously you want to know which specific exercises are going to work the core the best, so I want to just quickly touch on a question that always seems to pop up.

“What’s better: crunches or planks?”

I’m going to try to keep this short and sweet. In my opinion the Plank always comes out on top. (See what I did there?) Here’s why:

  • Not only does the plank recruit your anterior AND posterior core muscles, but it does so on both a local and global level – working on both strength and stability, not to mention your shoulders, chest, butt AND legs all get involved as well; Crunches on the other hand only really strengthen the abdominal muscles, which is cool, but it ain’t no plank! Working the whole core rather than just the front is important for ensuring musculoskeletal balance and avoiding injury.
  • The plank (and all its variations) are much more functional – you use the isometric strength that is performed in a plank for balance and stability during everyday life as well as big compound movements, like squats and deadlifts. How many times per day are you rounding your back like you do in a crunch? (Hopefully not very often!)
  • Performing planks helps to promote good posture in that the goal is to remain in neutral spine, which is something that lots of people in this day and age certainly need to work on. Crunches, on the other hand, can actually end up putting pressure on the lower back, ultimately leading to injury and pain.

Planks really are the absolute winners. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself… you know you’re laughing on the inside.

Here are my top exercise picks for strengthening and stabilising the core: plank, high plank, plank punches, spider plank, side plank, plank to side plank rotations, mountain climbers, squat thrusts, back extensions, commandos, sprint starts, bear crawls, Russian twists, lying leg raises, windscreen wipers, swiss ball stirring the pot, ab bikes.

There are so many back-friendly core exercises to choose from, so you shouldn’t have to do a single crunch! If you feel like you’ve stopped making progress with any of these, increase the duration of the static ones (plank, high plank & side plank) and try changing the tempo of the dynamic ones (all the others) – do this by holding tension at the most difficult part of the movement for a second or two.


! ARTICLE RE-VISIT !
(UPDATED: 27/06/2016)

Since writing this article I have attended a core training workshop – this definitely doesn’t make me an expert, but it gave me a little more insight on the subject than I had before – I’ve also done a lot more research and have learned (at least some of) the errors of my knowledge on the subject of this blog post. I still have so much to learn – and will continue learning until I retire.

All I can do is share with you my updated view on this subject; namely the specific core exercises that I discussed above. I’m going to do this in bullet points, because it’s been a long post so far anyways…

– When done properly, crunches can be a highly beneficial exercise and don’t necessarily cause back problems – it’s down to the individual and how resilient your spine is.
– Muscles need to be contracted to hypertrophy. Therefore, whilst isometric core exercises such as planks are extremely effective for improving core stability and full body isometric endurance, isotonic exercises involving flexion of the trunk are in fact one way to go when it comes to building the superficial muscles that we call ‘abs’.
– So to answer my initial question in the original post – it would seem that there is a place for the humble crunch after all. To be clear, both planks and crunches have benefits: Isometric core exercises like planks improve the isometric strength of the core musculature. Isotonic core exercises, like crunches, directly improve the dynamic strength and size of the superficial abdominal muscles.

– If you’re training for stability, keep it stable – exercises like mountain climbers should be done at a very slow and controlled pace. Performing it fast would be to minimise the stabilising training effects of the exercise. 

These points don’t go into nearly enough detail to properly explain what I have learned and why I wasn’t necessarily correct the first time round, but I didn’t want to just leave this post the way it was.

Learning is a journey and mistakes are part of that journey – and I have a long journey ahead of me! I will certainly share with you when I learn new stuff, even if – or especially if – it contradicts something that I have already talked about.


OK, I know that was a lot to take in, so to say thank you, here’s a couple of delightfully distracting pictures, before I offer up some final thoughts to cement what I’m trying to say here.

abspost     abspost2

Om nom nom nom nom nom. Where was I?

Oh yeah…

Section 4: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

There are just a few last bits I want to mention, so I’m going to fire these off as quickly and simply as possible. (All of the following points and more are expanded in my post 21 Fat Loss Hacks PART 1 and PART 2. Keep an eye out on my blog to get the low down & other health, fitness & motivation related posts!)

  • Drink lots of water
  • Maintain good posture
  • Get enough sleep
  • Keep stress to a minimum
  • Put the vino down
  • Look after your gut health
  • Rest properly

…And most importantly: stay positive, love yourself and treat your mind & body with the respect it deserves.

Thank you so much for reading and I hope my tips help you on your journey to a sexy midsection!

 

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