If I put a poll out there for the best core exercise, most people would probably say the crunch or some variant, but I haven’t done a single crunch in over a year. No sit-ups either. So I must look like crap right? Well the photo here was taken in the last few months.
So what is the secret to great abs? First regardless how much you work your core you’ll never see the muscles in your mid-section until you reduce your body fat level. In my mind the best way to do this is to grow muscle, eat cleanly, and provide a calorie deficit until you reach the body fat percentage for you. Note I did not talk about weight reduction. For me the number on the scale is mostly irrelevant – its your body fat count and how you appear in the mirror naked that count.
Why is muscle gain important? Well weight gain/loss at its simplest is a function of calories in vs. calories out. Muscle burns energy, so more calories go to survival and less get stored as fat.
What about clean eating (arguably the most important aspect)? There are lots of complex metabolic processes that go on with the various foods we eat, but my recommendation is to follow simple guidelines which I’ll discuss more in later posts.
- Eat natural foods where possible. Learn to cook if you don’t already. Processed foods are often high in sodium and poor quality carbs and sugars.
- Avoid items high in sugar – even naturally occurring sugar.
- Eat breakfast. Doing so sets you up for the day and reduces cravings and therefore the odds of eating a poor quality snack. If you can aim for it to be protein based, all the better (think eggs).
- Drink lots of water. In fact if you are hungry between meals try a glass of water instead. It is easy to misinterpret a signal for thirst as hunger.
- Avoid liquid calories – they rarely make you satiated or full.
- Try and eat whole grains or foods that are made with complex carbs.
If you get some good habits the fat should start to melt off. Once it does get down to a certain level (around 10-12% for a guy and 18% for a girl) any muscle tone in the ab structure will start to show through. As you approach these numbers you will start to benefit from targeting the core in your workouts.
Note that performing a million crunches or other core exercise will not help fat loss around the trunk. With the exception of surgery, it is impossible to spot-reduce fat and therefore you are mostly just wasting time better served by exercising other body parts.
So what is my core routine like? First I perform a few standard heavy movements through the week – e.g. squats and deadlifts – both of which hit the core pretty hard. Saying that, I do a number of exercises specifically for the abs and core section the following are a few of these
- Planks and Side Planks
- Ab-wheel rollout
- Renegade Rows (or Core Rows)
- Captains Chair
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Cable Wood Chop
So why no crunches? The main reason is that they don’t effectively target the entire core, while at the same time are really bad for the back (see this NY Times and this EZine article for a few reasons why). Besides, the whole core section is intended for stabilization so I like to use exercises that require the entire core to stabilize itself rather than contracting the muscle groups under load. Judge for yourself – when the picture above was taken I hadn’t done a crunch or sit-up in over a year.
If you really want to accelerate your progress I cannot recommend Mark McManus’ “Total Six Pack Abs” program enough. Its challenging to stick to but it really does work and at the end you’ll have developed some great habits and have a great beach ready body. This program got me from “skinny-fat” to the shape I am in now, and started me on the road to getting in even better shape.