Do you want to be Ab-solutely fabulous?

Something I get asked a lot is “how can I lose this?” and they grab their stomach. “Do I just need to do Ab Crunches?” This question usually comes from someone in a social situation when they’ve just met me or just found out that I’m a Personal Trainer. I have a very short window to give them some top tips, yet I’m writing this article to give you my full & honest opinion.

To get abs you first need to burn the body fat which is sitting on top of your abdominal muscles. You could do all the crunches in the world to make them stronger & bigger, yet they won’t pop out while there is belly fat present, and in fact it will make your stomach look bigger because your muscles will be getting bigger. In this article I’ll share with you all the things you need to do to help shift this stubborn body fat, but first of all I have a question for you.

Do you want a 6 pack or do you just want a flat stomach? They’re very different things and there is a huge difference in what you need to do to achieve them.

You’ve heard the quote above before right? There isn’t an Ab Fairy I’m afraid, this is down to you eating clean, prepping your meals and exercising consistently & efficiently to burn fat and strengthen your core. Let’s break this down.

Nutrition

Eating Clean and Meal Prepping are becoming more & more popular as people are more health conscious and trying to manage what they’re consuming on a daily basis. Why? If you prepare everything you eat, you know exactly what’s going in to it, and you’ll reduce the amount of processed food in your diet.

Let’s go over the basics: 

What is eating clean? Eating food which has not been processed. It’s as close to its original state as possible.

What kind of food should I be eating? A combination of carbs, fats and protein. No food group is missed out, it’s a balance of all macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Why? Clean eating will help with weight management and a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that young adults who eat more fruits and veggies experience greater “flourishing,” meaning they’re happier, more positive, creative, and curious. So it’s great for body and mind.

How + what?

  • Prepare your protein, veggies & complex carbs on a twice weekly basis in a batch cooking session so you can portion up your meals to grab and go for the following few days.
  • Complex carbs are foods which contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, beans, peas, lentils and pumpkin are some examples. 
  • Fruits and vegetables are simple carbohydrates that contain fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals, so they are more complex in nature. These are nutrient-dense foods that should be eaten daily.

Training

What kind of training should you be doing? You need to have a plan which you will stick to day in, day out. Doing 400 Ab Crunches one week, and not the next will achieve nothing, and now I mention it Ab Crunches really aren’t going to give you the Abs you’re dreaming of.

Efficient training: Exercises which use your whole body will burn more fat. Your abs are tiny muscles, you need to work the big ones and work more than 1 group at a time to get the most bang for your buck. Squats, Deadlifts, Pull-ups, Bench Press, Burpees, Squat & Shoulder Press combo are some great examples.

“Go hard & heavy. High-intensity exercise has been shown to stimulate lipolytic hormones, including growth hormone and epinephrine, which promote greater post-exercise energy expenditure and fat burning.”^

Cardio: In the interests of burning fat efficiently I always prefer High Intensity Interval Training. Short bursts of high intensity exercise e.g. sprints on a treadmill or rowing machine, burpees, squat jumps or skipping followed by active recovery e.g. marching on the spot or plank. HIIT sessions are shorter and will burn more calories than steady state cardio (e.g. walking or jogging).

How can I burn just my belly fat? Spot reduction does not exist – we can’t program our bodies to lose fat from our stubborn areas, in fact they’re likely the be the last place we see results. When I was competing in Bikini Competitions my stomach was the last place to lean out (even though I was on a strict training and diet plan), and as I stood in line chatting to the other competitors about to go on stage I found some of them had the same problem. Hang on, wait, what? We were talking to each other, being friendly and supportive rather than bitchy? Hell yeah! That’s another subject though, I’ll write about my comps another time. Back to the subject…abs.

Abs – they’re small yet get a lot of attention! They are muscles though, and in general women have a harder time at building muscle due to the lower levels of testosterone in our bodies. We also burn less calories than men, so we have to work really hard to build muscle and consume a lot of food (the right food though, stay away from Krispy Kreme). 

What do you prefer and which do you really want?

Dana Linn Bailey: Figure & Women's Physique Competitor Dana Linn Bailey: Figure & Women’s Physique Competitor Rhonda Rousey: UFC Fighter Rhonda Rousey: UFC Fighter

I am in awe of both women above, and you can see the difference in their mid section. Dana Linn Bailey competes in Bodybuilding which is about aesthetics, and I’ve followed her training for comps, it’s insane. She needs those abs to outshine her competition on stage.

Rhonda Rousey on the other hand, fights in UFC and her strong core is a bi-product of all the boxing and other types of training she does. She also does ab work so she is able to stay on her feet when her opponents want to punch her to the floor, yet having abs are not a requirement for her sport. It’s more about a strong core.

Back to you…it’s not all about nutrition and training though, there are some other factors to consider:

Stress: When we’re stressed and feeling under attack our body responds by releasing hormones. One of those is cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy even though you haven’t used very many calories. This can make you hungry…very hungry. And your body keeps on pumping out that cortisol as long as the stress continues. In times of stress do you reach for the carrots? No.

“Instead, we crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension,” explains Elissa Epel, PhD, a researcher on stress eating at the University of California, San Francisco.

This soothing effect becomes addictive, so every time you’re anxious, you want fattening foods. I’ll cover stress in another article as there’s lot more to cover. I’m raising it here to make sure you have enough down time, take time to relax, get enough sleep and don’t stress yourself out about trying to get abs. I’ve seen girls have a tough time during comp prep because they put so much pressure on themselves to get a trophy, yet it impacted their ability to lean out around their middle.

Alcohol: When I’m in the last 4-6 weeks of prepping for a Bikini Competition or photoshoot I cut out alcohol, and what a difference it makes! I notice a difference in how I feel after 2 weeks, and then I see it from the 3rd week. I’m not a big drinker anyway, my bodybuilding lifestyle has taken over as a priority instead of partying.

Less stories about me though, you want to know how alcohol affects your ability to burn fat and build strong abdominal muscles. Unlike macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, alcohol supplies what nutritionists often refer to as empty calories: calories without nutrition. To make matters worse, it is the first fuel to be used when combined with carbohydrates, fats and proteins, postponing the fat-burning process and contributing to greater fat storage. 

I’ll just repeat that so it sinks in…

postponing the fat-burning process and contributing to greater fat storage.”

Again, there’s much more to talk about when it comes to alcohol so stay tuned and I’ll write about that soon.

Finally let’s talk about sleep: Poor sleep can undo all your efforts with your diet & training. Between your job, personal life / social life and exercise are you leaving enough time to sleep? Sometimes people brag about how little sleep they have and how many coffees they have to keep going, but can you imagine what your body would say if it could speak back to you? It would not be happy at all. In order to reap the benefits of all the hard work you’re putting in you need to allow enough time to rest, repair & recover.

  • Lack of sleep affects your appetite, and the decisions you’ll make about food you want to eat.

Not sleeping enough—less than seven hours of sleep per night—can reduce and undo the benefits of dieting, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study, dieters were put on different sleep schedules. When their bodies received adequate rest, half of the weight they lost was from fat. However when they cut back on sleep, the amount of fat lost was cut in half—even though they were on the same diet. What’s more, they felt significantly hungrier, were less satisfied after meals, and lacked energy to exercise. Overall, those on a sleep-deprived diet experienced a 55 percent reduction in fat loss compared to their well-rested counterparts.

  • Lack of sleep affects the quality of your training too, you’ll have to try even harder to complete a workout which would be easier and more rewarding after a full nights sleep. It also results in muscle loss, and the more muscle you have the more fat you burn in your everyday life (when you’re not in the gym) so you don’t want to be losing muscle. Even more so if you’re trying to get those abdominals to pop! 

So, as you can see there are a lot of factors that come in to play to achieve abs. A lot of people will work really hard to achieve ab definition for a comp, event, photoshoot and then they disappear again shortly after. Life takes back over and having abs is not the be all and end all. Fitness comes down to balance in your life, enjoying being active and having a healthy heart. If you’re active then you’re doing great, please don’t feel like you have to have abs as a status symbol. 

The closest I ever got to have some definition was for my 3 Bikini Competitions and in 2015 when I had 2 comps just a fortnight apart I worked like crazy on my abs, doing exercises every day at the end of gym sessions, yet I never saw those famous little bumps. Since then I’ve not tried to get them again, I just focus on other areas of my body.

Choose your goals wisely, Lucy x

P.S. If you’re looking for some Ab exercises there’s an Ab Circuit in my Free Week of Workouts. Click here to get your copy.

Sources: 

^Irving, B.A., & Davis, C.K., et al. (2008). Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition. Med Sci Sports Exerc, Oct 8.

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