The Complete Guide To:
Words by Ray Buckton, Personal Trainer
Photography by Cal Donoghue
The first thing to remember when it comes to acquiring a mouth-watering pack of abdominals is that you already have them. Everybody has them. Without them you wouldn't be able to bend or twist your torso, or brace your spine.
Your midsection is made up of a few muscle groups, the ‘Transverse abdominis’ (aka the corset), the ‘Obliques’ (these sit at the sides of your torso), and finally the ‘Rectus abdominis’ (aka the 6-pack). They all have biomechanically different jobs to do, but when it comes to revealing a tight midsection and perfect abs, they must all be given attention.
The reason why your abdominals aren't popping like Stallone’s in Rocky IV is purely because your body fat percentage is too high. Anything above 14% is generally too prohibitive to show good definition. So now we know abdominals are not just something of mythological folklore, here is how to make yours perfect.
Controlling your hormones is key. Your midsection is the home to two main hormonal receptor sites; insulin and cortisol.
You'll be familiar with insulin if you know any diabetics. A diet high in sugar and starch causes an overflow of insulin to be secreted in your body which in turn forces excess glucose (sugar) to be stored as fat, particularly over your prized abdominals.
Cortisol is the stress hormone. There are countless stresses in our lives that cause the release of this hormone and I'm not going to patronise you by telling you to 'chill out' and 'worry less'. The simple fact is that an excess amount of cortisol is a real stumbling block for many when labouring to dispose of their last few percentages to reveal their abs.
Due to the millions of years of evolution, the survival mechanism in our bodies views the excess cortisol as a cue to store fat, again to much irritation, on our midsections. Sleep deprivation is one of the main causes of excess cortisol, so ensuring you get enough rest is vital to help manage this. It's easy to see why in the western world where sugary foods and stressful lives are so abundant that a 6-pack is a rare commodity.
Controlling insulin is crucial. This hormone however is easily manipulated through food choices. Avoid refined, processed and sugary foods first and foremost. This includes bread, pasta & rice. This does not mean you do not eat carbohydrates. The carb sources highlighted are best avoided as they are broken down into sugar (glucose) quickly. Perfect if you need a quick fix of energy. Not so great if you want to avoid fat storage on your stomach. Instead opt for fibrous carbohydrate sources like pulses and vegetables. Good fats like nuts and avocado also help to regulate blood sugar levels as well as a high protein intake. These will help to ensure your body doesn't surge insulin into your blood stream and your stomach fat doesn't continue cultivating!
Avoiding processed foods and drinking water like you are pre-empting a draught is also essential. Processed foods have been found to increase the amount of cortisol circulating as our digestive systems find it very taxing to break them down. Water is the most important element in the human body, it makes everything work. If your body is dehydrated, it again will release excess cortisol as it becomes more stressed and finds functioning more difficult. Once your nutrition is in check, supplementing with products like CLA and Caffeine have also been scientifically shown to have a considerable effect on fat loss, particularly around your stomach.
Time to shred. Training with intensity is the key. Your body will not change unless you challenge it to, so get out of your comfort zone.
I am an advocate of High Intensity interval training, mainly because of the excess-post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), also known as the after burn effect. In laymen’s terms, this basically means that your metabolism is increased and you continue burning calories for up to 24 hours after training! Compare that to going for a long jog, which not only will take considerably longer, it burns pretty much no calories after you’ve finished!
Try an interval training method called 'Tabata', if that doesn't get your metabolism fired up, nothing will. Engaging your muscle cells is also the most effective way to burn calories quickly, so doing some resistance training will give your body extra stimulus to reduce fat. Stick to compound lifts. These are exercises that involved multiple joints and muscle groups and therefore give you the most bang for your buck. A few examples are Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press and Pull Ups. Your body doesn't 'spot reduce' fat from exercise - i.e.: if you do sit ups, you don't burn fat from your stomach. Spot reduction is only achieved through nutrition, when it comes to exercise your body works as a complete organism. Some people may lose fat quicker from their limbs. For you it might be different. The key is to remain patient.
So now your body fat is getting below that 14% threshold and we are starting to see some good definition, it's time to sculpt the masterpiece. As mentioned previously, the midsection is made up of a variety of muscles, each of which need to be worked exclusively to create perfection.
Your torso can move in various ways, I am going to give you my 3 favourite midsection-defining exercises, starting with the Rectus Abdominis. To hit this group with most effect, opt for the Myotatic Crunch. This essentially stretches your abdominals creating a greater range of motion and forcing more muscle fibre’s to be recruited.
For the Oblique’s, opt for a twisting motion. The muscle fibres of the Obliques are atonomically set in a way that twisting, as opposed to bending, forces significantly more fibres to be recruited. Cable Wood chops are perfect for this.
Finally for the Transverse Abdominis, I like to use an exercise called the Cat Vomit. Delightful I know. Remember this muscle is also called the corset muscle as it wraps around the midsection. This exercise forces the midsection to tighten and prevent any protrusion of the stomach. Important tip: controlling your breathing is crucial when conducting abdominal exercises. Breathing out on exertion causes what we call intra abdominal pressure. This forces more muscle fibres to stimulate and makes the exercise a lot more effective.