The secret to a flat stomach and toned abs? Train for a few minutes 3 times a week. Training every day is a mistake: your muscles need to rest in order to restructure.
A flat stomach is one of the icons of our time: we all want it, whether it is for aesthetic or health reasons we are unsure. In terms of health, it is important to distinguish between visceral fat, that accumulates deep in the abdomen, and the thin subcutaneous deposit that is naturally present on the tummy. The former is dangerous and must undoubtedly be eliminated, while the latter is harmless and can add a pleasant softness to one’s shapes.
Sculpted abs: some myths.
We are often convinced the key to reducing belly fat is physical exercise. In reality, the reason for its existence is mostly metabolic. If you’ve decided to get yourself a six-pack, you will have to integrate your training regimen with a specific diet.
Another myth is that intense, daily training is required in order to sculpt one’s abs. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Targeted ab training should be performed max three times a week; this is because every time we train, muscles suffer micro-trauma and the body needs a rest period in order to rebuild them. Unfortunately, this rule is almost always ignored in gyms. A “tailor-made” training plan provides a workout routine for the whole body: the exercises are divided into several sessions so as not to tire out the muscles. Yet, in the case of abdominal muscles, training is inexplicably scheduled in all sessions.
The third myth is that training one’s abs is always good for everyone. It is not so. People suffering from lumbar hyper-lordosis, that is, if the curve of one’s spine above the pelvis is very pronounced (with a protruding-butt effect), muscle training will help harmonize the spinal curve back to its correct proportions and is therefore recommended. But in the case of lumbar hypolordosis (flat buttocks) training the abdominal muscles would “pull” the spine more than necessary, bringing the pelvis into retroversion and further flattening the lordosis.
This would merely exacerbate such issue both from an aesthetic and from a functional point of view (lower resistance to loads). Better to check the state of your back with a physiotherapist before engaging in intensive ab training.
Introducing: the abdominal muscles.
There are two groups of abdominal muscles: the anterolateral and the posterior. The former extend below the chest and form a natural anatomical belt that supports and protects the internal organs. They are the rectus abdominis, the pyramidalis, the external oblique, the internal oblique and the transversus abdominis. The posterior abdominals are located on the sides of the spinal column at the level of the pelvic girdle, behind the internal organs of the abdominal cavity. They are the quadratus lumborum, the psoas major and minor, and the iliacus muscle.
The most important muscles from a biomechanical point of view are also the most visible and relevant for our “flat stomach” goals. Here are the three main ones.
The rectus abdominis.
What: a wide muscular plate that develops longitudinally between the sternum and the pubis. It is commonly referred to as a “six-pack” because the 6 or 8 muscular elements that characterize it are reminiscent of a set of beer cans. It is the most iconic of the abdominal muscles and is considered an actual status symbol.
Function: thanks to its sturdy connective tissue, the rectus muscle compresses the abdominal viscera which would otherwise be thrust outwards. Its biomechanical action is to flex the chest towards the pelvis and to depress the ribs, thus acting as a respiratory muscle.
How to exercise it: the rectus is trained by bending of the spine (the most classic exercise are crunches). It is important to exercise it if you want to preserve the health of your spine and to improve your posture.
The external oblique.
What: a large, flattened muscle sheet with a quadrangular shape. Located in the anterior and lateral walls of the abdomen, it rises up along the lateral chest wall.
Function: it lowers the ribs, thus acting as an expiratory muscle, flexes the thorax and rotates contralaterally; lastly, it increases abdominal pressure.
How to exercise it: by twisting the torso (see: “twists”, in fitness-speak). Try touching your right flank when twisting the torso left and vice-versa: it’ll feel tense. Since this muscle hypertrophies rapidly and therefore can cause unwanted increases in one’s waistline, better exercise with lower loads, higher repetitions and speed: classic twists with a stick are ideal.
The transversus abdominis.
What: a large corset-shaped muscle that is located under the rectus abdominis and the external oblique. So called because its muscle fibers crisscross it from left to right and vice versa.
Function: to support the spinal column and to counteract gastric dilation (a toned transverse muscle increases the feeling of satiety).
How to exercise it: unlike the previous two muscles, it does not contribute to spinal flexion, which makes it more difficult to “feel” and see in action. As we’ll see later, it must be trained with forced expiration techniques.
Ready for your 9-minute workout?
Our mini-session consists of three crunch variations. All you need is a mat and an “interval training” app you can download for free. Set a 30 seconds on-, 20 seconds off rhythm for 9 sets of exercises (we will do our 3-exercise set, then repeat it a second and a third time). Let’s start!
Exercise n°1: crunches.
- Starting position: lie on your back on the mat with your back flat and your shoulders relaxed. Bend the knees to form a 90° angle between the legs and thighs. Rest your feet on the floor with the whole sole touching.
- Extend your hands behind your neck, with the elbows pointing outwards. (For an easier version, keep your hands at the temples or cross them over your chest.)
- Contract the abdomen and lift your shoulders from the floor by lifting the trunk by about 30°. Hold this position, focusing on your core, for two seconds and let the air out.
- Inhaling, return to the starting position.
Muscles involved: the rectus abdominis, internal obliques and external obliques are involved in the flexion of the spine. During forced exhalation, the transversus muscle is stimulated.
Exercise n°2: reverse crunches.
- Starting position: the same as for crunches.
- Keep your arms parallel to the trunk with your palms on the floor, or for an easier version, under your buttocks.
- Instead of bringing your torso towards the legs, as for crunches, do the opposite. Contracting the abdomen, raise the pelvis and bring the knees towards the chest, until the buttocks lift from the ground. Breathe out.
- Once you have reached the point of maximum contraction, slowly lower the pelvis and return to the starting position, inhaling.
Muscles involved: the main muscles involved are the rectus abdominis, which flexes the lumbar area, the oblique muscles, which prevent lateral movement of the legs, and the transversus, which stabilizes the entire movement and allows full compression of the abdomen.
Exercise n°3: the bicycle crunch.
- Lie on your back in the same position as for crunches.
- Place your hands behind your neck, elbows pointing outwards.
- Contract the abdomen and lift the shoulders from the floor. Also lift your feet and balance on your buttocks. This is now the starting position.
- Extend the right leg until it is parallel to the floor, without placing the foot on the ground. At the same time, twist the torso to the left by bringing the right elbow towards the left knee. Breathe out.
- While inhaling, return to the starting position (balanced on the buttocks) and repeat by extending the left leg.
Muscles involved: the exercise involves the rectus abdominis, but above all the obliques, which are exercised both in the torsion phase and in stabilizing the starting position.
Variations to the basic set.
Once you’ve mastered this routine, you can gradually modify it by introducing some variations:
Shorten recovery time. Try to shorten your rest time to 15 seconds, and then to 10. The exercise will be more effective and the mini-session will last even less!
Keep the muscle contracted for longer. When the muscle is contracted and working harder, try to slow the movement. If you can, you may even stop and hold the contraction as long as possible, as if it were an isometric (i.e. static) exercise. In this contracting phase, exhale strongly to train the transverse muscle.
Use resistance bands. When performing bicycle crunches, you can increase the effort your legs make by stretching a resistance band between your feet.
Back up your training with an ad hoc diet.
We guarantee it: after one month of regular training, your abdominal muscles will become firm and toned. The problem is, by only engaging in physical exercise you’ll risk not seeing the long-awaited results. The abs, however beautifully sculpted, will remain hidden under a superficial layer of abdominal fat.
Let’s be very clear: this “flat stomach” program is 30% physical exercises and 70% proper nutrition, so if you want to see that six-pack any time soon, you must immediately start backing up your training with a weight loss diet.
A word of advice on diets: try not to eat more than 1200 calories per day (1600 for men). And follow the principles of the “daylight diet”: only eat meals when it is light outside. If you have dinner at 7pm, you’ll still have a few hours to burn the calories. Also, more time passes between mealtime and sleep. When we sleep, our digestion is slowed and calories accumulate as fat. A good reason to get your digestion over and done with while you’re still awake.
Enjoy your training and your nutrition!