Over time, the phrase “Abs are made in the kitchen” has become more and more popular. And while it’s true that nutrition plays a huge role in regard to how much fat vs how much muscle our body keeps, it’s also true that exercise is pretty important in regulating both of those elements as well. Not to mention, exercise is what gives the abs (or any muscle) the tone and shape that most desire. I mean, you never hear anyone argue that glutes, or biceps are made in the kitchen...
I’m not writing this as a ‘nutrition vs. exercise’ article, instead I intend to shed a little light on the importance of BOTH nutrition and exercise in the development of a nice midsection. I would like to go into more detail regarding exercise, however, due to the emphasis that I feel that phrase (abs are made in the kitchen) has put on nutrition.
Since fat is most often stored and accumulated along the midsection, the abs are quickly concealed and then, typically, emphasis is placed on eating correctly in order to reveal those long lost abs. Seems simple enough, and it’s true – by determining your caloric needs and a daily total to strive for (generally 500 calories below your daily caloric need), and then adhering to the rules you’ve set, you will no doubt begin to lose body fat! This can be time consuming though, and since one of the most stubborn types of fat is belly fat, taking extra measures to attack it is always a good idea. Still, the best way to bring the abs into the picture is through consistent exercise, in addition to taking on a healthier diet.
Along with toning and shaping muscle tissue, exercise has extremely beneficial effects on the body. One of the most advantageous effects (especially when the goal is to burn fat) is the increase in metabolism brought on by exercise. Simply put: the more intense the bout of exercise, the greater the increase in metabolism will be. By increasing your metabolism and implementing a healthier diet, you’ll be flying (hypothetically speaking) towards your goal of firm, visible abs... Assuming you’re targeting your abs the right way...
The Abs Are Muscle Tissue Too...
There seems to be a general misunderstanding regarding the development of the midsection since so many incorporate ab exercises into just about every workout (are you guilty of this?). Instead, the muscles of the midsection should be treated the same as other muscles throughout the body – with a little time deliberately focused on that area, one to two times each week. By properly working abs into your routine it won’t be long before your midsection is feeling more firm and you’re closer to seeing those lines. The mistake of sprinkling ab exercises into basically every workout is problematic, in part because you’re not giving the muscles sufficient time to heal. This prevents them from working as efficiently the next time they’re targeted which ultimately leads to a less efficient response. So again, it’s important to work the muscles deliberately and then give them time to heal so you can get the most out of each workout, while also protecting yourself from unnecessary injury.
Building Proportionate Abs
The majority of ab workouts you’ll see people doing not only focus primarily on the muscle that makes up the traditional six pack (the rectus abdominis), but also work this muscle in a way that pulls the torso towards the hips - think of a traditional crunch. The pulling down action of the abs is important and shouldn’t be ignored, but the emphasis placed on these exercises, compared to those which pull the hips up or rotate the torso left to right, is disproportionate and should also be addressed. Take a look at what others are doing for their abs next time you’re in the gym and you’ll most likely see a lot of exercises pulling the torso down with a few leg raises thrown in the mix and little to no rotational work being done. Or take a peek on Instagram and you’ll see a lot of abs that are toned near the chest and ribs with lines that quickly diminish as they move towards the hips.
A general rule I follow for how I distribute work throughout my midsection is:
- 50% Lower abs
- 30% Upper abs
- 20% Rotation
Adjust this accordingly, based on your needs.
How to Workout for Fat Loss
Targeting the muscles of the midsection is important for developing the shape and tone of the area, but the exercises involved for that are only so demanding. By structuring your workouts to follow the principle of specificity (more on that here) you ensure that you’re introducing new and challenging demands for your body to learn, resulting in more work that your body has to do, which means greater (and more consistent) increases in metabolism and ultimately more calories burned. Speaking of calories burned - if your abs are hiding behind a layer of fat then cardio should be a big part of your workout regimen, here's why...
In addition to resistance training, cardio has huge benefits that are useful throughout all facets of fitness, but particularly for those who want to burn fat. By engaging in long durations of non-stop exercise (a light jog, or brisk walk) the body will realize the need for sustainable energy, and look for a longer lasting fuel source compared to what’s needed for say a 20 second set of bench press using dumbbells. The fuel source that the body begins to use during aerobic exercise is, you guessed it, FAT! Below you can see that 1 gram of fat contains more calories (energy) than 1 gram of carbohydrate. That alone can begin to explain why the body would use it for long duration activity – it’s got twice the amount of energy!
It’s true that nutrition plays a major role with regard to how much fat vs how much lean muscle the body stores. Still, as important as nutrition is, do not overlook exercise and the role it can play in altering body composition. Developing a sound plan of attack that includes both nutritional and fitness strategies is the sure fire way to produce the firm, visible midsection you’ve always wanted; it’s never just one or the other.