The adage "If it were easy, everyone would do it," is especially applicable to sculpting abs. They're like the equivalent of a new Trader Joe's cauliflower hybrid product — incredibly hard to get. But even though it's difficult, it's not impossible. So what does it really take to sculpt those ever-elusive abs? We talked to the experts to find out.
Why Are Abs So Difficult to Get?
"There is so much at play when it comes to getting desired results in our core," Jolie Manza, founder and lead instructor of YogaKoh, said. Hormones, for example, can have a big impact on belly fat. "As we age and hormones shift, we can start to carry weight in different places and experience more difficulty in removing stubborn fat," she explained.
It also takes a lot of discipline and commitment. "Unfortunately, gimmicks and quick fixes are band aids or temporary fixes that won't have longevity," Manza said. Three things you can do to help those abdominal muscles pop: eat well, do the right exercises, and stay dedicated, she said.
How Often Should You Work Your Abs?
"There are two components to your abs: muscle and fat," Bianca Cheah, wellness expert, model, yoga instructor, and founder of Sporteluxe, said. "If you do too many muscle building exercises but not enough fat-burning, the muscle you're building can actually make the fat layer more pronounced," she explained.
"Spot training the abs is not the answer," Manza said. "There is a much more total-body approach to reaching the goal, rather than just doing hundreds and hundreds of sit-ups a day." (Side note: ow.) Doing cardio is incredibly important, and she recommended committing to getting your heart rate up every day. As for your abs: Manza recommended working your muscles three to four times a week.
"It's important to give your muscles time to heal in between workouts," Cheah added. "When you work out, you cause micro tears in the muscle, so try mixing up your workouts and give yourself ample time to heal and rest." So, no need to do abs-specific exercises seven days a week.
Avoid These Foods
"Fuel your body with the good stuff, Cheah advises. "No matter how much work you put in at the gym to get those abs, you won't see the results you want if you're not putting work into your diet as well." So what should you avoid if you want abs?
"Avoid foods that increase stubborn fats in the body," says Manza. Examples include saturated fats, sugars, and too many carbs. "Skip high-sodium foods because this leads to water retention, which makes you bloat," Sia Cooper, certified personal trainer and creator of the 12 Week Strong Body Guide (you may also recognize her as @diaryofafitmommyofficial), said.
You also may want to rethink your diet soda habit. "Diet sodas have been shown to help you keep on weight," Menachem Brodie, head coach at Human Vortex Training LLC, USA Cycling Elite Coach, Triathlon Coach, NSCA-CSCS, said. He recommends switching to seltzer water with fresh-cut berries or lemon juice. Also, he said to cut out processed sugar. (Though if you have a sugar craving, he is a fan of dark chocolate with over 72 percent cacao content.)
Eat More Protein
It's a common misconception — especially among women — that salads and green juices are the path to defined abs, Brodie said. "If you want to get abs and get lean all around, you need to support your lean muscle mass by eating enough protein each day. For the average female, this means eating around 1.4-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight," he recommended. You may require more protein if you work out regularly or are an athlete, he added.
Best Abs Exercises to Do
"Our abdominals are designed as stabilizer muscles, meaning they function at their best when they are engaged in a static way rather than fast dynamic actions that we are used to seeing," Manza said. Here's how to do her favorite abs exercise.
Lie on your back. Slightly lift your head and lift your hands over your head so your arms are in line with your ears. Lift your legs and keep them at a 45-degree angle off the ground and hold for 20 second intervals. "The lower back should remain on the ground the whole time, belly drawing toward spine and legs and arms should be as straight as possible," she explained. To modify, you can keep your knees slightly bent, or place a yoga block between your inner thighs.
Cooper recommended the Russian twist. Grab a medicine ball or kettlebell and sit on the ground, holding the weight at your chest. "To begin, you will lift both legs off of the ground, bending your knees towards your chest. You will twist your body to the left dropping the weight to the floor, then you will come back to center. Now you will twist your body to the right dropping the weight to the floor. This move is amazing for the obliques," she explained.
Hands down, the number-one abs exercise Cheah recommends is the plank. All kinds of planks, actually: regular, rotating, and side planks. "Each targets a different part of your core for maximum strengthening," she explained.