Every guy wants washboard abs. But actually getting them can seem impossible. It doesn’t help that much of the how-to hype out there—”Eat this food to blast belly fat” or “100 sit-ups a day will make the paunch go away”—is straight-up false. Here are 10 common myths about six-packs, along with the right ways to get your abs to pop.
–By Melaina Juntti
Sure, some men were blessed with super-high metabolisms and don’t have to work as hard to stay trim. But the rest of us have just as much potential for svelte stomachs. “All humans have a beautiful set of washboards abs,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “It’s just that most men’s six-packs are hidden beneath a layer of fat.” The only way to get the chiseled abs your mama gave you is to lower your overall body fat through a healthy diet and exercise.
Even if you hit the treadmill and rock out 50 crunches every morning, you’ll never get a toned stomach if you eat like a college freshman. “You also have to eat a sensible diet in order to reduce body mass and body fat overall, or you won’t see the fruits of your labor,” Bryant says. Ditch the high-fat, high-calorie processed junk in favor of lots of lean proteins, real fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats.
Food just doesn’t discriminate by body part. “Companies will claim that certain foods target belly fat because it sounds better, but it’s a total myth,” says Anna Renderer, a performance trainer and outside Fitness expert for the Gatorade sports Science Institute. “There are definitely foods that can help you lose weight, such as fiber-rich dark, leafy vegetables and citrus fruits. But eating lots of these foods will help you lean out overall, not just in the stomach region.”
Forget what your fifth-grade gym teacher told you. Full sit-ups—where you lift your torso all the way up so your elbows touch your bent knees—are “way outdated,” says Renderer. Crunches are much more effective. “You just need to curl your trunk so you’re raising your shoulder blades off the ground,” Bryant says. “The rectus abdominis muscle has a short range of motion, so all that extra movement in a sit-up doesn’t engage it any further. Crunches focus contraction where it is most maximized.”
A recent ACE study found that crunches are the most effective exercise for activating the rectus abdominis, which is the main, outermost core muscle. But this is only one of the muscles you need to tone in order to score a cut core. “These findings do not mean that the crunch is the best ab exercise overall,” says Bryant.
“There are other abdominal muscles, such as the external obliques and rectus femoris, that play a powerful role in spinal and core stability. Side planks and other exercises are better at activating those muscles.” Bryant says. “No single ab exercise is going to address all that you need.” That means you need to combine exercises that target your core from all angles, including your lower back.
The same ACE study hooked up participants to electrodes to measure rectus abdominis activation during two types of crunches: arms folded across the chest and fingers interlocked behind the head. The researchers suspected that hands-under-the-head crunches would be less effective because people seem to pry their head up with their hands instead of engaging the abs. But to their surprise, both methods were equally as effective. Just make sure your crunches are slow and controlled.
Many guys view their lower stomach as more of a problem zone than higher up and think they can zero in on that part. First of all, your lower region likely isn’t any less toned—it’s just covered by more belly fat. Second, you couldn’t work only the lower abs if you tried.
“When clients tell me they just want work their lower abs, I laugh,” Renderer says. “Get this straight: Your rectus abdominis is one unit.” Still, people often confuse this single muscle for multiple muscles. “Certain core exercises involve the hip flexors and other muscles, which makes you feel like you’re doing more for your lower abs than your upper abs, but you’re really not,” says Bryant.
“When doing any kind of core exercise, it’s always better to go at a slow or moderate tempo—never, ever fast,” Renderer says. “You’ll have more control over your movements and rely less on momentum to get from one position to the next.”
She says a lot of people tend to lift upward really fast and then lower back down slowly, but the entire exercise should be done at a continuous pace. By holding each position for two or three counts (for moderate speed) or up to four counts (for slow tempo), you’ll actually recruit your muscles to do the work instead of riding on your body’s momentum.
Renderer says BOSU balls, Ab Rollers and TRX devices can offer great ab workouts. So if you belong to a gym that offers these gadgets, try them out. But if you exercise at home, save your money. Between planks, pikes, crunches, seated twists and more, there are plenty of effective ab exercises that won’t cost you a dime.