By Fitness Editor Paula Jager, CSCS
If you want a set of killer abs for the summer you better have a PhD because it will take persistence, hard work and determination.
No doubt about it, this woman (?) to the right is most certainly sporting a six pack and has obviously worked hard to get it.
But for once I am going to agree with you all—that “woman” definitely looks like a man or a surreal creature. While I don’t know her I think it is safe to say that look is not possible without the use of anabolic aids. It is not natural or healthy and not at all representative of a fit persona. 99.9% of us do not strive for that.
An athletic yet feminine look however is achievable, natural and healthy through proper training and nutrition.
What is far more important overall than looking good is a healthy set of core muscles to help us function to the best of our abilities in both activities of daily living and sport. A lot of people think of the “six pack” muscles as the core but it consists of a group of muscles that function collectively.
The stomach core muscles are the transverse abdominis, obliques and rectus abdominis; the back—the erector spinae; hip core muscles are the iliopsoas, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius/minimus. Let’s take a look at each of these and their function. . .
Transverse abdominis: these are the deep underlying stomach muscles and most essential for a strong core. They act like a natural weight lifting belt offering internal support while creating a strong link between the upper and lower body. Many women that have a problem with “leaks” while jumping or running after having children will find they often “disappear” with strengthening these muscles.
Obliques: these muscles are slightly to the sides of our waists and link to the ribcage. There are 4 in total, 2 each side (internal and external). Their job is to help with rotating and twisting movement at the waist.
Rectus abdominis: the 6 pack—it sits on top of the other stomach muscles. Aside from looking good in a lean individual its main job is to keep the pelvis in line which in turn protects the spine.
Erector spinae: the small muscles that run up your spine on both sides. They keep you upright and also aid in the bending of the trunk.
Iliopsoas: aka the hip flexor muscles. They are at the top of your legs and help with flexion. They also travel through your pelvis and attach on the lower spine. Because people sit so much they are notorious for getting shortened and are a direct cause of lower back pain. In addition to being strong they need to be supple.
Glutues maximus: one of the biggest muscles in your body they are involved heavily in moving the legs when running or walking. They’re also important for good posture and a strong core. They become weak quickly with inactivity (aka sitting on them excessively). They need to be trained well and often.
Gluteus medius/minimus: small muscles that sit under your gluteus maximus. Generally weak and tight in most people. They assist in moving your legs out to the side and rotation.
Hamstrings: while technically not part of the core if they are tight they will have a negative influence on your core stability. Keep them well stretched.
As you can see the core is a combination of several muscles and many people mistakenly think all they need to do to develop an aesthetically pleasing and strong core are crunches. Wrong. Like many other things in life it is a multi faceted approach. Top of the list is heavy weight training, anaerobic conditioning, a clean diet, core exercises and to a degree genetics. Sound familiar?
Heavy weight training: nothing new here; stick to the basics—squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press and the advanced can throw in the Olympic lifts such as the clean and jerk and the snatch. KISS. Keep the weight heavy (6-10 ish or 3-6 for advanced lifters) and the form good. Perform single sets or circuit style with other functional exercises thrown in. After training the major lifts I like to follow up with some specific core work like weighted sit ups, glute ham raises, hanging ab raises, db or kb swings, back raises (extensions), good mornings, hanging leg raises, ab wheel, sledgehammer slams etc. . this list is by no means conclusive.
Anaerobic conditioning: short and intense trumps long, slow distance every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Go hard for 10-60 s then allow adequate recovery of 20 s to 2 min. Run, jump, swim, bike and row—the modality is irrelevant. IMHO it is best to stay off the hamster wheels (elliptical and treadmill). They are both very boring and non functional. Our bodies are not meant to move like that.
While not everyone strives for or desires the six pack aesthetics we certainly don’t want them covered up with gobs of visceral fat. That is extremely unhealthy and can lead to many health problems such as diabetes, cancer (especially colon), high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heart disease, gallbladder problems and even dementia. Largely, your abs are made in the kitchen. . .
Nutrition: stick to meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, some fruit, little starch and no sugar in amounts to sustain activity but not body fat. Don’t be afraid of healthy fats such as coconut oil, butter, duck, chicken or goose fat, lard and tallow from pastured animals. These will give you energy and are good for you. Yes folks, no matter how good your soaked and sprouted muffins are if you’re looking to reduce body fat then you need to reduce your intake of these types of products. However; if you are already a lean machine, extremely active in either your leisure pursuits or your career and blessed with good genetics you will be able to indulge in these more often while maintaining a lean midsection. While it’s not all about caloric intake portions do matter. Especially if you want to see your abs, time for a. . .
This is a maintainable and healthy place to be that can be had with the right diet, exercise program and fit into the daily lifestyle of most people. Follow the above guidelines, throw in persistence, hard work and determination and a toned and healthy and gorgeous midsection is yours for the taking!
About The Author
Paula Jager CSCS and Level 1 CrossFit and CF Nutrition Certified is the owner of CrossFit Jaguar in Tampa, FL