The good news/bad news on abs
Jacob Lund/ShutterstockEveryone—yes, everyone—has abs. The bad news? "Though all humans have beautiful 'six packs,' they're often hidden beneath a layer of fat," says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise. Thankfully, you can reveal those six packs without hours of sit-ups or crunches.
According to Bryant and other exercise pros we spoke with, the best way to lower body fat and get flat, defined abs is to follow a healthy eating plan, prioritize rest and recovery, and tweak your workouts to get better results in line with your goals. Read on to find out exactly how trainers help their clients make these changes so they can see results sooner rather than later. (While you've got trimming down on the forefront of your mind, be sure to check out these 13 quick weight-loss tips that nutrition pros swear by.)
Timolina/ShutterstockAbs are made in the kitchen—almost every trainer Reader's Digest spoke with said a smart diet is key to success. One easy way to improve your diet is to follow Revenge Body celebrity trainer Lacey Stone's go-to formula: "I tell my clients to drink lots of water and eat four meals a day. Each meal should contain a palm-sized serving of a lean protein like fish, 1/4 cup of complex carbs like quinoa or brown rice, four tablespoons of healthy fats, and as many non-starchy vegetables as they want."
If sticking to an exact formula seems overwhelming Bryant says to start by cutting meal portions by 20 to 25 percent. (These nine genius portion control tricks for quick weight loss can help.) Once you've become used to eating less, then try transiting to Stone's approach to a balanced diet.
Make your cardio more challenging
Dean Drobot/ShutterstockIf you're already regularly doing cardio, that's great; that means you're ahead of the game when it comes to improving your cardiovascular health. But when it comes to fat loss, not any cardio workout will do. Trainers recommend HIIT—high-intensity interval training—a type of cardiovascular exercise that alternates between intense bursts of activity followed by a period of active recovery like walking or light jogging. "Studies suggest that this style of training can reduce waist circumference and abdominal fat, including visceral fat, which is stored around the organs and associated with health complications," says Rick Richey, NASM-CPT, CES, owner of the Independent Training Spot in New York City.
Never done HIIT before? Richey says beginners should start with a 1:4 work to rest ratio. "Go all out for 20 seconds, and then go into an active recovery for 80 seconds. Do this seven times for a super-effective 12-minute workout."
As for frequency, Stone suggests doing HIIT workouts three or four times a week either on a spin bike or a treadmill. If biking or running is tough on your joints, Rochester-based trainer Ajia Cherry, ACE, CPT says you can do HIIT on an elliptical. "This allows my clients to reap the benefits without the impact," she says. (Hate doing cardio? Don't miss these five energizing workout playlists to make exercising less miserable.)
Make your life less convenient
aroonroj.kul/ShutterstockFormer personal trainer and boutique fitness studio owner Carla Birnberg has a different approach to exercise—one that doesn't involve sprinting on a treadmill or bike, and she says she's never been fitter—or had flatter abs. "At 48 years old, my midsection is far more ripped than it was decades ago and my cardio of choice is walking. This is something I do every day. Even if my schedule is super busy, I make time to get at least 10,000 steps by simply making my life less convenient. I'll take the stairs, park far away from entrances, and pace during conference calls. Every little bit adds up." (For days when it's not feasible to cram in the recommended 10,000 daily steps, this shorter routine has got you covered.)
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Steer clear of fake food
LightField Studios/ShutterstockThere are so many diets these days—Paleo, vegan, gluten-free—that it can be difficult to decipher which approach is best for your goals. But Birnberg says a specific diet isn't necessary. When she was working with clients, she would tell them to simply stay away from fake, chemical-laden fare and eat more nutritious whole foods. "I don't get behind any specific approach to eating," she says. "I believe we need to find what works for us and I personally stick with foods that my grandmother would have recognized."
(Psst! Don't miss these other ten sickening secrets about processed foods.)
Stop doing crunches
Dirima/Shutterstock"There is zero evidence that doing ab exercises like crunches or planks actually help to lose belly fat," says Richey. Kelvin Gary, NASM-CPT, owner of Body Space Fitness in New York City, stresses the same message, saying you can see results faster by doing compound movements instead.
"When a client comes to me asking how to get abs fast, we'll add a lot of compound movements that link upper and lower body into their training program. They might do squats combined with overhead press or lunges paired with a row," says Gary. "These exercises raise their heart rate, which increases their calorie burn, helping them see results faster. This style of training also helps strengthen the core by connecting the upper and lower body in one movement, which can ward off injury." (Hate hitting the gym? This tiny change can make workouts way more enjoyable.)
Set aside more time for sleep
Rawpixel.com/ShutterstockIf you're sacrificing sleep to squeeze in early morning workouts, you may be doing your body more harm than good, says Jay Cardiello, a celebrity trainer who's worked with stars like Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez. "Skimping on sleep can cause the body's levels of leptin to drop. Leptin is the hormone that tells your brain that you're full. So when you don't have enough of it, it sends a message to the brain that there's a shortage of food and increases your appetite," Cardiello explains. "Do your waistline a favor and make sleep a priority. Seven or eight hours a night is ideal." Try some of these seven essential oils for a good night's sleep (and three to avoid).
Make some hard choices
Igor Normann/Shutterstock"It doesn't matter if you do core exercises all day long if you're indulging in bread, dessert, and wine on your 'cheat days,'" says Cherry. "You will continue storing abdominal fat. Pick one and truly savor it. This will allow you to enjoy life without overindulging."
Jim White RDN, ACSM, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, seconds Cherry's strategy, but he believes you will see results even faster by giving up alcohol. "Since alcohol provides little nutrition and is straight empty calories, I negotiate with my clients to reduce their intake at least by half. Each serving of alcohol that they eliminate per week helps them cut about 150 calories."
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