ShutterstockAbs. Toned stomach. Flat belly. I’ve been on a quest for the secret weapon to getting six-pack abs since I was a teen. I do everything right—eat healthily, exercise regularly, limit alcohol, even do core-targeting exercises three to seven times a week, and sometimes even twice a day. Yet—even my mother attests—I look like a healthy normal woman. Not a healthy toned, fit woman.
While the prevailing wisdom among fitness trainers is that body transformations are 80% diet and 20% exercise, anyone looking to achieve some idealized notion of six-pack abs will want to add the primary factor into that equation. If you really want eye-popping ab definition, "choose your parents carefully," Harley Pasternak, celeb trainer and founder of the 5-Factor Diet, joked to Shape. Terms like "upper abs" and "lower abs," he explains, mislead us to believe that we have six separate pockets of muscle defining our midsection, when it's actually all one muscle, divided into sections by fibrous bands. "Most people have a genetic predisposition to where those lines are," Pasternak says.
We can't change our genetics (at least, not yet), but there are things we can do to improve our body's response to exercise.
On my first training session with Roydian Chan, a “tier 3+” personal trainer at Equinox in Toronto, he pointed out something no one has ever told me. I wasn’t breathing properly. So, he taught me how to breathe.
That’s right. He taught me how to breathe. Sounds random, I know. But as he was poking my ribs and tummy with his finger as we went through his planned workout, I did feel silly. But the next day, I had something I never had before—delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in my abs. And with every workout after that. (By the way: This is how you get rid of delayed-onset muscle soreness!)
Here, Chan shares with me (and you, of course) how you can get more from your abs workouts by simply breathing better.
You *NEED* to breathe!
Shutterstock“The biggest mistake is that they don’t breathe,” Chan tells me. “This usually happens in beginners because they are so worried about the task of the exercise, and how their body is feeling, that they forget to breathe. Over time this becomes a habit, and it turns into breathing all over the place.”
And I found that breathing actually engaged my core, making my abs work harder on simple exercises, like planks or squats, even when those moves don’t obviously call on the abs for the movement. (By the way, this is exactly how long you need to hold a plank to flatten your belly.)
But not breathing can also put you at risk of hurting yourself. When you don’t breathe, especially during the “hard effort” of an exercise, like the bottom of a squat, says Chan, it could put the spine and the pelvis in danger of injury.
Read about how this woman in her 30s got her enviable six-pack.
This is how breathing gives you a toned stomach
Shutterstock Breathing properly = an engaged core. And it helps the body move through an exercise with good form, so all the exercises you do become core moves and become more effective. (Here are 19 of the all-time best core exercises that will get you in incredible shape.)
“With proper breathing during exercise, we can better avoid injury, help improve efficiency and also maximize the benefits we get out of a workout,” says Chan.
“The technique we teach at Equinox is called diaphragmatic breathing, informally known as belly breathing.”
Did you know breathing this way can also help with some serious health issues? It’s true!
What is belly breathing?
ShutterstockFor me, it didn’t feel natural for my stomach to engage and extend to breathe—let alone during an exercise. So, I thought of it as an add-on to an exercise.
Here is how Chan says to breathe and how to get abs:
“There are three parts to teaching this technique: Breathe in, hold breath, breathe out,” he says. “As you breathe in through your nose/mouth, engage the muscles that surround our lower back.”
First: When you do breathe in, you’ll notice that your belly, sides, and low back “inflate.” Chan compares this muscle engagement to a “weight belt” to stabilize all the core muscles.” It’s like slightly extending your belly and tightening it at the same time.
Second: When you hold your breath, Chan says: “With this ‘weight belt’ on, the body can now maximize output with the core functioning the way it should, this allows efficiency and low risk of injury.” I liken it to the feeling you get when you hold yourself up in a plank, tightening that midsection. (Although you are supposed to be breathing in a plank. In fact, that’s how Chan gets me to do them—10 breaths long, instead of so many seconds/minutes.)
Third: Exhaling, Chan says to go slow, tightening your core muscles as you breath out. “Imagine air leaking out of a balloon,” he says. “It comes out slowly as your belly and sides start to deflate to start the cycle again. The purpose is to train the body to activate the core muscles (includes abdominal muscles) with every single breath. (Side note: breathing can improve mindfulness, too!)
What inhaling should feel like
Shutterstock“The best way to learn belly breathing is to lie down on the floor,” says Chan. Breathe in through your nose. You should feel the muscles in your belly and lower ribs “inflate like a balloon.” (By the way, here are 12 foods that may actually help you breathe better.)
Do it again, and put your hands on your belly. When you inhale, you should see your hands rise a bit.
When most people breathe, you can see it their upper chest, he tells me. But you want to really focus so you can see the movement in your belly.
“Breathe in over a four-second count,” he says.
Sure you get a six-pack, but find out what else happens when you strengthen your core.
What exhaling should feel like
ShutterstockNow that you’re on the floor and did your four-second inhale, it’s time to learn how to exhale.
“Breathe in through your nose, hold your breath, and exhale through your mouth,” says Chan. “Your belly, the sides of your abdominals and your lower ribs, should deflate back to normal.” And do it slowly, about eight seconds.
It is hard to do. “You may not get this on the first couple attempts because, a) you are rewiring a habit, and b) most people’s breathing is very shallow throughout the day.” For me, it felt like engaging (inhale) and contracting (exhale).
“This is a great way to bring awareness towards letting in air slowly, and exhaling even slower.” (Here are secrets of women who manage to work out every day.)
Want to know what to eat to get abs? These foods will tone your tummy.
This is when to breathe in and when to hold your breath
Shutterstock“Inhale at the beginning of the movement, and hold it throughout the downward transition (about seven seconds) and the ‘bottom’ of the movement,” says Chan.
“The ‘bottom’ of an exercise is generally where the body is least stable and requires more effort from the core, which means we need it ‘braced’ in this position, which also means the belly should be filled with air.” (These squat upgrades can burn even more calories.)
Take the squat for example. You breathe in when you’re standing straight. Then you hold it as you move your butt down to the floor, so that your thighs become parallel to the floor.
Are you doing squats right? This will show you the proper form.
This is when you breathe out
ShutterstockYou exhale when you return to the start position of the exercise. “This part generally requires the most amount of effort,” says Chan.
We’ll use squats again for the example. You exhale as you push your body up to standing. (Be careful not to do these seven common exercise moves that actually work against you.)
Squats might not be thought of as an abs exercise, but when you do this it is definitely a core move. You’ll feel it the next day.
Test yourself to see if you’re breathing properly
ShutterstockAs I went through the exercises in our workouts, Chan would walk around me, checking out my core to make sure it was “inflated” and “deflated” when it should be. He would also push in my sides and belly to make sure these core muscles were engaged.
Ask yourself, as you go through an exercise, does your core make you feel more secure and stronger as you go through the movement? One thing I noticed is how I would often relax my core without even noticing and put more focus on my legs.
To test your technique, Chan says to lie on the floor, face down with your forehead on your hands and do the breathing as previously described.
“If you’re breathing properly you should feel the pressure of your belly going into the ground.” (Ladies: did you know your menstrual cycle could be affecting your workouts? Here's how.)
Don’t forget to count – 4, 7, 8
ShutterstockThis breathing count (four-second inhale, seven-second hold and eight-second exhale) is actually derived from meditation breathing.
“The 4-7-8 breathing exercise has been around for a very long time,” says Chan, adding it is an integral part of how to get abs. “You might not get this on the first couple of reps because most people’s breaths are very shallow. The reason is because our nervous system is often on ‘fight or flight’ mode, we are not very good at managing stress.”