If you’ve ever tried to uncover your abs—let alone sculpt a set that qualifies as “washboard”—you know how difficult it is. You have to train hard, sweat often, adopt monk-like discipline in your eating and drinking habits, and improve the quality and quantity of your sleep to even have a shot at whittling your body fat down to that magic percentage where a six-pack begins to materialize: around 15 percent for men and 18 percent for women. (If you want a chiseled abs, you’ll need to go even lower—below about 12 and 15 percent, respectively.)
Granted, I might be overstating the suffering a bit, but you get my point: Sculpting a six-pack is fucking hard. It’s also worth it, as developing abs like a run of double-diamond moguls can improve your health and fitness on just about every level if you’re smart about how you go about it.
Of course, eye popping abs can also improve your confidence level, not to mention your attractiveness quotient (hence the nickname “sex-pack”), which is why nearly everyone who sets foot in a gym has it on his or her wish list. It’s right up there with a firm ass, chiseled pecs, defined legs, a V-shaped torso, and sleeve-busting arms. But perhaps more than any other fitness goal, a six-pack has developed its own mythology. You’ve likely heard some of the more popular maxims, such as “abs are made in the kitchen” and “carbs are the enemy of abs.” Now it’s time to forget them, as the first step toward a six-pack is to kill the myths that surround it.
Myth 1: Abs Are Made in the Kitchen
This bit of wisdom is only true if you work out in your kitchen, which I don’t recommend for myriad safety and sanitary reasons. For most people, abs are made in the gym, but what you do in the kitchen—especially with regards to the quality and quantity of food you prepare there—can determine whether or not you ever see them. So I guess you could say that your abs are revealed in the kitchen. But hold that thought for now. We’ll get into it in more detail shortly.
Myth 2: A Six-Pack Is the Sign of a Strong Core
People often confuse the terms “core” and “abs.” They’re related, but not synonymous. “Abs” refers to the rectus abdominis, which is a segmented muscle located on the front of your abdomen between your lower ribs and pelvis. It’s what comprises a six-pack. Your core, meanwhile, includes your abs and every other muscle between your hips and your trapezius (excluding your chest and upper back). So if all you do is crunches, leg raises, and other exercises that specifically target your abs, it’s very possible to develop a ripped six-pack and a weak core. That’s a problem since your core is responsible for not only supporting and stabilizing your spine, but also transferring power throughout your body. In short, if you focus on your abs to the exclusion of the rest of your core, you increase your risk of developing back pain and limit your performance in everything you do—in and out of the gym.
Myth 3: Crunches Are the Best Abs Exercise
Sorry, crunches—planks hold that title. At least, that’s what scientists at Canada’s University of Waterloo found in a study of both dynamic (crunches) and isometric (planks) abs exercises. The reason is that not only does holding a rigid position extend your abs’ time under tension (a key growth trigger), but it also reinforces the primary job of your entire core: stabilizing your spine.
That raises another key benefit of the plank: It engages more muscles than the crunch. While the latter exercise primarily activates your rectus abdominis (and to a lesser extent your obliques), the plank engages nearly every muscle not only in your core, but also throughout your entire body when done correctly. So go ahead and do crunches if you like them or have a tough time holding still. But if you want to chisel your abs and become stronger overall, make sure you’re also doing the plank.
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Myth 4: You Can Target Different Areas of Your Abs
As a trainer, I’m used to people fixating on certain body parts. People often ask me about the best exercises for building a perkier butt, bolder shoulders, bigger arms, stronger calves, chiseled pecs, firmer thighs, and (of course) washboard abs. But people often get even more specific with that last one—they want to know how to focus on their lower abs or upper abs. I’ve even had someone ask me about targeting the middle abs.
Here’s my answer: You can’t. And the reason is that while your abs might look like a series of individual muscles, it’s actually a single one that operates on the “all or nothing” principle: Either the whole thing contracts, or it doesn’t. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a crunch, a Russian twist, or a leg raise—any exercise that targets your abs engages the entire muscle.
Myth 5: Carbs Are the Enemy of Abs
Carbophobes annoy the shit out of me. As a fitness pro, I’m constantly surrounded by people ranting about the evils of carbs and how they’re trying to cut them out of their lives, because how else are you supposed to lose the flab that’s preventing you from fitting into a size six? Let’s stop the madness right now: Carbs are not the enemy of abs. Overeating is. Carbs are more of a frenemy.
Whenever you eat carbs (pasta, bread, potatoes, powdered donuts) your body breaks them down into a simple sugar called glucose, which is your body’s primary fuel source. Glucose circulates in your blood and is stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Once your blood glucose and glycogen supplies are topped off, your body tends to store excess carbs as fat, which is why they get a bad rap. If you overeat them, you’ll add jiggle to your middle. If you don't, you won't.
Trevor Thieme is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and fitness professional based in Los Angeles.
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