This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
You can run for miles, spend hours in downward dog and even beat your own personal plank record, but that’s no guarantee you’re going to effectively target a universal trouble spot: your abdominals.
Amongst even the most fitness-conscious folks, a flat stomach is the holy grail and a unicorn wrapped up into one #goals hashtag that, for many of us, is never realized.
The good news is most men, women and yes, even women who have given birth or had Cesarean sections, can lose stomach fat and develop their ab muscles so that their natural six-packs show through. But so many ab-flattening myths have pervaded our psyches over the years and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between helpful advice and fiction. We asked three fitness experts to give us the lowdown on exactly what we should do to get rock-hard abs—here are their seven tips.
Crunches only target the front of your abs and can put an unnecessary amount of strain on your back. To boot: they simply aren’t an effective abs exercise because they can’t address the fat that is covering your muscle.
“Lower abs can be a ‘trouble spot’ for many people because we naturally tend to store fat there,” says Cassey Ho, founder of Blogilates. “The key is to burn fat and tone the lower abs at the same time.”
Try these moves instead:
• Burpees: “These are the ultimate fat-burning moves,” Ho says. “In order to get a flat stomach you can’t only do ab-strengthening moves, you need to also add cardio into the mix.” Begin in a standing position. Jump down to your hands and kick your feet back so that you are in a pushup position. You have the option of performing a pushup to add a bit of challenge to your workout before jumping back up to your feet and repeating the series 15-20 times.
• Double Leg Lifts: This move targets the lower belly and after 10-15 reps your core will be shaking, Ho says. Lay flat on your back and form a triangle with your hands beneath your lower back (this will ensure your back stays straight on the ground and is protected). Now lift both legs straight into the air and lower them until they’re a few inches off the ground (but if your lower back begins to lift, you are going too low). Return your legs to their starting position without touching the ground and repeat.
• Hip Twists: Hip twists are a multitasking move that tones and tightens your core, but also drives your heart rate up, which creates the fat-burning effect you need, according to Ho. Begin in plank position with your elbows on your mat. Keeping your back flat and your tummy tucked in, twist your right hip until it nearly touches the mat, return to plank, and repeat the same move with your left hip.
• High Intensity Interval Training: HIIT circuit training incorporates cardio and strength training in short, but intense mini workout sessions with brief periods of rest in between. “Sprinting in particular, which is a core dominant movement, is one of the best ways to shred your stomach,” says Brandon Mentore, a strength and conditioning coach, functional medicine practitioner, and sports nutritionist.
• Hanging Leg Raises: This exercise allows you to focus and concentrate on abdominal movement and target the lower abdominal muscles below the belly button, Mentore says. While hanging from a chin-up bar, raise both legs until they are at a 90-degree angle to your torso. Return your legs to their starting position and repeat the movement.
• Planking: Experts agree that the plank can help create abs definition, but Tyler Spraul, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and head trainer at Exercise.com, suggests trying a few variations of the classic plank. “Instead of trying to plank for five minutes, try planking for 15-20 seconds while bracing as hard as you can,” Spraul says. “Anti-rotation and anti-flexion moves, like the prone plate switch, are good for this as well.”
If you are extremely thin, a little cardio can help keep you in shape, but too much of a good thing can backfire on you.
“If you’re already fairly lean, but lack definition in your core, then you should focus on building the muscle,” Ho says. “You can add cardio back into your routine after you notice the muscle gains in your stomach. Ab muscles are like any other muscle in your body—in order to grow them, you need to work and fuel them. Too much cardio breaks down muscle depending on how many calories you are taking in, so lay off cardio for a while as you continue to build your muscle.”
Despite what we’ve been taught, good carbs are not the enemy. A balanced diet is key, especially if your goal is to create lean muscle.
“When blood/plasma levels of amino acids are high the conditions for muscle growth are highly favorable,” Mentore says. “Carbohydrates help potentiate insulin, energy and nutrient partitioning, sending nutrients to muscle tissue. For those reasons sources of high quality protein and a natural carbohydrate source in a 2:1 ratio respectively is the most favorable meal structure for muscle growth.”
If you’ve focused so much on cutting carbs out of your life you are no longer sure how to incorporate good carbs back into your meals, Mentore suggests a vegetable omelet and apple or banana for breakfast, grilled salmon with veggies and quinoa for lunch, and chicken breast and a sweet potato for dinner.
When training your abs, it’s easier than you might think to unknowingly recruit the muscles in your back and hip flexors to perform movements, Mentore says.
“The hip flexors, which run along side of the abdominal wall, connect in the spine and go down to the groin, are responsible for contracting the legs toward the torso and the torso to the legs,” Mentore says. “Those two movements exist in almost all of the traditional abdominal exercises you can do. It’s very important to concentrate on the mind muscle connection to recruit the abdominal muscles in place of the hip flexors as much as possible. Overdeveloped tight hip flexors can give you the appearance of having a pooch belly because they literally push parts of the abdominal wall forward which is undesirable.”
Training alongside your partner is a great way to boost each others morale, but it’s important to remember that male and female bodies are different—particularly when it comes to how we store fat in our abdomens. Ladies, it isn’t your imagination: you’ll probably have to put in twice the work as your male partner to achieve results.
“The key difference between men and women in regards to ab definition is that women have much more sensitive bodies,” Mentore says. “The major things females have to contend with that males aren’t subject to in the same degree are digestion, bloating, the reproductive system and hormonal fluctuations. For those reasons women have to be a little more attentive to training and nutrition and be more patient in getting results relative to men.”
Learning how to breathe, both during and after a workout, can give you better fitness results.
As we tend to breathe pretty lightly and primarily into our chest. Deep belly breathing is an underrated way to get those core muscles back in action.”
There’s a reason why one of Ho’s favorite expressions is: “Abs are made in the gym and revealed in the kitchen.” If you’re not following a proper diet, all of the burpees in the world aren’t going to make a lick of difference. You need protein from whole food sources at all meals to help you stay fuller for longer (eggs, Greek yogurt, lean meats, lentils and black beans are universal favorites amongst experts). But, as Mentore mentioned, you also need healthy carbs and healthy fats found in foods like nuts, coconut and olive oil, avocado and chia seeds.
If you’re following a strict workout plan but are still failing to see results after four to six weeks, consider keeping a detailed food journal that will reveal exactly where the holes are in your diet. Replace foods that don’t serve you with healthier options and you’ll be well on your way to achieving that flat stomach you thought was an impossibility.
Lisa Fogarty is a freelance writer based in New York who loves art, ballet and fashion history.