Turns out abs really are built in the kitchen. While most of us focus on the fitness side of body transformations by hiring a personal trainer, learning more ab exercises to work our core muscles (like the endless leg raises, mountain climbers, and planks), and hitting the gym more days a week, we’re may be putting our efforts in the wrong place.
Achieving six-pack abs has more to do with your diet than anything else.
So put down the ab roller and follow these 10 science-backed strategies for how to get abs.
What Are Abs?
Abdominal muscles or “abs” consist of four main muscle groups combined to cover your internal organs around your midsection - this is also commonly referred to as your core.
These muscle groups include internal and external muscles that stabilize your midsection, maintain internal pressure, and allow for a proper movement like sitting up, twisting, and turning.
When talking about getting “abs” most people are referring to the rectus abdominis – the main visible muscle group across your stomach that when contracted provides the appearance of a six-pack.
How Do You Get Abs?
Contrary to popular opinion, abs are typically a result of a lean body composition, not genetics or your workout regime - although these can certainly assist!
Technically, everyone has abs underneath their belly fat because we are all born with a rectus abdominis.
It is not possible to only focus on losing belly fat, a full-body approach is necessary.
Strength training your abs will surely help in building the muscles and sharpening them, but the key to having them be visible abs and is lowering overall body fat through proper diet (caloric intake) while exercising (caloric expenditure).
In other words, the fastest way to get abs is to lose body fat. And the best way to achieve fat loss is to dial in your nutrition!
What to Eat to Get Abs
Because achieving a six-pack is strongly dependent on fat loss, a healthy diet is the biggest contributing factor to your success.
Losing fat typically requires a weight loss diet or reduction in calorie intake. When you decrease your calories, your body is forced to rely on stored energy - typically in the form of body fat. So the longer and more consistently you can cut calories, the more body fat you can lose.
How long you need to cut to see abs and at what calorie level can differ from one person to the next, but is most dependent on your starting body composition and workouts.
In order to master your perfect diet for fat loss, learn your calorie goals first. Then figure out which nutritious foods you enjoy will help you hit your nutrition goals.
What Exercise is Good for Abs?
Any exercise that supports calorie burn is going to support your fat loss goals. However, some types of exercise can help you strengthen and define your abs - especially strength training and core exercises.
It’s not necessary to spend all your time doing crunches and ab workouts to see results. Similar to your diet, focus on a full-body approach to training and find movements you enjoy to help build strength and burn calories to support your fat loss goals.
How to Get a Six-Pack: 10 Science-Backed Strategies
Now that we’ve covered the basics on how to reveal your six-pack, let’s talk strategy.
Losing belly fat can feel easier said than done, so here’s your ultimate strategy guide to help you stay on track and finally see results.
1. Learn Your Macro Goals
Calorie control determines how much weight you can lose, but macronutrient intake can help determine the type of weight you lose - aka more body fat!
Macros (protein, fat, and carbs) are where all of your calories come from, and learning your macro balance is one of the most efficient ways to control calories and balance your nutrition.
The right macro-based diets are associated with improved body composition, energy levels, mood, and appetite control (1,2,3). Meaning they not only support fat-loss directly but may also make the process of cutting calories feel a bit easier.
The ideal macro balance for cutting can differ from one person to the next depending on your eating history, current physique, workouts, age, gender, health, and overall goals.
Calculate your unique daily nutrition needs using the free online macro calculator.
2. Track Your Macros
Once you know your nutrition goals, the next logical step is to figure out what that looks like in food.
Tracking everything you eat and drink in a macro-friendly app is the easiest way to ensure you are sticking to your goals consistently and show you exactly where you are falling off track.
Especially for food items that don't have a nutrition fact label like most whole foods and restaurant meals.
If you aren’t tracking your intake, you’re likely flying blind.
You’d be amazed how even the smallest bites, a drizzle of oil, or other intakes unaccounted for can add up over time and sabotage your progress. The more you track, the better you get at learning your nutrition needs and hitting your daily macros.
Learn how to track your daily macros with a macro-friendly app like Trifecta.
3. Start Meal Prepping
There is no better way to take complete control over your nutrition than to start meal prepping your food. When done correctly, meal prep can be a serious game-changer, even if you only choose to meal prep one meal a day or a few days a week.
Especially if you are eating out a lot. The dude at chipotle isn’t weighing out your guac or paying attention to how much oil he adds to your cooked chicken, so any sort of nutrition precision goes right out the window.
Cooking all your meals is a massive undertaking and a good meal prep strategy can help save you tons of time and money, and dial in your food intake for results. And that’s exactly what meal prep is designed to do - provide you with a solid plan and systematize your nutrition for ease. Imagine how much less stress and mental peace you can have by knowing you have food waiting in the fridge every day of the week.
Learn exactly how to portion your food to fit your macros and crush your macro-based diet.
4. Cut Back on Alcohol and Added Sugar
We’re not typically in the business of demonizing foods, but if you really want to move the needle on your fat loss goals, you may want to cut some things out - specifically alcohol and added sugar.
Not only can calories from added sugar and alcohol add up quickly, but they provide very little nutritional value and have been linked to increased belly fat (7,8). Additionally, both alcohol and sugar can lead to poor food choices from lowered inhibitions and increased sugar cravings - making it harder to stick to your healthy diet.
Alcohol also messes with your metabolism and ability to burn fat efficiently when you overdo it (9).
Skip the empty calories and fill up on foods that support your health and weight loss goals instead.
5. Track Your Calorie Burn
Nutrition counts for a majority of your success, but the calorie model still goes both ways, and learning how to increase your fat-burning potential is a part of the equation.
But this doesn't mean you have to work out like a maniac or two times a day to see results. The key is to be strategic about your calorie burn and find ways to increase movement or fat burning all day long.
This includes opting for time-efficient workouts like high-intensity training, strength training to build muscle that burns calories throughout the day, or just being more active in general by taking the stairs, sitting less, and walking more.
Pay attention to how many calories you burn by tracking your calorie burn in addition to your calorie intake using a wearable tracking device.
6. Strength Train Your Core Muscles
When it comes to developing any muscle, including your abs, strength training is crucial. It’s also a great way to increase your calorie burn since muscle is metabolic and burns calories all day long - unlike fatty tissue that just sits there.
Additionally, strength training will help you maintain your existing lean mass (and potentially gain muscle) so you can keep your metabolism strong and achieve that “shredded look” you set out for in the first place.
The best strength training workouts for your abs include compound lifts that require a strong core, like squats, deadlifts, snatches, cleans, and overhead press.
You can also add weight to traditional ab workouts like sit-ups, bear crawls, planks, v-ups, toes-to-bar, and scissor kicks. But don't just focus on lower ab exercises, aim to work your full body and develop your overall strength - you'll burn more calories in your workouts and see better results in the end.
Workout for a stronger core with full-body strength training.
7. Build Discipline with Better Habits
Another crucial component to any transformation is the right mindset. If you struggle with finding and keeping your motivation or just aren’t enjoying the process, you’re gonna have a hard time staying with it long term. And when you don’t stick with it, you don’t see results.
The trick is to build discipline. Willpower is fleeting, but well-built routines and systems can help you stick to your goals even when motivation is gone.
Also known as “healthy habits”, routines are the building blocks for real change. And the more seamlessly you can make these changes fit into your lifestyle, the easier they are to maintain.
Learn how to be more disciplined by changing your habits and setting SMART goals you can stick to.
8. Get Plenty of Rest
Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your good intentions, messing with your mood, appetite, cravings, and willpower. It's so much harder to eat healthy and have the energy to work out when you’re tired.
Also, some studies link increased belly fat storage with poor sleep - meaning, lack of sleep could potentially cause increased fat storage (10).
Save your sanity and give your body the rest it needs by getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night.
9. Manage Your Stress Levels
Similar to how being tired can mess with your willpower, being stressed can also cause you to overeat, succumb to cravings, and potentially store more belly fat.
Your body’s stress response releases cortisol - a catabolic hormone that increases appetite and promotes the breakdown of muscle for more immediate energy.
This is helpful when a true fight or flight situation occurs. But when immediate energy is not needed - such as in the case of chronic stress, excess nutrients released from your stress response may get stored as abdominal fat (11,12,13).
Put a lid on stress with mindfulness techniques like meditation.
10. Give Yourself Time
No matter what the internet has promised you, you can’t get the body of your dreams by following a 30-day crash diet or continuing on with old habits that got you where you are today.
A nice set of abs won’t show up overnight. A lean, strong set of abs comes from weeks, months, and sometimes even years of proper training, nutrition, and lifestyle principles that we have to incorporate as a part of our philosophy.
You don’t have to stick to your goals 100% of the time. Forget the all-or-nothing mentality and aim to get it right most of the time by emphasizing consistency.
Consistency is everything! You can change a little here or there, but if you aren’t repeating these behaviors on a regular basis, you aren’t being consistent, and your results won’t be consistent either.
Be patient. With enough time and consistency, you’ll see results that stick around.
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