The washboard stomach is perhaps the most popular visual hallmark of fitness. The holy grail, if you will. Despite this being the case, most people don’t know how to get abs.
In fact, there’s a lot more confusion surrounding the abs than almost any other body part. People pretty much know how to redesign their biceps, but they flounder when when they try to figure out how to get abs.
This is because truly getting sculpted abs and finally getting rid of your pesky belly fat—which is directly linked to serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke—requires a combination of the right cardio, strength training and specific core exercises.
How to Get Abs: Why You’re Going About It All Wrong
You can do all the crunches and other abdominal exercises in the world, but if you still have a layer of fat covering your abs, you’ll never see the results.
You can do all the aerobic exercise you want, but if you lose the fat without sculpting the muscles, you’ll just have a smaller, but still flabby and shapeless abdomen.
It’s important to remember that most forms of exercise are better than doing nothing at all, but my goal is to show the ones that are more effective (and safer).
Some of the things you do to burn fat and build muscle have more short-term benefits, while others have more long-term benefits. The most effective methods have a nice combination of both.
I’m going to break down a 3-part how to get abs formula for you that will help you zero in on exactly what you have to do to get those 6-pack abs you’ve been dreaming of.
1) The Cardio Element of the Trifecta
There are two types of cardio: low-to-moderate intensity, steady state cardio and high-intensity interval cardio or HIIT.
Low to Moderate Intensity Steady State Cardio
Steady-state cardio has certain short-term benefits. The main benefit is that it does burn a certain amount of calories. If going at a good moderate pace on the elliptical or treadmill, you might burn 400 calories in 45 minutes (as an example). But that’s all you’re doing.
You haven’t taxed your body enough metabolically to continue burning calories after your workout (or what people generally refer to as “boosting your metabolism”). So that 400 calorie loss is all you’re going to get.
When people say, “Oh, I burned 400 calories today, so I can have four cookies,” they’re enjoying the short-term benefits of steady-state cardio. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I saved $10 on my tires so I can spend an extra $10 on new jeans.” You’re not really losing anything, but you’re not really gaining anything, either.
One other thing that low-moderate steady state-cardio is good for is using it as part of your recovery.
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If I’ve worked out pretty intensely all week and I want something lighter to recover and rejuvenate my body, I will do some long, slow cardio, but I’m not doing it for the purposes of burning fat or improving my cardio endurance. I’m doing it as a recovery method.
That’s essentially the benefit of doing long, slow cardio. It’s not going to help you sculpt your abs or get rid of belly fat, but it can be good for building a base if you’ve never worked out before and for using as a recovery tool, to help your body rid itself of some toxins and some lactic acid buildup after a workout or on its own.
HIIT or High-Intensity Interval Cardio
On your quest to figure out how to get abs, remember this abbreviation: HIIT.
It stands for high-intensity interval training, and it sits at the other end of the cardio spectrum from long, slow cardio.
A lot of people think HIIT is a specific exercise or workout, but it can be incorporated into virtually any form of cardio, whether it’s jumping rope, cycling, calisthenics, bodyweight or weight training, swimming or any other cardio exercise you like to do.
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With HIIT, you perform at your highest possible output or intensity for a certain length of time – usually 5-30 seconds (depending on your fitness level and training goals), then drop down to about half that intensity for a certain length of time to recover. You’ll repeat this for the duration of your workout, ending with a moderate intensity period.
Keep in mind that the duration of the recovery interval is really what determines the challenge of the workout. If you go full out for 30 seconds and take 5 minutes to recover that’s a much easier workout than if you only recovered for 30 seconds.
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend you follow a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio, meaning if you go fast for 10 seconds, recover for 40 seconds.
If you’re more advanced, you can tip the scale the other way and reduce your recovery to the point where eventually you are working for a longer period of time than you’re recovering (ie. 2:1).
The benefit of interval training is that you end up spending more time at your fastest possible speed. Why is that beneficial? Well, obviously, from an aerobics standpoint, it’s very beneficial for improving your performance and cardiovascular endurance, but it’s also beneficial from a belly-fat-burning perspective.
Because you’re spending so much time at a high intensity, you’re able to not only burning calories during your workout (as you do with steady-state cardio) but also for a long time (up to 48 hours) after your workout.
This is mainly because high intensity training elicits a greater release of testosterone and growth hormone—both of which breakdown stored fat into free fatty acids that your cells can then use for energy after the workout.
Numerous studies have shown that HIIT prompts what is known as the “afterburn effect”, which is increased metabolism due to depleting your muscle cells’s oxygen stores during your workout.
Your body’s going to continue to burn calories as it’s trying to recover itself after the workout. The afterburn effect will be dependent upon two variables: the intensity at which you worked and how long you worked out at that intensity.
The higher the intensity and the longer you worked, the greater the afterburn effect, which means that you can go back to the office or sit on the couch and watch TV, and you’ll be burning calories to a greater extent, a much greater extent than if you did long, slow cardio.
How often should you do interval training?
I believe two to three times a week maximum, because it’s physically and psychologically demanding to push yourself to that extent. Use maybe a light cardio session the rest of the week if you like, but except for recovery purposes, the HIIT sessions are really all you need.
From a belly-fat loss or total fat-loss perspective, if you want to see your abs, if you want to do some of that first-thing-in-the-morning cardio with no breakfast, go for a walk or do something light, so you’ll be tapping into more of your fat reserves at that lower intensity because you’re actually using fat as a fuel.
If you want to get the utmost out of those light early morning sessions, you can finish your thirty-minute walk or whatever you’re doing with just a few sprints.
Studies have actually shown what that does is increase epinephrine or adrenaline secretion from your adrenal glands.
Epinephrine is a hormone that goes to your fat cells and activates an enzyme call HSL, or hormone-sensitive lipase, to break down fat into its different components—free fatty acids and glycerol. These free fatty acids are then taken out of the fat cell, so the fat cell can shrink over time, and these will be metabolized or oxidized for fuel, so you can add some of HIIT’s extra fat-burning power to even a light walk.
2) The Strength Training Element of the Trifecta
Now let’s talk about the strength training aspect of how to get abs. Strength training is very, very important for its long term benefits. If you want sculpted, toned abs—even if you just want a flat stomach, you need to be doing strength training.
When I talk about strength training, I’m also referring to specific abdominal exercises (not these ones), but we’ll talk about those in just a moment.
First, let’s talk about overall, full-body strength training. The overall long-term benefit for this is that you’re developing more lean mass and that lean mass is what you’re going to see once you’ve removed that layer of excess belly fat.
Adding lean mass is also very important from a metabolic standpoint because the more lean muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate will be. That’s important because 70% of your total daily caloric expenditure is coming from your base metabolic rate, the number of calories you need just to function.
Also, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn during exercise and even at rest, because muscle is much more metabolically active than fat is; it burns about 50 times more calories than fat does, which can make a huge difference in how much you can eat without gaining and in how quickly you can lose the fat you already have.
Another aspect of strength training when it comes to belly fat (and overall body fat) loss is that large, compound movements using a decent amount of weight (not those little pink 2lb dumbbells) is going to help you burn a lot more calories than a standard set of biceps curls you do sitting down.
What I’m talking about is something like picking a weight up off of the floor, bringing it to your chest and then pushing it up over your head before you return it to the floor. This type of compound movement involves far more large muscles, which increases energy needs and burns more calories.
The key to burning fat and calories with strength training is to move enough weight a great enough distance using as many muscle groups as possible.
The movement I described above burns far more calories than something like sit-ups, because you’re pushing weight and using more muscles.
Bear in mind that many exercises that are not ab-specific will still engage your abs, such as squats. You always want to focus on your core and engaging those core muscles properly, even if you’re not specifically working your abs.
But when you are working your abs, some exercises are far more effective than others.
3) The Ab-Exercise Element of the Trifecta
The third element to bear in mind as you study how to get abs is to lose belly fat and build strong, beautiful abs underneath with ab-specific exercises or, more accurately, core-abdominal exercises. These have both short and long-term benefits.
The benefit in the short-term is that you feel like you’re doing the work. When you feel like you’ve had a little bit too much to eat over the last couple days, your abs feel a little bit flabby, and you want to feel a good burn, working your core or abs accomplishes that for you.
That’s the main short-term effect and it’s an important one psychologically.
The long-term benefit to doing abdominal or core-specific exercises are numerous and very important. One thing that’s really important to understand is the different types of abdominal muscles and abdominal exercises.
When I talk about abdominal exercises, I’m not talking about sit-ups; I’m not talking about movements like leg lifts and sit-ups and all sorts of exercises that contort your back and put your lower back at an increased risk of herniation.
I’m talking about doing properly designed abdominal and core workouts that are going to integrate not just your six-pack or your eight-pack muscles, but all of the muscles in your core, because your core is made up of a whole lot of different musculature, so you need to be able to hit the front, the sides, the back, the deep. All those muscles are really, really important to your health and safety, and also to getting truly sculpted abs.
Think about stability before movement when it comes to abdominal training.
Essentially, abdominal training has its importance in the sense that the more you can develop your deep-core muscles and the outer-core muscles and all those muscles we’ve just been talking about, the better your posture’s going be. So, just from a low-back and back-health perspective, doing proper core exercises is going to be essential.
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From a performance standpoint, core exercises improve your energy transfer. If you’re an athlete, if you exercise, if you play sports, the energy transfer from your upper to lower body or your lower to upper body is greatly enhanced through a strong core.
For instance, I love tennis. When I’m serving in tennis, my arm is not the most important group of muscles to my serve. My legs are, because as I go into my serve, as I push down into the floor, that same force will push back through my body and end up in the service motion. The stronger my legs are, the more power I can generate on my serve, and that’s all transferred through my core.
By working your core muscles, all of your core muscles, through core-specific movements, you strengthen and protect your back, improve your overall strength, speed and performance and sculpt your abs. The key is to be sure you’re engaging all of the different abdominal muscles on a regular basis and sometimes even within the same exercise.
If you’re really serious about losing belly fat and sculpting flat, lean, strong, shapely abs, the key is that you need a healthy combination of the right cardio, the right type of strength training, and specifically designed core and abdominal workouts that will strengthen your core without compromising your lower back.
Once you incorporate all of these elements into your program, you’ll finally be able to shed the belly fat and start seeing real results from your workouts. It will take some work, but once you’ve figured out how to get abs, the formula is very simple. Get out there and get to work!
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Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.