I used to do endless crunches, hoping and wishing my 6 pack would join me. We are constantly inundated with infomercials and headlines that scream “The 6 best moves for a 6 pack” but do you ever notice that actual workout videos focused on solely getting those defined cuts–such as say “Hip Hop Abs”– include a combination of Cardio and Strength Training to help people get the body they want? And you may find some overlap amongst these workout videos but normally, you will see a variety of exercises. I started to wonder if they are targeting one specific area then why so much variation?
Well, because the truth is there is not a magical set of moves that will burn fat from your midsection. That would be considered spot training and spot training is ineffective for fat burning. Ab exercises and spot training do have their place though! All those ab exercises help shape and strengthen the muscles, in the same way that shoulder exercises or leg exercises help shape and strengthen those areas. This means that you will gain more muscle in those areas from these moves but you will not necessarily lose the fat. So how are all these Fitness models, Bodybuilders and Fitness enthusiasts actually getting their abs to join the party?
Cardio and Weight Training.
I used to be a cardio bunny. Running, spinning, kickboxing, if it was Cardio I did it. Anywhere from 4-5 times a week. I lost weight and some fat, but did not gain any definition. Ever notice how long distance runners are lean but for the most part lanky? That is because while Cardio is great for burning fat if you are not supplementing these workouts with weight lifting sessions then your muscle is being sacrificed for energy. During Cardio your body needs energy to upkeep the intensity, without the proper fuel sources the body breaks down protein for glucose. Lifting will help you maintain the mass you already have as well as add muscle mass. When supplemented with a healthy diet, that added muscle will give your body a leaner and more defined look.
Now, there is also the flip side. In college, I would only hit the weights and do no to very little cardio. Lifting (heavy) will add and shape your muscles, and the more muscle you have the more calories your body will burn. It is perfectly normal to prefer one over the other but to really optimize your results, a combination of both is important. Cardio will strengthen your heart– which means your heart will pump blood faster and will help your body get oxygen to your muscles quicker. When you are lifting, your muscles want that oxygen for recovery, adding mass and improved strength. Aside from benefiting your muscles Cardio helps burn fat, boosts your metabolism, reduces stress and makes your immune system stronger.
Only doing weights will help you add on muscle, and burn calories but to really bust that stubborn fat you need to force your body to tap into those fat stores– with cardio!
CARDIO, CARDIO, CARDIO!
Cardio comes in so many different forms: High Intensity Interval Training, Rowing, Cycling, Running, Dancing, Kickboxing, Old School Aerobics or a friendly Basketball game. I would suggest trying out a few different types of cardio workouts to see which one you really enjoy the most.
I, for example, never knew just how much I loved Kickboxing, Spinning and Full Body workouts before I buckled down and finally tried them! I love mixing up my cardio everything from Ballet classes, to Phys Ed style HIIT classes (imagine playing dodge ball for your workout!) to circuit training.
There are great subscription programs such as ClassPass, Athlete’s Club and FitClub to name a few that allow you to try a couple different workouts at a number of different studios. Or check out some of the awesome videos on YouTube to find out what you like! For cyclists/spinners, there is Peloton which allows you to get in a good sweat from your home bike. If you feel like some friendly competition will help you, grab some friends and hit the park with a soccer ball or look up your local tennis courts. Basically, there is a form of cardio out there for everyone, whether you enjoy the great outdoors or prefer to do it from the comfort of your living room.
HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training involves mixing intense bursts of energy with recovery periods such as sprinting for 30 seconds and taking a walking break for a minute. HIIT workouts range from 4 minutes (Tabata, for example) to 30 minutes allowing you to get in a great workout in a shorter amount of time. The idea is to work at your maximum threshold during the intense periods force your body and lungs to work harder. Because the workouts tend to be on the shorter side, there is less of a chance of your body tapping into your muscles for energy.
Steady State Cardio: The good old 45-60 minute (or more) Cardio certainly has its place in training! The longer period of Cardio still allows you to burn fat, and work your cardiovascular system. It will also help you improve your endurance meaning you will be able to go harder at your workouts in the future. With steady state cardio, you want to make sure that you are properly fueled to avoid losing mass.
Whenever I would see “Weight Training” on my High school schedule I would do a small victory dance. I have always been on the stronger side so with consistency on my part I tended to see considerable progress. Lifting used to (and still does!) make me feel fierce. And the beautiful definition that comes from it?! Mamma mia, count me in!
For many women there is the fear that lifting, and lifting HEAVY will make them look “manly.” I hate this misconception. First, it assumes that women cannot have muscle definition or be muscular without giving up their femininity. Here is the thing: It is incredibly hard, for both sexes, to build muscle. Due to the lower levels of testosterone it is even harder for women. Women also require a little bit more essential fat than men which means that again building muscle in the same way that men do is not possible. In addition, “getting big” and “bulking” requires not only eating a certain way but also training for a significant number of years. So scrap those silly thoughts and embrace the awesome benefits of hitting the weight rack!
For beginning lifters, start with 3-4 days of weight training. You can, for example, start with one day dedicated to your lower body, one day for upper body and one full body day. As you get more advanced, you can break it down and target certain parts of your body: for example one day could be dedicated to legs and another to shoulders. Pick 2-3 days for abs, and pick exercises that engage all of your core (obliques, abdominals, and lower back).
As you become a little bit more advanced you can get the most out of your lifting by adding in supersets or doing two exercises back to back without stopping before taking a short rest in between sets. Supersetting is a little more aggressive form of training, helping to keep your heart rate elevated and burn more fat! Supersets can involve either one muscle group (such as hitting shoulders with overhead presses and lateral raises), opposing muscle groups (triceps extensions followed by push ups to hit the tricep and bicep muscles) or even non opposing muscle groups (back and biceps or shoulders and legs for example).
Finally, do not skimp out on a body part just because it is not your favorite. A well balanced physique will come from training all of your muscles, not just one or two!