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Hi, hello, you’re here to get a six pack? Good news: “You’ve already got those muscles; you’re born with them,” says exercise physiologist Peter Ronai, clinical professor of exercise science at Sacred Heart University and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
The reason why most people don’t realize this is because that six pack, or the three rows of muscles with connective tissue that creates the appearance of six little boxes, is almost always beneath a layer of very healthy, totally normal body fat. “Seeing your six pack isn’t realistic for most people,” Ronai says, adding that genetics can play a pretty big role here too.
Unfortch, not even a million crunches can guarantee a six pack, since diet, exercise, and your genetic makeup all come into play with this specific goal. “Regardless of what you do at the gym, if there’s fat there, you’re not going to see them,” he says. That’s why, Ronai suggests, diet is one of the most important factors in getting a six pack.
That said, let’s pause here to remind ourselves again that visible abs do not indicate health, per Ronai. And restricting what you eat in the name of seeing your abs is likely not sustainable and could lead to potential disordered eating habits down the road, which are, in fact, unhealthy.
“The fat right under the skin gives a good prediction of overall body fat, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what is going on under the surface,” Ronai says. And that, my friends, is what we should be thinking about.
If your goal is to strengthen your core or get a lit-er-al six-pack, there’s nothing wrong with that. But (important but) achieving said goal should be done in a realistic, sustainable, non-deprivation-based way. That might mean focusing on improving your strength or endurance by exercising, especially since those are the things that help you live your best life and side-step annoying back injuries. It could also mean adding in healthy foods that fuel your workouts, rather than cutting stuff out.
To find out what people with abs are doing, we asked them. Just remember to talk to your doc, a certified trainer, and/or a registered dietitian before you take on anyone else’s eating and exercise routine.
Certified personal trainer, fitness competitor, and Obé Fitness Strength and HIIT instructor
Eat lean protein often. “I’m a huge, huge red meat eater,” Cervantes says, explaining that protein helps the body gain lean, strong muscle mass. When training for fitness competitions, she eats about a palm-sized serving of beef, chicken, or fish about six times a day, plus a serving each of greens and carbs like oatmeal, rice cakes or white rice, or sweet potatoes.
Rule out protein drinks that don’t digest well. “I personally don’t do protein shakes—I can’t digest any of the supplements, even pea protein,” she says, citing allergies. Cervantes prefers to stick with whole foods that she’s used to eating.
Avoid bubbles. “When I’m getting ready to show my abs off, I stay away from carbonated things.”
Drink all the water! “Oftentimes when you’re feeling bloated, it’s because you’re dehydrated,” Cervantes says. “When you don’t drink enough, your body tries to hold onto fluids.”
Try pushups. They aren’t the only moves that help you achieve core strength: “I 1000 % credit pushups for my core strength,” Cervantes says, explaining that she sees these moves as a plank progression. Overhead presses, squats, pull-ups, and hanging leg raises also target the core and can help crunch-haters gain strength, according to Cervantes, who keeps these exercises in her regular rotation.
Peloton Instructor, CEO of Love Squad and In-Arena Host for the Brooklyn Nets
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Don’t deprive yourself. “I don’t subscribe to taking away the things that bring you joy when it comes to consumption and sustenance,” Love says.
Keep an eye on your running form. “Running is so great for your core,” Love says, stressing how keeping your shoulders over your hips while you pound the pavement can also fire things up, she says. “Making sure your spine is erect engages your core.”
Focus on your pelvic floor. Love swears that simply focusing on the movement of her breath during her Peloton app barre classes activates the pelvic floor, aka the lower abdominals.
Try smaller movements. One of Love’s favorite moves requires little movement: She calls it a barre curl, which looks a little like a crunch. “You hold the position and pulse. Limiting the range of motion works your deep core muscles as well as your pelvic floor,” she says.
Los Angeles-based online coach and certified personal trainer to clients like Kim Kardashian; NCB Figure and Physique Bodybuilding Champion
Trust no-equipment workouts. Alcantara insists you don’t have to schlep to the gym to squeeze in a core workout. At home, you can strengthen your abs with one minute of mountain climbers, one minute of flutter-kicks, 15 to 30 toe-touching V-ups, and a one-minute plank hold. Then repeat the entire circuit four times up to twice a week.
“To get [results] you need to be consistent, hardworking, focused, patient, and dedicated, which happen to be the exact elements every person needs to be successful at pretty much anything in life.”
Eat mostly unprocessed foods. “The quality of the calories coming from something like broccoli versus chips is dramatically different,” Alcantara says, speaking to the nutrients found in whole foods.
Eat carbs. “There’s this notion that carbs are bad and that you need crazy amounts of protein to be lean and fit,” says Alcantara, who disagrees and eats just as much carbs as protein, although the ideal ratio varies based on your goals. “Whatever you eat to get the results you want has to be sustainable, otherwise you’re going to end up right back where you started with the same habits that got you there.”
Follow a program. Alcantara is all about consistency—one reason why she recommends choosing a structured fitness plan rather than shooting in the dark and praying you surface with abs. “Follow it to 100 percent, do it back-to-back,” she says. Many influencers offer their own programs, but you’ll want one from a certified fitness trainer like Alcantara, who offers an eight-week guide.
Work body parts besides your abs. Muscle imbalance can lead to injury in everyday activities. “Balance is extremely important.”
NASM-certified personal trainer, trainer on E!’s Revenge Body, and creator of the 80-Day Obsession fitness program
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Work out consistently. Calabrese says she works out for 30 to 60 minutes a day, up to six times a week (you know, since exercise is literally her job). When she’s in the gym, she focuses on both cardio and strength training to keep her heart rate up while building metabolism-boosting muscle.
Use workout swag. Three times a week, Calabrese finishes off her workouts with a 5- to 10-minute ab routine utilizing stability balls and sliders. “I focus on lots of planks with resistance slides to increase the intensity,” she says. “I also love stability ball crunches.”
Senior instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp in New York City
Build muscle. “The more muscle you put on, the more fat your burn at rest,” says Ross. And since fat (and, um, genetics) is the biggest six-pack obstacle, that’s helpful.
Combine HIIT cardio with strength training. If you normally lift weights, adding some high-intensity interval training to your routine, like sprints on the treadmill, will help you burn more calories overall, resulting in mas abs. If you and the tread are already BFFs, see the tip above.
Certified personal trainer and trainer on E!’s Revenge Body
Use a barbell. Squatting with a barbell held in front of your shoulders or resting on top of them behind your back naturally engages your core to protect your spine, which helps strengthen your abs, says Borden.
Chill out. Unmanaged stress and a lack of sleep can cause your body to release cortisol, says Borden. That stress hormone increases blood sugar, interferes with your immune system, and suppresses your digestive system, per the Mayo Clinic.
ACE- and NASM-certified personal trainer and Nike Master Trainer
Lift heavy weights. Gozo says she strength-trains at least four days a week to increase overall muscle mass and focuses on full-body moves. “Building muscle helps you burn calories more efficiently, resulting in more abs definition,” says Gozo. And, since lifting sessions also raise your heart rate, they can double as cardio, she says.
Eat carbs. Although protein is a big part of her diet, Gozo says she doesn’t shy away from carbohydrate-packed foods like fruit, rice, and other whole grains. That’s because these foods are also rich sources of fiber, which aid in digestion and reduce bloating.
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Certified personal trainer and creator of the @fitbodyapp
Don’t follow a restrictive diet. Although her meal plan is a bit involved, Victoria says she follows the 80/20 rule, meaning 80 percent of the foods she eats are from non-processed plant and animal sources and 20 percent aren’t.
Don’t worry about big vs. small meals. Although many trainers say their abs are a result of eating small frequent meals, Anna says she doesn’t stick to a certain number of them per day. “At the end of the day, the total calories you consume and the macronutrient content are what matter,” she says.
Certified functional strength coach, ACE-certified fitness nutrition specialist, and Peloton instructor
Eat carbs before workouts. “I eat carbs at a point in the day when I need the most energy,” says Sims of the body’s primary source of energy. On days when she teaches up to seven classes, she refuels with a sweet potato served with ghee (aka clarified butter), a carb-heavy snack that helps her power through workouts.
Eat protein after exercise. Your body uses protein to rebuild the muscles it breaks down during workouts. It’s why Sims chows down on foods like eggs, chicken, and tuna within 45-minutes of exercising, although science suggests timing may be less important than getting enough protein on days you work out.
Go beyond crunches. Sims prefers exercises that challenge you to stabilize your core against imbalance or gravity, like a hands plank with dumbbell pull-through and ab roll-outs using a core-training wheel. “They challenge the entire core by resisting movement instead of creating it,” she says of these moves, which she recommends doing in sets of 10 three times. You can repeat the series several times a week.
She also practices push-up to knee tucks with her feet in TRX straps, stability ball V-ups, kettlebell carries, and Russian twists—so no crunches and no basic sit-ups.
Activate your abs during every exercise. “You can turn any exercise into a core-focused exercise by drawing your navel in toward your spine to stabilize the rest of your body,” Sims says. This also can be done anytime you’re just sitting around.
BRITTANY PERILLE YOBE
Ventura, California-based certified fitness trainer
Eat before bed. Lest she wake up hungry or starve her muscles of the protein they need to rebuild while she sleeps, Yobe eats Greek yogurt, which contains casein, a slow-releasing protein, right before going to sleep. Some research suggests the technique helps with muscle recovery overnight.
Ditch your scale. “Too many people get hung up on how much they weigh, but the scale can be very discouraging because of the daily fluctuation in the time you weigh yourself, bloating, and hormones,” says Yobe, who knows that muscle weighs more than body fat.