It's that time of the year again when gyms and wellness centres are promoting their services and bustling with new sign-ups.
Looking good is always a priority at the beginning of the year, no thanks to numerous, perhaps altered, yummy images of poster boys and girls all around us.
Most people embark on their journey into fitness by informing the trainer: “My goal is to lose weight and get a flat stomach or a six-pack.”
Everyone wants a trim stomach or a six-pack. Know of anyone who longs for a tubby tummy?
A little belly may look adorable on babies and toddlers, but as the child grows, the pinchable midsection somehow turns unsightly.
When someone asks me how to obtain a six-pack, my answer is always the same: “Have you ever had a six-pack before?
“If you never did, sorry, there is a high percentage that you never will. That’s the reality.”
Men can safely bring down their body fat percentage, thus in the abdominal department, they have an edge over women, who may have to drop down to levels that may start affecting their bodily functions.
Belly fat comprises subcutaneous fat, found directly under the skin and functions to help keep the body’s temperature stable, and visceral fat that exists deep inside the trunk and surrounds your internal organs.
Neither type of fat is particularly desirable, but visceral fat is especially insidious, as it releases compounds that increase inflammation and contribute to a higher risk of disease, including cardiovascular conditions, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
You cannot decide where fat accumulates, just like you cannot dictate from where your body mobilises this fat.
That’s dependent on genetic factors, but when you burn enough calories and don’t replace them, you’ll eventually lose belly fat.
Visceral fat is the first to disappear as it’s metabolically active, while subcutaneous fat can be more stubborn.
We all store subcutaneous fat a bit differently, and this is one factor that may not allow for muscle definition or a cut look.
It’s my genes
Some people are plain lucky, thanks partly to their good genes.
Take my dear friend TB, for example. For a long time, he did nothing that would elicit a trickle of sweat.
He’s had a six-pack all his life – without doing crunches or cardiovascular workouts or dieting. “Hey. I was born with it!” he declares, grinning.
We’ve known each other for more than two decades, and until three years ago, when he began running (mid-life crisis), the only exercise TB consistently did was to mop his house daily.
Now that he is taking running seriously and participating in marathons, plus adding in some body weight exercises, TB’s body is more toned, and those packs are definitely peeking out, although they’re always concealed under baggy shirts.
Oh, did I mention that he’s 50, and doesn’t have a strand of grey hair either?
It’s men like him that gets the rest of us “ab-sloggers” envious. But, we cannot fault him.
Unless you’re TB, six-packs don’t appear overnight or in a few weeks, because there is no magic formula or short-cut to obtaining them.
I’m not as genetically blessed as him and though I sported a six-pack during my younger days, I’m perfectly happy with my current washboard, which requires a lot of work to maintain as I age.
You need to trim, tone and sculpt, but I leave out the latter.
Working it out
There are four main abdominal muscles you need to work: rectus abdominis (which creates the six-pack), transverse abdominis (the deepest layer), and external and internal obliques (the sides).
Most people think trimming the abdominals is all about doing crunches. No, no, spot training does not work.
The term “spot reduction” refers to the misconception that you can lose fat in one spot by exercising that part of your body.
It’s true that spot-training exercises will make you feel the burn while muscles grow and strengthen. However, many studies show they won’t help you get rid of belly fat.
Core workout has to be combined with compound exercises using body weight, free weights or equipment.
Researchers have compared sit-ups with planks – an exercise where you get into a press-up position, rest on your elbows and hold for 30 to 90 seconds.
Using surface electromyography electrodes, they discovered there was 20% greater muscle activation in the plank compared to the sit-up.
So, forget the 100 crunches and train smarter, not harder.
You could have a strong core, but a layer of body fat will render them invisible. This fat has to be burnt off via cardiovascular exercises such as brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming and aerobics.
Better yet, try some high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is not as simple as doing three sets of crunches and leg lifts, but it is a killer fat burner.
These workouts build up from three or more types of exercises that should be done for a given time, one after another.
After completing these tasks, you have a short rest and then repeat the entire circuit again.
As its name implies, HIIT is intensive, but that is how it burns the fat.
An example of HIIT could be a 30-second jump rope, plank, squats, jumping jacks, push ups, bicycling, high knees, lunges, side planks, etc.
After every exercise, rest for 15 seconds. Repeat the entire sequence two or three times.
As the fat melts from your body, it will come off your belly.
Your body fat is like one entire organ located throughout your body, and you can’t remove it from just one spot unless you have liposuction done.
Eat and sleep
Ever heard the saying, “Abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym”?
There is truth to this, as good nutrition is essential if you want to lose body fat.
For starters, reduce your intake of processed food. These are commonly packed with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Also, your diet should be high in protein and healthy fats, whilst keeping carbohydrates to a mode-rate level.
Foods such as sweet potato, quinoa and rolled oats are good alternatives to white rice and noodles.
And sleep, get lots of sleep. Our recovery takes place at night due to elevated levels of growth hormone – a hormone that is largely responsible for fat loss.
The less you sleep, the easier it is to hold onto excess fat.
During your workout, it’s up to you when you want to factor in your abdominal exercises.
Experts reckon it’s best to work your abs at the end of the workout, or from the largest to the smallest muscle.
The abs are important stabiliser muscles that keep your form in check. If you work your abs first, you will tire them out, and your whole workout will be less than optimal.
The choice is yours, really.
If you don’t get that flat midsection no matter how hard you try, blame it on your genes.