If there is one body part that fitness enthusiasts at all levels can agree on, it’s abs. Moms recovering from childbirth, hardcore bodybuilders, traditional athletes — just about everyone wants to build lean, sexy abs. Unfortunately, many of those same people still fall for a six-pack spot reduction myth that has been around for decades, and they’re wasting time and energy because of it.
What is this fallacy that trips up lifters on their way to midsection glory?
It’s the idea that you can burn fat selectively from one area of your body — spot reducing. Here’s why this old-fashioned idea is not worth your time.
Abs Are Muscles
If you look back through old bodybuilding magazines, you’ll find all kinds of big guys advocating lots of reps and sets for abs as a way to make your midsection “tight” and burn fat from the area. Some of them even preached separate abs workouts that could take an hour or more to perform.
The major problem with that approach is that it fails to recognize that “abs” are really just a muscle — the rectus abdominis. It’s a flat muscle that covers the front of your abdomen, and it’s crossed by one vertical and three horizontal bands of connective tissue. Those bands give abs their six-pack look, but you have to do your part, too.
In particular, you need to slam your abs with progressive resistance training in order to make them grow and “pop” to stand out form each other. A thousand crunches might give you sore abs and a bit of growth, but how do you progress from there? 1001? 1002?
The answer is to use weighted exercises with increasing loads over time with perfect form, just like you would for biceps or chest.
Abs Need to Be Seen!
So the slash-and-burn method won’t do much for actually building your abs, but what about showing them off? Won’t doing tons of exercise for your abs burn off all the fat around them and leave you with a cheese-shredder midsection?
Not according to most experts. Even though there is some evidence that increased blood flow to certain areas of the body might help you slightly increase fat metabolism in that area, the effects are not dramatic. What’s more, studies directly measuring the localized fat-burning effects of resistance training, like this one, mostly indicate no difference in bodypart fat stores as a result of such efforts.
But it’s clear that most people DO need to lose fat in order to show off their abs.
Typical estimates put the average adult American male at around 15% bodyfat. That’s not obese, but it’s enough to make your midsection gooey. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll start to see your abs around 12%, and they won’t really stand out until you’re at 10% or less.
All of that is to say that, if you want to create a stunning midsection, you need to build your abs muscles AND get lean — probably leaner than you are now.
The best approach to the fat-loss component is as it has always been — eat a variety of wholesome, unprocessed foods and reduce your calories until you’re losing about a pound of fat per week at most. If you can’t get that bodyfat moving down with diet alone, then you might consider adding in a little bit of aerobics to jumpstart the process.
For most trainees, though, crazy abs workouts are not the answer to building a six pack, and spot-reduction is not worth the effort.