Building up an impressive, shredded set of abs will always be a top fitness goal for many guys, but there are so many disparate plans to get a six-pack it’s nearly impossible to know which one to follow.
There are thousands of trainers and infomercials hawking quick, effortless programs that are guaranteed to give users abs in mere minutes a day — as long as they buy an expensive piece of equipment or DVD set, of course. For some people with impeccable genetics or bulletproof diets, that might just be enough to make their core ripple with muscle. But most bodies just aren’t built that way.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the so-hard-it-has-to-work method. Think 60 to 90 minutes of exercise, six days a week. Now if you have the time and energy for this kind of regimen, we commend you. But plenty of people are missing one or the other through no fault of their own. And that’s just reality, not a cop-out.
So we wondered: Could there be an ab-sculpting program that actually works and is doable for most people? For the answer, we turned to Mike Wunsch, C.S.C.S., and Craig Rasmussen, C.S.C.S.
The answer: “Absolutely,” Wunsch told Men’s Health. “That’s exactly how we make our living.”
The real key to a program’s success is just how feasible it can be for anyone who works, goes to school, or parents full-time to commit without worrying about having to miss sessions because of their schedule. The requirements for Wunsch and Rasmussen’s plan is simple: 30 to 40 minutes a day, 3 days a week.
So how do these trainers do it when so many others have failed? They threw out the old guidelines. The new ones they’ve created are based on real science and the methods that have proven to work best with their clients. Now you can benefit, too. Apply these principles to your training to bring your abs out of hiding.
Start in the Kitchen
Abs aren’t just made in the weight room — the real work starts in the kitchen. You’re going to need to approach your diet with the same discipline you bring to your workouts.
Some experts recommend eating six small meals a day, instead of the more conventional three, cutting out added sugars and processed foods, and loading up on dependable sources of protein to help build new muscle in your midsection. Before you commit to any new diet, though, speak to your doctor and/or a nutritionist to see what they believe will work best for you.
Work Every Single Muscle
“Muscle is your body’s primary fat burner,” said Rasmussen. Your muscles require energy to contract, which is why you burn calories when you exercise. But resistance training, unlike running or cycling, also causes a significant amount of damage to your muscle fibres. And that’s a good thing.
“Your body has to expend energy to repair and upgrade those fibres after your workout,” Rasmussen continued. “And a single total-body weight-training session can boost your metabolism for up to two days.”
So you shouldn’t neglect a single inch of your body. That goes double for the legs, a body part that plenty of men either train just once a week or simply ignore.
Case in point: Syracuse University researchers determined that people burned more calories the day after a lower-body resistance session than the day after they worked their upper bodies.
Why? Because your lower half houses more muscle. The upshot: “A busy guy’s smartest approach is to train his entire body every other day,” says Rasmussen. “That allows you to elevate your metabolism maximally all week long, even though you’re working out only three or four days a week.”
Don’t Max Out On Crunches
“You can do lots of crunches and situps and still have a weak core,” said Wunsch. “We see that all the time.”
The reason: Classic ab moves like crunches and situps work the muscles that allow you to flex (that is, round) your lower spine. True core exercises, on the other hand, train the muscles that prevent your spine from rounding. They also allow you to transfer force from your lower body to your upper body (in a golf swing, for example), and vice versa.
Core exercises target the same muscles that crunches do — but they also include your hip and lower-back muscles. So what’s a true core exercise? One that trains you to keep your spine stable and in its natural alignment. Besides the plank (more on that in a minute), scores of exercises qualify, including the side plank, mountain climber, rollouts, hollow body holds, and even the pushup.
“We test everything in our gym,” said Wunsch. “And we’ve seen that people achieve far better results when they do core exercises at the beginning of their workout instead of at the end.” The reason: By training your core when your muscles are fresh, you achieve the fastest gains in strength.
That’s important for the average guy, Wunsch and his colleagues have found, because the core is the limiting factor in almost every exercise.
“A weak core is what keeps most men from lifting more weight in the squat and deadlift and just about everything else,” said Wunsch. “If we focus on strengthening their core first, they’ll ultimately be able to lift heavier weights, which allows them to work more muscle and burn more calories. We’re thinking about long-term success.”
Master the Plank
The plank, and its many variations, is one of the most important exercises you can do. The basic move may appear boring and easy—after all, you look like you’re simply holding a pushup position with your weight supported on your forearms or hands.
“The plank is easy only if you’re doing it incorrectly or don’t know how to make it more challenging,” said Wunsch. What’s more, he adds, the plank is key because it teaches you to make your core stiff. “That’s a skill you need for almost every exercise.”
So how do you perfect this exercise? Focus on keeping your spine aligned, squeezing your core and glutes to activate your muscles. You’re not just resting in place on your hands or elbows — that’s counterproductive and ineffective.
Don’t Spend Hours On the Abs or the Treadmill
While five minutes of exercise a day isn’t enough to reveal your abs, it is about the right amount of time to dedicate to targeted core training.
“We’ve found that just 2 to 4 sets of one or two core exercises is quite effective,” Rasmussen said. “Our goal is to make you stronger, not more tired.”A 5-minute core routine prior to weight training has a side benefit, too. “It revs up your core muscles so they fire better as you do other exercises,” Rasmussen says.
“If you have only 30 to 40 minutes to devote to a workout, then every second has to count,” Rasmussen said. “In those cases, our clients do zero running.”
His contention is that you can achieve faster fat loss with resistance training. How so? First, drop the assumption that running burns more calories than lifting does.
A University of Southern Maine study found that a single set of weight-training exercise torches as many calories as running at a 6-minute-mile pace for the same amount of time. So for every second you spend lifting weights, your body is expending high amounts of energy. Add high-intensity interval training (HIIT) principles to your workout, and you could see even more gains.
There’s also the metabolism boost of weight training. “Resistance training has a much larger metabolic impact than long-distance running does,” Rasmussen said. “Plus, your body is being given a stimulus to gain strength and build new lean tissue.”
One last efficiency benefit: Lifting weights through a full range of motion can improve your flexibility as well or even better than static stretching does, according to a University of North Dakota study.
Keep Your Body Moving
“Our goal is to pack as much physical work as possible into whatever time our clients have,” said Wunsch. To that end, the trainers frequently implement supersets and circuits — strategies that save time without sacrificing results. To understand why, you’ll need a few quick definitions.
Straight sets: This is a traditional weight-training routine, in which you complete all the sets of a given exercise before moving on to the next.
Alternating sets: These involve alternating between exercises that train your body using two noncompeting movements. For example, you pair an upper-body exercise that works the muscles on your front side — a pushup or bench press, say — with a lower-body exercise that emphasizes the muscles on your backside — the deadlift, for example.
The idea is that you work a group of muscles with one exercise, but instead of sitting around for a full two or three minutes while that muscle group recovers, you perform an exercise that doesn’t heavily engage those same muscles. As a result, you can cut your rest time in half or eliminate it completely.
Circuits: These are similar to alternating sets, except that they involve three or more exercises. You can rest after each exercise in the circuit, or only after the last exercise.
How much time can these techniques save? A 2011 Spanish study found that men who trained with circuits achieved the same gains as those who trained with straight sets —yet their workouts were 42 per cent shorter. But that’s not to suggest you should hit the showers early. No, it means circuits and alternating sets can help you squeeze more total sets into the same sweat session.
For an example of the type of core routine that will bring your abs out of hiding, check out this workout from Bobby Maximus.
By Adam Campbell