Doing curls with dumbbells inflates those biceps. A few weeks of bench presses, and shirts start getting tight across the chest—in a good way. Squats burn, but there is payback—thighs that looked like pencils are transformed into rippling, muscular things.
What do a few thousand crunches a week get you? In terms of aesthetics, zilch.
"Everybody has a six-pack; it's in there already," says Rhonda Filetti, a personal trainer in Boulder. "The way to get a six-pack is primarily through eating less and doing more cardio. You have to get rid of the excess fat that is in front of the abs. Doing more and more ab exercises, more and more crunches, won't get you any closer to seeing your abs."
It sounds simple—eat less, run a little and, voila!, six-pack—but it is tough work.
"Having a six-pack is a lifestyle," says Filetti. "If I wanted a six-pack, I could, but what I would have to do to get one and maintain it is not the way I want to live. I'd have to do even more cardio, and cut back even more on my calories. That means no wine on the weekends, no one day of splurge. It is hard-core to have a six-pack."
The principle applies to men and women, but the pressure for the six-pack look may press with more force upon men. A simple stroll past a drugstore magazine rack introduces guys to a spectacle of abs carved and defined, abs rippled, undulating and chiseled. The trip to the antacid aisle, especially for a middle-aged man, can be intimidating.
As guys age, weight tends to gather—and stay put—around the abdomen, says Ryan Donovan, director of the adult fitness program at Colorado State University.
"Biologically, men and women store fat in different areas," he says. "Unfortunately for men, the excess fat tends to accumulate in the abdomen due to a variety of genetic and hormonal factors."
Shedding abdominal weight, he says, will come with cardiovascular exercise and a calorie-restricted diet. Any book, magazine article or contraption that claims the ability to "target" abdominal fat, though, is trading in nonsense, he says.
"While so many diets and weight-loss products promise otherwise, spot reduction is a physiological myth," he says. "When we exercise and eat right, we will lose fat stored throughout the body."
Meaning eventually, all of that fat-fighting will reach the dreaded abdomen.
It gets worse. Most guys lose about 6 pounds of muscle between the ages of 30 and 50, says Adam Campbell, fitness director of Men's Health and author of "Men's Health Big Book of Exercises."
While the muscles do not turn into fat, they often are replaced with fat, he says. The body is much better off when muscles remain.
Muscles, Campbell says, are the "furnace" of the human body, and fat is their fuel. When muscles dwindle and fat moves in, a person's weight may remain the same, but the pants likely will fit more tightly. Why? Pound for pound, fat takes up more space than muscle.
Training to jettison the spare tire, then, involves more than cardiovascular work and diet: Weight training is important too. Campbell, in fact, thinks weight-training is best for weight loss.
The key is having that day of reckoning, that moment when you look in the mirror and say, "Dude. No."
Step one is changing your diet.
"Eat fewer calories than you are expending," says Campbell. "I am a huge promoter of exercise for both health and fat loss. Yet most research shows that simply exercising, without changing your diet, doesn't lead to weight loss."