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.
Want six-pack abs? You're not going to get them with weights, machines, crunches or late-night-TV contraptions. With abs, definition comes not with bulking up—hours of pumping iron, protein shakes and all the other things that lead to the Popeye look. Abdomens pop only with lots of slimming down.
"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."
While you are munching your lean meats and vegetables, your fruits, whole grains and healthy fats like olive oil, consider "MUFAs," says Liz Vaccariello, editor and chief of Prevention magazine and author of "Flat Belly Diet for Men."
A MUFA is a monounsaturated fatty acid. Some foods are swimming with the stuff, others lack it. Vaccariello says new research shows MUFAs eat away at belly fat. Some key MUFAs: peanut butter, olive oil, avocado and dark chocolate.
Vaccariello, too, thinks diet is key to shedding pounds, which is the route to six-pack—or just trim-abdomen—pride.
"Have one beer instead of three; that saves you some calories to enjoy some heart-healthy and belly-flattening nuts," she says. "Eat protein in the morning. Pile your sandwiches high with lean proteins and all of the vegetables you can, but then go open-faced; this saves you on bread calories."
One category of food that should be restricted more than the rest, says Campbell, is carbohydrates. Foods containing white flour and sugar are the biggest carb bombs.
You are watching those calories, you are running 4 miles a day, you are eating the occasional square of dark chocolate. Eventually, maybe, you will lose enough weight to expose your inner six-pack. Since crunches and other abdomen-oriented exercises don't have much to do with stomach chiseling, you can skip them, right?
You guessed it. Wrong.
"The abs are the most important muscle in the body, by a landslide," says Filetti. "A lot of people only work the muscles you are going to see, like biceps. Most people won't see the results of doing crunches, so why do it? Because it's important to be strong there. It's not driven by aesthetics."
She added: "It's like a tree that doesn't have a strong trunk, or the trunk is rotted. It would fall over. Your core is the same thing, it is what is keeping everything up. A lot of injuries come back to the core. Hurting your back is often tied to your stomach muscles."
Campbell, though, isn't such a crunch fan. Focus on stability exercises, like the plank and the side-plank, he says.
"People have trouble doing classic exercises like squats," he says. "Often, it's because their entire core—their abs, lower back, and hips—is weak. Sit-ups and crunches don't fix this, but stability exercises do. What's more, these kind of stability exercises are among the best for preventing lower back pain."
Some guys will never achieve six-pack glory because their genetic makeup works against them, Campbell says. Either way, working toward stronger, leaner abs is a worthy goal.
"A lean midsection is just an outward sign of a healthy body," he says. "One UCLA study found that an oversized gut has the effect of aging your body by 20 years. So working your way towards a six-pack, through a healthy diet and exercise, is simply a natural way to increase your lifespan. The fringe benefit, of course, is that you look better on the beach."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun