Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Science Behind the 6-Pack

There is much debate over the best ways in which to reveal your abs. Everyone wants flat abs at the very least. I have never met anyone who has said, “Nah…I like my round paunch. The way it oozes over my jeans is awesome!”  Whether you want is 6-pack is debatable, but flat abs at least! With all the research that goes on in the fitness and health industry, for every new study that says to “do it this way for fast results!” there is always a rebuttal study that says “wrong! This way is best!” So which way is right?

All about Fat

The subcutaneous fat on the top of your tummy (you know, the stuff covering your rectus abdominus, aka 6-pack) is more responsive to diet than training. Sorry to tell you, you have to eat clean, unless you’re a genetically gifted god or goddess, then everyone just wants to shoot you (J/K!…kinda).  Jade Teta, CSCS and Registered Dietician, has been doing numerous studies about hormones and belly fat.  The subcutaneous fat has more alpha adrenergic receptors, which block fat release.  Without getting into crazy scientific detail, Dr. Teta is finding that a diet rich in protein, water and fiber elicits the best hormone response in regards to losing subcutaneous fat because these diets block the alpha adrenergic receptors (ever hear the phrase abs are made in the kitchen?). The fat underneath your rectus abdominus is called visceral fat. This is the “beer belly” fat, the stuff that makes your stomach bulge outward but still appear hard (sorry, it’s not muscle).   This type of fat is richer in beta adrenergic receptors, which enhance fat release and is therefore more responsive to exercise, namely high-intensity exercise (HIIT!), as well as diet.

Fiber Types

There are so many debates about whether your abs are primarily fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers which are bigger, more powerful, anaerobic,  but easily fatigable; or slow twitch (Type I) which are more aerobic, and fatigue resistant. Your fiber type determines which training might be best for you. One argument claims that the abdominals are slow twitch dominant, since your abs need to be active all day without fatiguing in order to support your spine and the connection between your upper and lower body.  Other arguments claim that the abs are primarily fast twitch, and that a strong core and abdominals make heavy lifting, throwing and other functional movements possible. Some claim that the transverse (deep) abdominals are slow twitch for spinal support, and that the obliques and rectus abdominus are fast twitch, for movement. 

The truth of the matter is that everyone is different.  In general, sprinters have a high volume of type II muscle fibers in their body, thus eliciting their power and speed. Endurance athletes like marathoners and cyclists have a greater distribution of Type I fibers, which have a greater mitochondrial density and are fatigue resistant at slower speeds.  So, this still doesn’t answer the question on how which kinds of workouts are best for the abs.

Well, type II muscle fibers respond well to heavier, more powerful exercise. They have more potential for growth and development, so for more defined abdominals, add some high intensity exercise into your routine! High intensity exercise also releases growth hormones, which has HUGE fat burning properties. Steady-state, moderate-intensity cardio has its place, and is definitely fat burning, but not when it comes to the abdominals. That steady moderate cardio (such as light jogging) is actually shown to increase cortisol stores, which is a hormone that packs on the pounds around the midsection. Precisely what you DO NOT want to do. However, long SLOW cardio, such as long walks on the beach, decreases cortisol levels by reducing stress.

So, what do I do?

1.       Getting your abs to show is a combination of developing the abdominal muscles along with manipulating hormones and fat loss. Basically, grow the muscles and get rid of the fat. General total body weight training increases insulin sensitivity better than traditional sit-ups. Being insulin resistant can pack on those pounds, especially in the belly, so sensitivity in the muscles is a good thing! Weight-lifting also increases Human Growth Hormone (HGH), a muscle builder with huge fat burning properties.

2.       Total body high-intensity exercise raises your post-exercise oxygen consumption for up to 24 (some studies show 48!) hours post exercise, as well as HGH levels. This means you’re still burning, burning, burning calories while your body fights to return itself to homeostasis.  You do not get these results from steady state moderate aerobic exercise. Also add in stress-reducing long SLOW cardio, such as walking (maybe some laughing in there) once or twice a week. This decreases cortisol levels further.

3.       Incorporate fast twitch muscle exercises to stimulate growth in the abdominals, making them more defined while still burning fat.  These exercises include various medicine ball throwing, plyometrics, heavy lifting, Kettlebell swings, Olympic lifting, and other fast movements through the trunk, obliques and abs. When you are doing your weight training, keep the abs tight and braced with whole time.

4.    Get off the floor! If you are stuck in the rut of doing 5 sets of a billion crunches, then knock it off. Incorporate hanging exercises (like leg lifts hanging from a bar, Roman chair, or Ab Slings), twisting exercises,  stability ball exercises, and planks.

Try Some New Exercises

Try these intense exercises that work the total body (for calorie burn), but focus on the core (for muscle development) once or twice a week on non-consecutive days.

1.       Tuck Jumps (focus on bringing your knees to your chest and landing softly). Do one at a time to start, working on stabilizing the landing and really focusing on good form. Once you have mastered the movement, do sequential tuck jumps with a quick rebound in between each one. Do 3 sets of 15


2.       Medicine ball crunch throws. These can be done with a partner, but I like to do them against a wall. Grab an 8-12 lb. medicine ball (not too heavy because you’re working on speed of movement, not heavy lifting).  Lie on your back, knees bent with toes about 12 inches from the wall. Start fully extended with the ball overhead on the floor. Grab the ball with both hands, and using your abs, crunch up quickly and at the same time, throw the ball forward to the wall as hard as you can. DO NOT SIT ALL THE WAY UP. Keep your low back on the floor. Immediately catch the ball, and bring it back overhead so it contacts (not slams) the floor, and finish in the same position you started. Do 3 sets of 10-15.


3.       Oblique Medicine Ball Throws. Sit with knees bent, about 2-3 feet away from the wall. Turn so that your right side is next to the wall. Lean back halfway, but remain sitting up. Tap the ball on the ground to your left, then, using your abs and obliques, throw the ball hard against the wall. Immediately catch it and turn back to the left and tap the ball. Do this for each side, 3 sets of 10-15.


4.       Push-Up to Tuck. This is basically a burpee without the jump. Get on the floor in push-up position. Do a push-up, then jump your feet in to land in between your hands. Immediately jump them back out to push-up position. You can do this with or without the push-up, but really focusing on brining your feet in between your hands, don’t neglect the quality of movement. Also try this in a frog position, by bringing your feet to the outsides of your hands instead, and then jump back out to push up position.


5.       Mountain Climber Up-Downs. Do 10 standing high knee runs on each leg, the drop to the floor and do 10 mountain climbers. Repeat this sequence for 45-60 seconds. For added intensity, hold a medicine ball at ribcage level and try to tap your knees to the ball. When you drop, keep both hands on top of the medicine ball and try to get your feet as close to the ball as you can, or try and touch your knees to the ball.

 (I will be adding a video shortly with demonstrations of all these exercises!)

Other Tips:

Drink plenty of water! Dehydration can cause water retention in lower abs

Eat Clean! Lots of fiber and lean protein

Include Fish oil and CLA in your supplements for added fat loss benefits

Brace your abs during all resistance training


Len Kravitz Ph.D and Aaron Bubbico, B.S.; Eccentric Exercise: A Comprehensive View of a Distinctive Training Method; University of New Mexico

Len Kravitz, Ph.D; SuperAbs Resource Manual; University of New Mexico

Jade Teta ND, CSCS; Facts about Belly Fat; The Metabolic Effect

Jade Teta ND, CSCS; FAQ on Belly Fat: The Metabolic Effect


1 comment:

  1. This has been very enlightening! I cannot wait to see the video! Thank you, Heidi