Developing a Lean Stomach
By Guest Author, Tom Venuto, Competitive Bodybuilder
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Developing a lean, flat stomach takes time and patience, especially when it comes to those last few pounds in those hard to lose places. The lower abs and "love handles" can be two of the most stubborn and exercise-resistant areas from which to lose fat. In fact, it can sometimes seem so hard to reduce those spots that many people become frustrated and resort to dangerous diet drugs or liposuction. Other people slave away day in and day out on the latest new-fangled ab device or do countless sit ups, side bends, and leg raises every day, all to no avail. There is only one way to lose fat in the so-called "stubborn areas," and that is with the correct combination of proper diet, aerobic exercise, abdominal training, and weight training.
The first thing you need to realize is that it is impossible to "spot reduce" fat from one specific part of the body. Fat loss occurs systemically, meaning that you canít control where the fat comes from. When you burn fat for energy, you will draw it from all areas of the body, and the first place you tend to put it on will be the last place it comes off. The reason everyone has those "stubborn" spots is because each of us is born with a genetic pattern of fat storage, just as we inherit hair color, eye color, and other physical traits. In women, the stubborn areas tend to be hips, thighs, and the waist. In men, the troublesome areas are usually the lower abs and the "love handles." Many people labor away month after month trying to exercise specific areas of their body with the idea that fat will be burned directly off the area they are working. Training the abdominals every day with hundreds of repetitions will certainly tighten and tone the muscles, but it will do almost nothing to remove the fat obscuring the muscles. In fact, it is possible to have a great set of abs that you canít even see because they are covered up with a layer of fat!
Contrary to popular belief, the best way to burn the layer of flab from your midsection is not to do more abdominal exercise, but to do more cardiovascular exercise. Aerobic exercise is the real secret to burning fat. Walking, jogging, bicycling, elliptical exercise and stair climbing are all great fat burners. Most people give up too early in the workout. During the first 20 -30 minutes of aerobic activity, glycogen (stored carbohydrates) is the primary fuel source. If you stop after 20 minutes, youíre only getting half of your workout done! You get the cardiovascular health benefits, but you donít get much fat loss. Because you don't burn significant amounts of fat until glycogen stores are depleted, the key to maximum fat loss is to work out aerobically for 30-60 minutes continuously per session. You should do this at least three or four days per week, but five, six, or even seven days a week will take off fat at the fastest rate possible!
Even if youíre doing cardio every day, without a good diet, you still wonít see results. Fat loss is a 50% exercise, 50% nutrition combination. A fat loss diet must be low in calories. Regardless of how much you work out, if the number of calories you take in is greater than the amount you burn, youíll still put on body fat. Ideally, you should spread your calories out into five small meals a day instead of 2 or 3 big ones so that you donít overeat in one feeding. Eat a variety of foods that are all natural, low in fat and low in sugar, with about 55% of the calories coming from carbohydrates, 30% from protein, and 15% from fat. If youíre having a really difficult time losing the last few pounds, keep the protein up and decrease your carbohydrate intake, especially late in the day and at night. This will deplete your glycogen stores and force your body to burn more fat for energy. Be careful not to drop your calories or carbohydrates too much, because this will be interpreted by the body as starvation and will result in a decrease in metabolic rate.
Next to "spot reduction," the second most common myth about abdominal training is that sit ups and leg raises are the most effective exercises. Actually, these movements donít even isolate the abs; they recruit the hip flexor muscles, which are the same muscles used to punt a football. The hip flexors attach the thigh to the spinal column, so working them with exercises such as straight leg raises creates a strong pull on the lumbar area, which is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. Safer, more effective alternatives are crunches, crunch machines (or ab rollers), hip lifts, and reverse crunches.
The crunch is simply a partial sit up. You lie flat on your back and curl your head, shoulders and upper back off the floor. Your lower back stays on the floor at all times. This isolates the abs because when the feet are not anchored, and you donít sit all the way up, the hip flexors are not activated. The reverse crunch, unlike the straight leg raise, is a rolling movement, where the knees are rocked back over the chest. This is a great movement for working the lower abs without putting undue stress on the lower back. To hit the oblique muscles on the sides of the waist, you can do your crunches with a twist (elbow to knee) or you can lie on your side and do side crunches.
The final component of your ab flab-reducing program is resistance training. It is important to train the entire body. Working one muscle group to the exclusion of others is a common cause of muscular imbalance. Building strong abdominals without also developing the antagonistic spinal erectors of the lower back could easily lead to injury. Many people are under the impression that they should only do cardiovascular activities until the weight comes off, then add weight training later on. Itís true that weight training is an anaerobic activity, so it burns more glycogen than body fat. However, working out with weights will increase your lean body mass, which in turn raises your resting metabolic rate. The faster your metabolism is, the more fat you will burn! A complete program should always include aerobic exercise and weight training for every muscle group.
Before you decide to resort to drastic measures, give these guidelines an honest try. Losing fat is not easy, but it is simple if you know the formula. To recap, the formula for losing the last few pounds of ab flab is as follows: (1) Losing fat takes time, so get started now! Be patient and donít expect to get "ripped" overnight (2) Burn the fat off the ab muscles with lots of cardiovascular exercise or you wonít be able to see them. (3) Choose biomechanically correct exercises to train the abs, including crunching type exercises and avoiding hip flexor exercises, (4) Eat natural, low fat, low sugar, low calorie foods in small servings throughout the day, and (5) Work out with weights; donít just train your abs, train your entire body.
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