Fact or Fiction: Doing lots of Abdominal Exercises is the Best Way to get Great Looking Abs

abs-f1-close-upThe abdominals are the muscles that people are concerned with more than any other part of the body. There are so many products developed, articles written, videos made, etc. about developing better looking abs that it could seem like everyone must be walking around with incredible abs. Of course, most people don’t have great abs and genetics does play a part, but another reason is because people assume that doing lots of abdominal exercises is the best way to get great looking abs. The reality is that this belief, while common, is complete fiction.

abs-m1-close-upDoing lots of abdominal exercises is definitely not the best way to get great looking abs and believe it or not, it is actually a very inefficient way to get the abs you desire. That said, it is still very important to incorporate abdominal exercises into your overall routine. Just keep in mind that abdominal exercises have more to do with the way your abs work (strength, endurance, etc.) and less to do with making significant changes in the way they look.

One of the common beliefs people have is that their abdominal muscles are not big enough to be clearly seen, so they think doing a lot of abdominal exercise will make them stand out more. Doing abdominal exercise can tighten, tone, or increase the size of your abs, but the problem is rarely that your abs are not big enough to be seen. The real issue is the significant layer of fat that almost everyone has on top of their abdominal muscles. Until the majority of that fat is lost, your abs will never be visible, regardless of how much you train them.

Other people understand the layer of abdominal fat is the real problem, yet they still often develop the mindset that doing lots of abdominal exercises will get rid of their abdominal fat. The assumption being that exercising a particular body part will result in fat loss around those muscles, but unfortunately your body will lose fat from wherever it chooses, regardless of what muscles are being worked. Many people, including myself, tend to lose fat from the arms and legs first and from the abdominal area last. This can happen regardless of the types of exercises performed during your workouts.

In the end it all comes down to losing enough fat to make your abdominal muscles visible. This means your goal should be to use strategies that maximize your overall fat loss, instead of focusing on just trying to lose the fat around your stomach. Anything that results in you losing a significant amount of fat will make your abs look better, regardless of how much time you spend doing abdominal exercises.

The real keys to fat loss are consuming fewer calories than your body uses/burns by eating healthy foods, while not starving yourself, and performing challenging workouts that help you maintain your good weight (muscle, bone, etc.) and stimulate positive changes in your body. For most people the place to start is with their nutrition, because a great workout program will not make up for poor nutrition and it is almost impossible to achieve and maintain significant fat loss until you develop good eating habits.

Exercise plays a significant role in developing great looking as too, but abdominal exercises are not the key to success. Since the goal is to decrease your overall body fat enough to reveal your abs beneath the fat, your focus should be on performing exercises with a high metabolic cost. In other words, you want to perform exercises that are challenging and cause your body to burn a higher number of calories both during and after your workouts.

The best exercises for this purpose are ones that use the greatest amount of muscle mass, because more muscle used means more calories burned. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges are great, because they use the majority of your lower body muscles and focus on the quads (front of your thigh), which is the largest muscle group in the body. One good set of these types of exercises will have a more significant impact on fat loss than many sets of exercises that focus on just your abs.

Of course, performing a few sets of quality squats will not magically make you lose a bunch of fat, but over time, performing exercises that focus on your largest muscle groups will result in more significant improvements than performing the same amount of exercises with smaller muscles, such as your abs. Other exercises, such as bench presses, push-ups, bent rows, and pull-ups are also examples of exercises that work a large amount of muscle at one time.

However, I don’t want to give you the impression that you should only do exercises using your quads, or other large muscles because you should always have a complete training program that works your whole body. Focusing too much on any muscle group will result in muscle imbalances and cause problems such as pain or injury in the future. The best approach is to work your whole body, but spend more time doing exercises that use your larger muscles or use multiple muscles at the same time.

Traditional abdominal exercises are simply not very physiological demanding and they do not burn as many calories as many other exercises, so they have little impact on fat loss or overall body transformation. This is why doing lots of abdominal exercises is an inefficient way to get great looking abs. Even though you want to have great looking abs, the best thing to do is stop focusing on your abs and really focus on your whole body.

That said, abdominal exercises are still an incredibly important part of every health and fitness routine. Having well functioning abs will help protect your spine, stabilize your body, transfer force/energy from one part of your body to another, and significantly lower your chances of experiencing low back pain. Correctly performing abdominal exercises will tone, tighten, strengthen and build endurance in these very useful muscles, but doing lots of abdominal exercises is definitely not the best way to develop great looking abs.

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About Ross Harrison 14 Articles

Hi, my name is Ross Harrison and I am a personal trainer in Austin, TX. I have been a certified personal trainer (NSCA) since 1996 and I am also a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), nutritional consultant, and I have completed numerous other courses and certifications over the years. I also have a degree in psychology from Grinnell College. Over the course of my career I have been an independent personal trainer working with  clients in their homes or various other locations, as well as a trainer at a large gym. I also have experience working in a privately owned health food store  and a large chain supplement store.

After almost a decade in the health and fitness industry, I became frustrated and discouraged by the way many personal trainers and gyms were so focused on making money, even at the expense of their client’s success. As a result, I decided the only way for me to feel good about being a personal trainer would be to start my own business. That way I could create my own policies and make sure I stayed true to what I believe a personal trainer should  be. Then in 2005, I did just that when I started my personal training business called Precision Health & Fitness.

I chose to name my business Precision Health & Fitness, because it accurately reflects the approach I take as a personal trainer. I believe personal training should be completely focused on the client and since every person is different, every program should be precisely designed to reflect that individual’s specific goals, needs, abilities, and lifestyle. I know many
personal trainers say this, but more and more trainers are just repeating the same programs with numerous clients or using tools, such as computer programs,  to self-generate “custom” workouts or nutritional programs for their clients. In my mind these are examples of mass-produced training programs, not personal training.

I also feel that many conventional personal training practices, such as making clients sign contracts, not allowing refunds for purchased sessions, and even paying by the hour, ultimately take the focus off the client’s needs. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to stay away from any policy or practice that I felt detracted from focusing on my clients, even though other people have told me I am limiting my income or discounting the value of my services too much.

For example, my clients pay session prices instead of an hourly rate. This may not sound like a big difference, but it means I can spend more time with my clients when they need it. Many of the people I work with are just starting to exercise or have never been taught proper exercise technique. By having a set time limit on my sessions, I can take the extra time to ensure my clients learning to perform exercises correctly. This not only ensures their safety, but also leads to more effective workouts and better long-term results. Of course, if a client has a set schedule or a limited amount of time, then I will make sure the workouts I create fit those time constraints.

Another benefit of not having timed sessions is it gives clients the opportunity to talk or ask questions about health and fitness or their workout routine. I have never been a big fan of trainers who take the “do it because I said so” approach to health and fitness. I encourage clients to ask questions and I believe that becoming more educated about exercise and nutrition and
learning how your actions affect your results is an important component of health and fitness programs. By making a link between your actions and your results, it will help motivate you to stick to your  program.

This is just one example of how I my business is focused my clients, but there are also other ways Precision Health & Fitness stands out from other trainers and gyms. For instance, I do not have clients sign contracts and they are free to discontinue their training program at any time. I even let my clients determine their own payment plan, which they can change at any time.
Some clients pay for a number of sessions in advance, some pay after each session, and some pay after they have completed a number of sessions. It is all about trying to make things as easy and convenient for my clients as  possible.

That is not to say the workouts themselves are easy, because every workout is designed to be challenging, so it will create a stimulus for improvement. At the same time, I never design workouts that are designed to make  people stiff and sore for a week or have trouble walking up stairs. I know some  people like those workouts because they think the harder they work, the better  their results will be, but that is only true up to a point. It is definitely  possible to exercise too hard or too much and excessively challenging workouts  are almost always counterproductive over the long-run.

When you really think about it, shouldn’t long-term health and fitness improvements be the goal of a personal training program? I believe that it certainly is, although I know there are people who would disagree with me. However, for the people who just want to push themselves as hard as possible regardless of the long-term consequences, there is not shortage of personal trainers who are willing to do just that. My background and personal experiences  have made me believe that long-term health and success should never be sacrificed for short-term gain and that is the philosophy I apply to my personal  training programs.

Speaking of my background and personal experiences, exercise and nutrition have both been very important parts of my life since I was young. When  I was seven, I developed a serious hip infection that destroyed the femur head  (ball that connects to the hip) in my right leg and left me with a fused right  hip. At the time I was told there was almost no chance that I would ever
walk again, but by working hard and keeping up with my exercises, I was able to regain the ability to walk and eventually allowed to play most sports and participate in almost any other activity I wanted.

However, even with continued exercise, I still experienced hip pain that increased over the years. Then when I was 30 I was finally old enough to get a total hip replacement, which resulted in an almost complete reduction in my pain, but I was also left with a new set of restrictions. Since hip replacements  wear out over time, it means the more stress I put on my hip by doing things  like playing sports or running, the sooner I will need a new hip replacement.  Needless to say, my activities have drastically changed since my hip replacement  and I no longer play sports, but I still exercise regularly to remain healthy  and stay in shape.

As for nutrition, it has played an equally important role in my life. When I was younger, I had very unhealthy eating habits, was overweight (or husky  as my clothes were called), constantly felt run down, and got sick frequently.  By the time I was 18 I was trying to eat healthier, but I had already caused my  body and immune system enough distress to be hospitalized for
pneumonia and I  developed a bad case of ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable intestinal  condition where treatment involves just trying to keep it in remission. Simply  put, I had a lot of health issues for a teenager.

Fortunately for me, I became more educated about nutrition and I made eating healthier a priority in my life. My improvements were not immediate, but over time my energy level increased and my immune system improved to the point where I rarely ever get sick anymore. Also I have been able to keep my ulcerative issues to a minimum just by eating healthy (it is generally kept in remission through medication) and by working on managing my stress level. Due to  my improved nutritional habits, I can easily say that I am far healthier and feel much better in my mid 30’s than I ever did as a teenager.

The reason I included all this information is because it explains what motivates me as a trainer and why I care so much about health and fitness. My personal history has also shaped my training philosophy and it is the reason why I always focus on the long-term outcome of a training program, instead just thinking about short-term improvement. It is also why I try to get people to shift their priority from what they can do to look better and think more about what they can do to make their body feel better throughout their lifetime.

If you eat healthy, exercise properly, and do other things that make your body feel better, you will be doing the same things you need to make your body look better. On the other hand, if your sole focus is on making your body look better, it does guarantee that your training program will make your body feel better years down the road. Workout programs that cause you to perform
exercises incorrectly, use poor posture, or develop muscle imbalances can still result in you looking better, but they can also lead to premature muscle and joint aches and pains years later.

It is completely natural to be focus on the present and the immediate future, but people frequently do not think enough about how they want their body  to feel in 20 or 30 years down the road, at least not until they start developing some health related problems. Personal training success is often measured my how much weight is lost or how much muscle is gained, but I believe that is not the best way to think about success. Even if you lose fat, if you are frequently sore or in pain, I would not consider that to be successful, except maybe if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is required to push  your body to the limit.

Personal training and health and fitness in general, should be about creating a better overall quality of life and not only about looking better. Of course, looking better is almost always a primary goal, but it should not the only focus of a program. I know from first hand experience how much of a positive impact a well-designed exercise and nutrition program can have on virtually every aspect of your life. All too often, people accept aches and pains as normal consequences of aging, but in most cases you can make a significant improvement in how you feel.

I want to leave you with a final thought, regardless of your current situation, you are capable of improvement and you probably capable of achieving much more than you might think. I wish you success in all your health and  fitness endeavors and please contact me at ross@precisionhealth-fitness.com  or (512) 537-3377 if you have any comments or questions.

23 Comments

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