I'll never forget the first time that I saw NABBA Mr. Universe Serge Nubret wiggle his abdominal muscles.
Yes, you read that correctly: wiggle. While I'd seen thousands of bodybuilders grunt out abdominal poses, this was the first time I had ever seen a man with so much muscle control (and a little DNA from Mom and Dad) that he could seemingly make the individual "blocks" of his abdominal muscles move back and forth. I am not talking about the abdominal roll of a belly dancer here. Serge moved those razor-sharp abdominals sideways. It was one of the darndest things I've ever seen.
Serge was eating a chocolate bar the day before a competition. I had just won the IFBB Mr. Universe and was feeling a little full of myself. I told him, "You're going to get fat eating that."
Amid the laughter from the small group surrounding him, Serge said, "You want to see fat? Check this out." Serge raised his shirt, and looking me dead in the eyes, proceeded to move those abs around like a Vegas dealer moving cards around on a table.
"Shit," I mumbled with a sheepish grin. That day, the then-46-year-old Serge taught me a lesson.
Not everybody is going to achieve the wasp-like waistline or the abdominal muscle control of Serge Nubret, but a defined midsection is a function of both exercise and diet. You must build the abdominal muscles with resistance exercise and strip off the fat layer that's hiding them with a nutrient-dense, calorie-deficit diet.
The good news is you don't necessarily have to build first and then cut—you can do both at the same time! Let's look at the exercise component first:
Exercises for Six-Pack Abs
One of the functions of the abdominals is to bring the ribcage and the pelvis together. This is called trunk flexion. In any given abdominal flexion exercise, you either bring your ribcage to your pelvis (abdominal crunch), or you bring your pelvis to your ribcage (leg raise). Crunches primarily stress the upper abdominal muscles, while leg raises primarily stress the lower abdominals.
Some old school experts will say that you cannot stress your upper abs separately from your lower abs. That's wrong. A slew of studies have shown that the upper and lower abs each respond differently to different exercises. That's why I always have crunches and leg-raises in every abdominal workout.
As an athlete, I have never been a slouch in the abdominal department. Great abdominals have always been one of my strong suits. Complete abdominal development comes from working the muscle group thoroughly and regularly. Here's a basic routine that can help you etch out that six-pack:
Ab Training Frequency
I've heard everything from "train abs every day" to "train abs once per week." Personally I think both are wrong, and here's why: Training causes micro trauma and inflammation in the muscle tissue. Your muscles respond by laying down new muscle, which means you get to enjoy bigger and stronger muscles.
If you train your abs every day, they don't have enough time to recuperate—and therefore grow—between workouts. I do, however, agree that the abdominals recuperate faster than most other muscles, so a once-per-week ab-training regimen wouldn't be enough.
This abdominal routine should be performed three times each week and last no longer than 20 minutes. Train your abs on three nonconsecutive days per week, for example: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Build Thicker Abs
For a visible six-pack, your abs need to be thick. That doesn't mean your gut will stick out, but that each "brick" within the six-pack is thicker, making the grooves between your muscles look deeper. To accomplish that, forget doing sets of 50 crunches and don't even think of doing those one-hour ab classes!
Eight to twelve repetitions will be optimal for building fast-twitch muscle fibers. The rectus abdominis is comprised predominately of fast-twitch muscle; use enough resistance so that you can only perform 8-12 repetitions before reaching failure.
If you're a beginner, your bodyweight will likely be enough. But if you're more experienced, add resistance to make the exercises more difficult. For crunches, hold a weight plate, dumbbell, or medicine ball over your chest while performing the movement. Use enough weight to make 12 reps difficult. For the leg-raise, you can hold weight between your feet.
You can always make a set harder by pausing in the contracted position, and then lower yourself slowly to the starting position. Count two seconds on the way up, and three seconds on the way down.
Importance of Oblique Training
We've taken care of the upper and lower abs, but we also need to hit our oblique muscles. Your obliques lie on the sides of your abdominal area. Obliques respond to twisting and side-bending movements.
Word of caution: If you're primarily in the gym for your physique, do nottrain the oblique muscles with low reps. Do your oblique training to failure without extra weight. You want a thick rectus abdominus, but thick oblique muscles can resemble "love handles." Remember: thick abdominals, thin obliques.
Now that you are on your way to developing your abs through training, your diet must enable you to access and burn off the body fat stored over your abdominals. In order to do this, you must burn more calories than you consume, every day.
Here are a few tips to get you started. But be sure to check out my free 12-week Lean Body trainer for a complete nutrition program and more dieting and training tips.
Eat Less Unhealthy Fat
Let's face it, the fat calories can add up over time. One of the easiest ways to eat fewer calories without an appreciable drop in the perceived quantity of food you consume is to minimize high-fat foods in your diet.
Avoid fried foods, oils, mayonnaise, whole eggs, butter, margarine, cream, and whole milk; read food labels and be sure to select foods that are low in fat by calories, not by grams; and cut small amounts of fat from your diet whenever you can.
Replace your whole milk with skim milk to reduce your fat intake. The idea is to reduce unnecessary fats or substitute leaner foods for high-fat foods when possible. This practice alone can tighten up your midsection in a short amount of time.
Eating 5-6 small meals per day in lieu of the normal "three squares" is also helpful and minimizes the accumulation of extra calories as fat.
Small frequent meals stimulate your metabolism, and help to keep your stomach smaller, mitigating the potential for gut distension.
A hard, defined midsection doesn't come without the proper combination of training and diet. Work hard at both and you'll see big dividends in the way you look and feel!