Turn on late-night TV, and you’re bound to see those ubiquitous commercials for exercise equipment, body transformation programs, and dietary supplements, all claiming to help you get ripped and shredded to show off your six-pack abs. If it were really as simple as dropping a hundred bucks to reveal your abs, a lot more people should be contending for the cover of all the popular fitness magazines, right.
The truth is nearly 70 percent of all adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And most don’t get the minimum 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. You’re never going to see your abs if your exercise habits suck. And you’re never going to see your abs if you eat the kind of foods most Americans eat, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
In one year, the average adult in the U.S. consumes 29 pounds of French fries, 23 pounds of pizza, 24 pounds of ice cream, 53 gallons of soda, and 2.7 pounds of sodium. These are high-fat, high calorie foods that pack on the pounds for most people year after year. You’re never going to see your abs if you fall for the next fly-by-night diet or gimmicky piece of exercise equipment. And even if you make it to the gym regularly, you won’t see your six-pack if you’re eating the way most people do.
If you want to feel good about peeling off your shirt at the pool or playing on the skins team in a basketball game, you’ve got to combine healthy eating with the right kind of exercise. And in all reality, 90 percent of the work to get six-pack abs happens in the kitchen. You’ve got to combine diet and exercise to lower your overall body fat percentage (6% to 17% for men; 14% to 24% for women) to reveal your abs, according to the American Council on Exercise. Here’s how to make it happen:
Keep a food diary. If you can’t see your abs, you most likely need to lose a few pounds of fat. Your first plan of action should be taking a hard look at your diet. But before you make any drastic changes, to your diet, keep a food diary for about a week. Write down everything you eat for meals and all the snacks and beverages in between. In a recent study at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, researchers followed 1,700 people for three years. And they found that the people who kept a detailed food diary lost twice as much weight as people who didn’t keep track of their food intake.
If you don’t want to write down everything you eat, use one of many smartphone apps that can help you track your eating habits and daily calorie intake. After a week of diligently recording what you eat every day, take some time to review your diet. Chances are pretty good that you’ll identify days or times when you eat healthy and occasions when you’re mindlessly munching. Be totally honest with your food diary, because controlling your diet is the most important action you can take to get lean.
Avoid junk food. With a clear picture of what your eating habits really look like, you’ve got to resolve to eliminate junk food, or at least cut back. Ice cream, pizza, soda, fast food, and sweets are loaded with fat, calories, and sugar. Energy drinks and coffee drinks made with whole milk, cream, and sugar are another source of excess calories and fat. These foods will erase all your hard work in the gym in a hurry. And if you’re eating more calories than you need, you’ll most likely store the excess calories as fat on your abdomen (men) and hips, thighs, and buttocks (women), according to the National Institutes of Health.
Avoiding your favorite high-calorie, high-fat foods can be a challenge at first. But many effective eating plans recommend healthy foods for most meals, and allow for a cheat-day to eat any meal of your choice. That way you’re more likely to stick with eating healthy, knowing you can indulge once in a while without ruining your good habits. Just know that when it comes to revealing your abs, junk food is your worst enemy.
Eat healthy foods. So what should you eat to lose body fat and support building lean muscle tissue to reveal your abs? It’s not as complicated as those fad diets want you to think. Eat healthy foods. An eating plan like the Mediterranean Diet is based on eating more fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, fish, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats like chicken and turkey. An eating plan like this is low in unhealthy saturated fats, empty calories, and refined carbohydrates and high in essential vitamins and nutrients. To get lean enough to see your abs, you need to lose excess body fat, and one of the best ways to do this is by eating clean.
Improve your diet, and you’ll likely be able to cut a few hundred calories a day just by eating healthier. Combine that with a sensible exercise plan, and you’ll easily shed at least a pound of fat a week. Whether you need to shed the thin layer of fat that’s hiding your abs, or have a few more pounds to lose, eating healthy is one of the best things you can do to reach your goal.
Get adequate protein. If you’re trying to build the kind of lean muscle tissue that will give your abs the kind of definition that gets noticed, protein should be an important part of your diet. Your body needs protein to repair muscle tissue damage from a tough workout and get stronger. Good sources of protein include poultry like turkey and chicken, fish, low-fat dairy products, beans and legumes, eggs, nuts and seeds, and lean meats.
Protein shakes can also be a good source for additional protein. Aim to eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. It’s not an exact science and amounts necessary for building lean muscle tissue differ from person to person. But it’s a good goal to aim for. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends 0.4 grams to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for active people, and about 0.8 grams of protein per pound for athletes. The more lean muscle tissue you build through diet and exercise, the more fat your body will burn. And that’s what you need to happen to reveal your abs.
Drink more water. Competitive bodybuilders swear by drinking a gallon or more of water per day. That’s because water helps flush out excess sodium from your system that can cause bloating that prevents your muscles from showing through. If a gallon seems like a lot, start by aiming to drink at least the recommended amount of 40 to 64 ounces a day of water, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Water contains zero calories, so it’s a far better option than coffee drinks and soda to help you manage your daily calorie intake. But that’s not the only reason water is needed to reveal your abs. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that proper hydration helps improve the release of testosterone needed to build muscle strength and endurance and burn fat. Researchers also found that if you’re not properly hydrated your body releases higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol that limits muscle gain and encourages fat storage.
HIIT the gym. If your primary goal is to get lean enough to see your abs, there are many avenues of exercise you can use to make it happen. But long, slow, cardio sessions aren’t the answer. Performing compound exercises with weights in a circuit-style workout or doing supersets that challenge different muscles groups can get you ripped. This type of weight training helps elevate your heart rate while you’re exercising and keeps burning fat even after you’re done working out. And another proven way to get lean and reveal your abs is high intensity interval training. In a recent study in the Journal of Obesity, researchers found that people who followed a HIIT training workout on a stationary bike lost 36 percent more fat than people who cycled at a steady rate. Combining strength training and high intensity interval training will put you on the fast track to burning fat and revealing your abs. Isolation exercises like crunches and curl-ups may strengthen your core, but without revving up your heart rate to burn fat, they’ll get your ab muscles to pop.
Get your mind right. If you really want to see your abs, you’ve got to get your mind right. A lot of people workout for months on end without getting the kind of gains or body composition that they want. And that’s because getting lean starts in the kitchen. Clean up your diet and commit to eating only healthy foods. Stick to a workout schedule that includes strength training and high intensity interval training, and before long you’ll reveal your abs.
Prevalance of Obesity in the United States
American College of Sports Medicine Exercise Recommendations
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
American Council on Exercise Body Fat Chart
Kaiser Permanente Study Finds Keeping a Food Diary Doubles Diet Weight Loss
National Strength and Conditioning Association Protein Recommendations
Journal of Applied Physiology. Effect of hydration state on resistance exercise-induced endocrine markers of anabolism, catabolism, and metabolism.
Journal of Obesity. High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss.