In my free time, I run an outdoor boot camp in Arlington, Virginia. Before each class, I always gather our group in a circle and ask each person to introduce themselves and tell me one exercise or body part they want to focus on in that day’s workout.
Any guess what the most popular request is?
No matter who comes to the workout, no matter how many people come to workout, “core” or “abs” is always what people want to focus on most. There are occasional requests for burpees, push-ups, or squats, but core is always the favorite… by a landslide.
I always oblige and include some of the best core exercises in each workout. However, you can’t just crunch or plank your way to great abs. Here’s an analogy to illustrate why not.
Imagine that you get up one morning and go to make your bed. You tossed and turned a lot the night before, so your bed sheets are all wrinkled. You really want the center of your bed sheets to be nice and tight, so you try to smooth out the middle part of the bed. You don’t tuck in any other area of the bed though. You ignore the corners and sides. What would happen?
The sheets would not get tight in the middle… or anywhere else on your bed.
But what if you tucked in the sheets at every corner and side of the bed? The left side, the right side, the front, the back, the corners. Every inch. As you tucked in each additional area, the middle of your bed sheets would get tighter and tighter.
The muscles in your body are like the sheets on your bed. If you want to tighten up one area of your body, you can’t just focus on that area (whether you want tighter abs, tighter arms, tighter legs, a tighter chest, or a tighter booty). The only way to tighten up in one area is by tightening up everywhere. You have to build lean muscle and lose fat throughout your entire body.
When my clients and friends hear this, they often groan and complain to me, as if this is a rule that I somehow made up to punish them.
I didn’t design your body. This is just the way it works.
Have you ever seen someone with flabby arms and a tight stomach? Have you ever seen someone with cellulite in their thighs and ripped abs? Have you ever seen someone with a double-chin and a toned core?
The only way to tighten up one of your body parts is to tighten up all of your body parts.
Think of your body as a furnace. When you do cardio, you add fuel to the furnace. When you do strength training, you build muscle and turn your body into a more efficient fat-burning machine. By adding lean muscle, you increase your body’s metabolism, which means you burn more calories when you are resting. This improves how your body processes food and stores fat.
What if you don’t want to get bigger?
Relax… Unless you have a dedicated approach to get huge, you won’t turn into a 300-pound monster by including resistance training in your workout routine. Unless you eat a ton of food or take some questionable supplements to pack on mass, strength training will actually make you tighter, not thicker. Many people (especially women) fear that they will blow up if they touch anything heavier than a 3-pound dumbbell. This is a common fear that’s not valid (see below).
If you want great abs, your workout program needs to include cardio and strength training for every major muscle in your body.
To simplify things, here are the major muscle groups in your body:
If you neglect any of your major muscles, you are destined for love-handles and also more susceptible to injuries, bad posture, and chronic aches and pains. While injuries can definitely be caused by over-training, many ailments are simply the result of muscular weaknesses or imbalances caused by incomplete exercise programs (i.e. just doing cardio and crunches). It’s been estimated that up to 80% of back pain is due to the fact that many people don’t do enough (or anything at all) to strengthen their back.
My advice is to spend about 10% of your strength training time on exercises specifically for your core (i.e. 3 minutes in a 30-minute full-body workout). Spend 90% of your time on exercises that use the rest of your body (i.e. squats, burpees, push-ups, rows, and so on). This approach might seem counter-intuitive, but this is actually the most efficient and most effective way to tone your body everywhere and get abs that would make even Michael Phelps jealous.
Until next time, remember that you’re stronger than you think…
-Pete Leibman, Creator of StrongerHabits.com
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