Updated 18 November 2014

Get those washboard abs

We put together some exercises to get you the stomach you've always wanted.

"Diet is crucial, and if it's not 100% it will undermine any exercise benefits," says Dr Ross Tucker, a South African exercise physiologist.

"Everyone seems to battle with the weight in a specific area, in this case the stomach. It's really difficult to combat, but it's important to recognise that eating well and exercising correctly are the keys," he says.

Energy in must = energy out
The solution, he says, is finding the right balance between how much energy you take in versus how much energy you spend.

"At the risk of oversimplifying matters, men and women tend to store fat in different areas, as a result of genetics. What happens is that if your overall energy intake is too high, relative to how much energy you use (for example, if you eat a lot of fatty foods, and don't exercise), then you store that extra energy as fat. This is where genetics comes in, because men store it in the stomach, woman often on the thighs.  

"So the problem is the same - too much energy in, not enough out. It's just the result that is different," he says.

So are we doomed to a life of relentless sit-ups and daily crunches? Actually, no.

"The mistake people make is that they try to target the specific muscle group they're worried about, often at the expense of doing the whole body exercise that is actually more effective. That's not to say that focus on a muscle group or area is bad, because you need it, but it's better to exercise the whole body.

The solution then, is to correct the initial problem, which is energy-related, says Tucker. He highly recommends cardio training – such as running, walking, cycling, swimming, aerobics - anything that is cardiovascular and gets the heart pumping, and energy burning.

"It is just a question of how you use these cardio sessions. I would suggest at least four days a week of cardio training, each session lasting about 30 to 45 minutes, at the very least. You have to build up this duration and then keep at it consistently in order to see change," he advises.

Cardio + specific exercises the key
According to Tucker, specific exercises for the area in question play a relatively minor role, other than that they are responsible for developing the muscle in the area, which creates the appearance of being toned.

"That's obviously what you want, but you have to realise that you can't do the toning and specific work first and neglect the cardio - it has to work the other way around, cardio first, toning second. So focus on cardio, then on toning."

And of course, no belly is going to go flat on exercise alone, so those beers and biltong also have to go. At least for now, anyway.

"The best thing is to see a dietician or follow a very good diet plan. Just remember that low kilojoule is not necessarily better – if the diet is too low it can cause problems as well, because it causes the body's metabolic rate to drop and that affects your ability to lose weight in the future. So don't try to starve yourself or go overboard, rather eat sensibly, cut out as much fat as you can, and listen to your body," he says.

Exercises to try
Once you've got your cardio routine waxed you can start to focus on toning those abdominal mucles. Here are some exercises to try:

  • The ab crunch: Lie flat on an exercise mat, knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Cup your hands at the sides of your head or cross your arms on your chest. Use your abdominal muscles to lift the upper body closer to the legs. Return slowly to the original starting position.
  • Bicycle crunches: Lie with your back flat on the floor. Keep your hands alongside your neck. Lift your shoulders into the crunch position and lift your knees perpendicular to the floor, with your lower legs parallel to the floor. Kick your legs outwards in a bicycling motion and make sure you keep your lower legs parallel to the floor. Do this for 20 seconds at a time, then repeat the movement.
  • Boxing abdominal crunches: Perform a normal abdominal crunch, but with the variation of holding your arms like a boxer does. As you bring up your upper body in the crunch, punch into the air. You can punch once, twice or a combination of times, either hooking or jabbing to the front or to alternate sides.
  • Reverse crunches: Lie down on your back, and pull your legs up. Hold onto something very solid, with both hands extended above your head. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Pull your lower body towards your shoulders so that your bum is raised from the floor. Use your stomach muscles to lift your hips. Return slowly to the original starting position.
  • Oblique crunches: Lie on your back with your stomach pulled in tightly, back flat on the floor. Place your right ankle on your left knee and your left hand behind your head, keeping your neck relaxed and straight. Your right arm can be at your side, providing support. Contract your abdominals and lift your shoulders off the ground, keeping your head supported. Move your left elbow towards your right knee. Hold the abdominal contraction for five seconds, then lower slowly to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
  • Leg raises: Sit on the bench and lean backwards, with your hands resting behind you. Keep your legs in the air and together, and your knees bent. Kick your legs outwards and forwards, extending your knees until they're nearly straight. Remember to keep your toes pointed upwards.
  •  Torso and leg lift: Lie on your side, supported by an elbow. Your arms, legs and hips should be in line. Press up with your elbow so that your body lifts off the ground and hold the position for a few seconds, then return to the ground.

(Amy Henderson)


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