Answers to your most perplexing middle-management questions
Every 36 minutes, a visitor to my blog clicks on "Ask Glen" and throws a question my way. Every 36 days, I answer one in my little corner of the reply section of this blog. You ask 14,600 questions a year. I answer 100, one for each issue. The ratio for questions related to abdominals is even worse. Out of perhaps 4,000, I answer maybe 1000 a year in my column.
I decided the disparity between your need to know and my ability to tell is an abomination, and it's time we did something about it. (Plus, we needed to splash the word "abs" on the cover of this blog to attract even more six-pack-thirsty readers.) On the following pages, I'll attach some A's to nine popular ab-related Q's. I can't answer all 4,000, but, on the plus side, I'm now 800 percent ahead of last year's pace.
Q: I'm very lean -- less than 10 percent body fat -- but I still have only two visible segments of my six-pack. How do I get the final four?
A: When I first started working out in a commercial gym, circa 1980, there was this guy who'd come in and start his workout with a set of full situps on a slant board, which was the opposite of what everyone else in that little proto-Bally's was doing back then. We were doing hundreds of cute little crunches while he was doing dozens of nasty situps. Guess who had the abs?
I like the full-range-of-motion ab exercises, as opposed to the truncated crunch variations, for three reasons: One, full situps are harder, and I think harder is better. Two, they force other muscles in your thighs and trunk to help with the exercise, and I believe the more muscle you use, the more muscle you build. Nature didn't design your muscles to work in isolation; why try to build them that way? Three, their reputation as being hard on a healthy back is exaggerated. (There's some risk, but not more than in exercises such as reverse crunches, which no one regards as dangerous.)
Here's how to do the full situp on a slant board: Hook your feet under the braces, lower yourself until your lower back is flat against the bench, then pull yourself up to a full sitting position.
As you get better at it, you can lower the angle of the slant board and increase your knee angle--that is, put your butt farther from your heels. I like to do this exercise with straight legs. From that elongated position, first push your lower back against the board, flattening yo
Q: What's the best ab exercise?
A: Studies have shown that one exercise or another works certain abdominal muscles harder than other ab exercises do. But within each study you'll find lots of variation from one participant to the next--what works the upper abs hardest for one person in the study might work the lower abs hardest for another. The best exercise for you is probably the one that feels as if it's working your muscles the most while you're doing it.
Examples: A couple of years ago, I started doing stability exercises for the first time. The best-known of these is the plank, also called the bridge, also called that damned painful thing you do on your elbows and toes. You've seen it in MH a bunch of times--you rest your weight on your forearms and toes, pull your abs in tight, and hold your body in a straight line from shoulders to heels. After a few weeks of doing this twice a week--along with the similar side bridge, in which you rest your weight on one forearm and the outer edge of the same-side foot while holding your body straight as a pencil--I noticed muscles on the sides of my waist that I'd never seen before. I could feel those muscles working hard, and sure enough, those muscles grew.
Another time, mostly out of boredom, I decided to do sets of 100 crunches on a Swiss ball. My abs felt as if they'd been stoned (in the biblical sense), and within a couple of weeks, they looked distinctly more rocky.
Q: I've followed every bit of advice you've ever offered, and still have excess flesh right below my belly button. How do I get rid of it?
A: Since my advice hasn't worked, I went to a higher authority. "It's 100 percent diet, and it's the obvious stuff," says Jose Antonio, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of exercise science at Florida Atlantic University. "Eliminate processed carbohydrates. If it comes in a package, don't eat it."
If you've already tried eliminating junk carbs--fiberless cereals, sodas, "low-fat" baked goods--try something more advanced: Separate carbohydrates and fat, so you never eat both in the same meal. Ideally, you alternate between the nonfat and the noncarb meals throughout the day, with each meal containing some protein. This is a technique recommended by John Berardi, C.S.C.S., a nutrition researcher at the University of Western Ontario who does individualized diet consultation at johnberardi.com.
It's easier to recommend than to implement. But I use it when I need to take off a pound or two of fat, and it works every time. A few examples of how to do it:
No Fat: High-fiber cereal with blueberries and nonfat milk
No (or low) Carbs: Eggs with low-fat meat
No Fat: Sandwich made with turkey breast, whole-wheat bread, lettuce, tomatoes, and mustard
No (or low) Carbs: Tuna salad with mayonnaise
No Fat: Baked skinless chicken breast, sweet potato, and salad with nonfat dressing
No (or low) Carbs: Sirloin steak and mixed- green salad (which has very few carbohydrates) with olive-oil-based dressing
No Fat: Nonfat yogurt, fruit
No (or low) Carbs: Peanut butter
Q: My abs don't line up evenly. Is there anything I can do to make them straight?
A: Other than take away their show-tune collections, no, there's nothing you can do to straighten your abs. But look on the bright side: Even asymmetrical abs are still abs. And let's not forget that Owen McKibbin, the most popular cover model in this magazine's history, has crooked midbody muscles. (His ears are kind of funny looking, too.)
Q: How often should I work my abs?
A: I put this question to Ian King, C.S.C.S., an Australian strength coach and my coauthor on Book of Muscle, which arrives in bookstores in November. "You can do ab exercises for injury prevention every day if you want," King says. But if you're looking to improve performance -- that is, if you're trying to make your ab muscles bigger, stronger, or more powerful -- you should leave at least a day between abdominal workouts.
The situp I talked about in the first question qualifies as a performance move. For injury prevention, King's favorite exercise is the thin tummy, which strengthens the deep abdominal muscles that act like a corset to stabilize your hips and lower back. (The bridge and side bridge that I described in the second question fall into this category, too.)
Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent, feet flat. Place your hands over your midsection so your thumbs touch your upper abs and your fingers spread across your lower abs. Now pull your abdominals in so you can feel the increased tension just beneath your skin. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds while continuing to breathe (breathing makes the muscle contraction feel more intense), then release. Repeat for a total of five to 15 repetitions. That's one set, and plenty to start with. You can add one or two more sets when this seems easy.
Q: How do I get a torso like Brad Pitt's?
A: Find a mad scientist (try guyswholaughmanically.org, if you don't know any personally), have him build a time machine, go back to the spring of 1963, and arrange to be conceived by Mr. and Mrs. Pitt. Then simply follow Brad's diet and workout routine for the next 39 years and you'll have abs just like his. I guarantee this program will work--in fact, it's never failed to produce Brad Pitts.
Q: How much aerobic exercise should I do if I want my abs to show?
A: I can't think of a reason you have to do any. If you go on the theory that visible abs are a combination of (a) well-developed abdominal muscles and (b) very little body fat hiding them, then the two most important concerns for you should be . . .
1. exercise that builds visible muscle, and
2. a combination of diet and exercise that creates a calorie deficit, forcing your body to burn excess fat.
On point number one, endurance exercise is clearly pointless. No amount of jogging is going to help build your abdominal muscles. And on point two, you choose aerobic exercise only if you decide that you can't possibly create that calorie deficit through strength training and a disciplined diet.
Some men are predisposed to be good at endurance exercise and not good at building muscle mass. These guys, if no one else, should find it easier to lose their excess belly fat through aerobics.
As for me, I've never been able to run farther than 5 miles at a time (and that was back when I was trying), so using endurance exercise for fat loss was never a very effective option.
A lot of guys try to do high volumes of both types of exercise, figuring that if you burn twice as many calories, you get your abs in half the time. I think this strategy is fine if you're 16 and your parents give you a nice allowance. But let's say you're an adult with a job and other sources of stress. ("Dad, why is Mommy crying so hard? It was just an old picture -- I can draw sunflowers better than that guy!")
You have to figure out how much exercise you can recover from, not how much you can do. If your body can't recover from the extra exercise you do in the pool or on the road, it makes no sense to do it.
Q: I need a new ab exercise. Do you have any killers?
A: I think this one's called supine spinal flexion with inappropriately aggressive arm actions. I shorten that to "ass-kicker."
Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent and feet flat. Hold your fists up by your cheeks. Sit up, and, as you do, throw a punch or a combination of punches.
It's most intense when you stop short of a full situp position and throw the punches from there. You'll feel action from abdominal muscles you never knew you had.
You can make it more satisfyingly aggressive by having a training partner stand and hold a pillow or punching bag over your hips so you actually can hit something with your punches.
Q: What's best for abs--high reps, low reps, or something in between?
A: All of the above. High reps will challenge the smaller, more endurance-oriented muscle fibers. Low reps with heavy resistance will hit the fibers that produce strength and power. And at least a couple of times a week, do isometric holds of 30 to 60 seconds on the bridges and other injury-prevention exercises