The quest for flat abs knows no shame (or too much indolence). For proof, behold the Abs in a Box kit. It contains semipermanent body stain, eight shadow and highlighting powders, and a booklet explaining how to use the above to create a six-pack — all for $69. Which would be a bargain if those abs were real. But attaining flat abs isn’t a matter of painting by numbers — or even of executing a mind-numbing series of crunches. Consider this: Stomach flab is easier to lose than the padding on your butt and thighs. Commit to shedding a few pounds, and the ones around your waist disappear first. Once they’re gone, a judicious mix of ab moves can carve out smooth, visible muscles over time — and not just for the genetically preprogrammed. Here, five ways to create your own (genuine) ab masterpiece.
Problem: You have too much fat all over
You could have Jessica Alba’s muscle structure and nothing to show for it if you’re carrying around extra pounds.
“No one’s ever going to see those strong muscles as long as a layer of fat sits on top of them,” says personal trainer Gunnar Peterson, who works with Jennifer Lopez and Gisele Bundchen. Interval training is the most effective way to exercise.
A study in the International Journal of Obesity found that women who put in 20 minutes on a stationary bike three times a week — but alternated 8-second bursts of speedy pedaling with 12-second rest periods — trimmed more from their midsections over 15 weeks than those who cycled at a slower, but steady, pace for 40 minutes.
Researchers believe that interval training triggers the body to release adrenaline, a hormone that tells the body to burn stored fat — which is often found in the stomach area.
Problem: You’re eating the wrong food
Without the right diet, even the most rigorous cardio regimen is useless. “That means cutting calories,” says Susan B. Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston and author of “The Instinct Diet” (Workman Publishing Company).
And there are tricks that help, too. Drinking coffee — when part of a weight-loss diet — may also trim the stomach slightly, and the caffeine may speed up the metabolism. Roberts suggests one to three cups of coffee a day.
Dairy’s role in weight loss is controversial (some studies have shown a strong connection; others haven’t). On the pro side: In a University of Tennessee study, overweight adults on a low-calorie diet who had 1,100 milligrams of calcium daily lost 81 percent more stomach fat than those who got only 400 to 500 milligrams of calcium per day. Getting three daily servings of dairy is a reasonable goal, says Michael B. Zemel, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee.
What to avoid? White, starchy carbohydrates top the list. People who chose white bread over whole grains gained about half an inch around the middle every year, according to a study from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
Problem: You’re doing the wrong moves
“Crunches only work the superficial muscles at the front of your torso,” says Shawn McCormack, director of and head instructor at the Body, a Manhattan fitness studio. “They don’t do anything for the muscles that run around the entire core of your body like a corset, or the oblique muscles along your sides.”
These are the muscles that act like your body’s own Spanx, drawing your midsection up and in. One of the best ways to strengthen them is by holding a simple plank position. For an extra challenge, lift your hips up an inch or two and then move them back.
Pilates moves are powerful ab sculptors, says Michele Olson, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.
In a study pitting mat-based Pilates moves against crunches, the Pilates exercises were all more effective on the abs than crunches were. Crunches can still be one part of your routine, but doing them ad nauseam is an exercise in futility. Two to five sets of 15 to 20 reps are plenty.
Problem: You only use your abdominal muscles rarely
Whether you’re on the treadmill or doing push-ups, your navel should feel like it’s being pulled toward your spine as your ribs drop slightly toward your pelvis.
“Breathing deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth, is the best way to keep your core muscles contracted and engaged in any workout,” says Laurie Cole, an instructor at SoulCycle, a cycling studio in New York City.
And it should extend beyond the gym.
“My abs are always activated,” says personal trainer Kacy Duke. This not only strengthens the torso over time but also improves posture, which instantly minimizes bulges.
Problem: Your genes aren’t solely to blame
Fat distribution is at least 30 percent — maybe as much as 60 percent — determined by genetics. But biology isn’t necessarily destiny. Though scientists have identified specific genes that affect the propensity to store fat around the middle or in the hips and thighs, any gene pool can be overcome.
“You’ll probably have to do more work to maintain a flat stomach, but biology doesn’t rule how you exercise or what you eat,” says Olson.