2. Cut out or greatly curtail your consumption of refined sugar. Not all calories are equal when you're trying to lose weight and develop a six-pack, Herrington says. For example, 200 calories from a robust serving of beans or from a sugary cookie provide vastly different amounts of nutrition. A serving of beans would typically contain good amounts of protein, potassium, magnesium and dietary fiber, while a cookie packed with sugar is mostly empty calories, Herrington says. She advises staying away from foods like white bread, cakes and pies and white crackers that are laden with refined sugar. You should also eschew sugary sports drinks, fruit juices and sodas, in favor of plain water or milk. "The biggest thing I advise people to avoid is added sugars," Herrington says. "If you want to cut out body fat, cut that out. Refined sugar isn't doing you any good. You get a temporary boost of energy, then you crash and crave more. It's like burning money; it's a waste." Eating too much refined sugar is also linked to fatty liver disease, obesity and diabetes, she says.
Directions: Begin each of these workouts with a five-minute warmup, or go through the moves after you’ve done your usual cardio or strength training when you’re already warm. Each should also begin with 20 reps of what Fitzgerald calls “transverse pullbacks”—where you pull your navel toward your spine, as if bracing yourself against a sucker punch—as a way to activate the muscles for the work you’re about to ask of them. You’ll also need some dumbbells for some of these moves.
The rectus abdominis is the muscle you think of when you think "abs." It's the outermost abdominal muscle, and runs vertically along each side of your abdominal wall. The transverse abdominis is the deepest muscle of the abdominal wall, which means it's closest to your spine, and basically wraps around your torso between your ribs and your hips. The oblique muscles run along the sides of your torso, and there are two sets: internal and external. The internal obliques lie above the transverse abdominis, and then the external obliques are on top of those (they're the most superficial of the bunch). There's also a handful of other smaller muscles in this area—what we call the core—that work to stabilize the spine and allow us to bent and twist and lift without hurting ourselves.
Do it: With your feet shoulder-width apart, lift a barbell off the rig, centering it evenly across your shoulders. (This version of the squat targets the core, not the legs, and so you should be using far less weight than you would for a traditional back squat.) Send your glutes back like you’re lowering into a chair, bending at the knees as deeply as possible. Press through your heels to return to the starting position for one rep. Do 12 reps for one set.
This exercise will stretch many of the muscles responsible for posture that are sometimes tight and it strengthens those same muscles if they are weak. You may discover that when you first perform it, one side of your body is significantly stronger or tighter. For instance, a long-time discus thrower who has turned to his left for years, to initiate his throw, may have significantly stronger obliques on his left side.
To do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, shoulders down, and your abs drawn in. Hinge forward at your waist and inch forward, walking with your hands into a top-of-the-pushup (or plank) position. Hold plank for three seconds, being sure to keep your chest lifted and your belly button drawn into your spine. Your body should form a straight line from your ears to your ankles. Then, perform one pushup by bending your elbows to the sides and lowering your body towards (but not touching) the floor, maintaining a straight spine.
"I have researched this move in my lab, and it is very effective at activating all of the abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominins), and yet the movement is very straightforward and does not require several steps or positions, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery.
A University of Southern Maine study found that a single set of a weight-training exercise torches as many calories as running at a 6-minute-mile pace for the same amount of time. So for every second you spend lifting weights, your body is expending high amounts of energy. Add high intensity interval training (HIIT) principles to your workout, and you could see even more gains.
To do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and pressed firmly into the floor and hold a medicine ball (or other similar weighted object). Brace your abs in tight (as if preparing for someone to punch your stomach) and use your lower body to start the movement by bending your knees, sitting back into your hips, and reaching the ball down across the outside of your left leg. Stand up, swinging your arms across your body and up to the right while pressing your hips forward. Do 10-12 reps going from left hip to right shoulder, and then repeat on the other side.
When you're doing exercises to strengthen these muscles, think of the abs and core as one unit. Even when you do exercises that recruit more of one muscle than the others (for example, side planks that really fire up the obliques), you'll notice that you still have to engage your entire midsection to do them right, which is proof that these muscles are never working completely alone. It's important to show equal love to all of the muscles of the core so that this unit can power itself properly from all angles.
"My goals six years ago was to 'get abs' and I used to think cardio and crunches would get me there. But it wasn’t until I started lifting weights and varying my abdominal exercises that I started to see a major change. You don’t realize how much you use your core muscles in order to perform powerful rapid movements like deadlifts!" — Shante Franca, @shantefranca