Abs. Possibly one of the most sought-after aesthetic elements of fitness. (That or the Kim Kardashian butt). I would like to start by reminding you that I am no nutritionist or personal trainer (as of yet) but recently I have been getting a lot of questions, mostly along the lines of ‘how do I get abs?’
However, I didn’t want to share a post just on the topic of abs, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think this would be a mistake since there is not one particular or ‘correct’ way to get abs so I can’t claim to give you a method that will ultimately get you abs. Secondly, ‘getting abs’ is purely an aesthetic-based aim and although, in general, I don’t think there is much wrong with having aesthetic goals, I would prefer to share more useful (and in my opinion, more important) information about having a healthy lifestyle, as you can be perfectly fit and healthy without abs – some people might find them appealing but they’re certainly not neccessary. So I’m going to share a broader post, which does cover the popular subject of abs but has a greater focus on having a fit and healthy lifestyle. Here I’ve decided to share with you my personal experience, along with plenty of information, and hopefully give you an insight into my own lifestyle.
There are two important elements necessary to seeing results – nutrition and exercise. A lot of people say that ‘having abs’ and being in good shape is down to 80% diet and 20% training. I don’t know how true this is, but they are certainly both necessary – you won’t see results if you’re following one but not the other. You cannot out-train a bad diet. As I’ve already mentioned, there is also no particular method for getting abs – everyone is different. Some people have more obvious abs and their appearance can vary a lot between individuals – this is due to genetics.
- Individual differences. Please do not take a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to nutrition. Do not follow someone else’s macros or calorie intake because that person is NOT you. As I’m sure most of you already know, your food intake should be tailored to you, taking into account a number of factors including your height, age, gender and activity levels. I like to eat intuitively, but if you have no idea about the amounts and types of nutrients that you should be consuming, then I would highly recommend that you go and talk to a registered nutritionist or dietician.
- Macro-tracking. This has become a bit of a trend in the fitness world. The If-It-Fits-Your-Macros (IIFYM) diet is very popular and frequently pops up on social media, but it isn’t necessarily healthy – this is the idea that you can basically consume as much of something (including highly processed, sugary junk food) you like as long as it fits your macronutrient (fats, proteins + carbs) requirements. I personally don’t track macros (life is too short) as I find this slightly restrictive and not very enjoyable. However I am aware of the rough amounts I need of each macronutrient to perform at my best, which does help to inform my diet.
- Protein – too much of a good thing? Again, high-protein diets (often paired with low-carb plans) have become a bit of a fad. Protein is essential and satiating, and you should be including it with every meal, whether you’re trying to build muscle or not – but please don’t go overboard. Protein bars have become a popular snack, but please bear in mind that these are extremely high in protein, often containing as much protein as a chicken breast along with a bunch of artificial sweeteners. When consumed as a snack, on top of protein-rich meals, you are likely to be consuming a huge amount of protein, which could potentially have negative effects. Unless you are a bodybuilder (which arguably isn’t very healthy in itself), it’s highly unlikely that such protein supplements are necessary. To get an idea of how much protein you should be consuming, click here.
- What I eat. I don’t cut anything out; I eat everything. I do tend to rotate my carbohydrate intake around my activity levels (for example I’ll have carbs before and after a workout) and therefore I’ll consume more carbs on a more active day. If I’m not training first thing, I focus on healthy fats, protein and complex carbs in the form of eggs, avocado and veggies. If I am training, I’ll add some wholegrain toast. I eat nutritious food because I love it, not just because it’s good for me. It’s important that you’re eating enough, too – you need food to fuel your workouts effectively and to build muscle. I also always make sure that I refuel with a combination of protein and carbs after a workout to replenish depleted glycogen stores and to repair and grow my muscles.
- Calorie deficit – in order to see those abs in which you have taken so much care in shaping and strengthening, you need a relatively low body fat percentage. In order to shed body fat, you need to be expending more energy (burning more calories) than the amount that you’re consuming (food). This can be done by increasing exercise volume, decreasing food intake (by a sensible amount – if you go too low you could end up damaging your metabolism, sending your body into starvation mode and causing it to cling on to fat) or through a combination of the two.
- Cheat meals. I get asked about how many “cheat meals” I consume per week. I personally don’t like the term “cheat meals” because to me it implies that by having something that might not be considered nutritious or healthy, I am doing a bad thing – I am cheating. I prefer to use the term ‘treats’. These foods are occasional and I enjoy them in moderation (80:20 rule!) – I can’t give you an exact number of treats I have per week as it depends on that particular week. In case you’re curious, my weakness is anything with dark chocolate. And peanut butter. Which may be why Ben & Jerry’s PB cup ice cream is one of my favourite treats.
- Targeting the abs. Another thing that I’m asked for is abs workouts. But here’s the thing: targeting abs on their own will not necessarily give you abs. You can do endless sit-ups and crunches, which will strengthen your core, but your abs will not really show unless you have a certain body fat percentage. If you’re carrying a lot of fat, your abs will not be visible. So your priority is to do exercises that will burn body fat, as well as having a good diet. I don’t actually train abs on their own, as I’ve explained below.
- How I train and how often: I train between 4-6 times a week, it just depends on how busy I am. I used to train more but found this was counter-productive (beware the dangers of overtraining!) I train lower and upper body separately, but I always keep my core engaged during these exercises and I tend to combine abs + arms. I usually do 2 x 30-minute HIIT workouts a week (1 upper, 1 lower) 2 longer weights sessions (again 1 upper, 1 lower) which I finish off with HIIT-based sprints, sometimes 1 isolated cardio session per week (usually a run) and I try to include some yoga and foam rolling to stretch out my muscles. Both HIIT and weights are effective for fat-burning, and HIIT works especially well for me because it’s time-efficient – maximum effort with short periods of rest for a short amount of time. I’ve shared a few HIIT workouts over on my Instagram if you’re interested. You can read more about the benefits of HIIT training here.
- Should you train fasted? Fasted training refers to doing exercise on an empty stomach, first thing, before breakfast. Yes, it’s harder because your glycogen levels are much lower, but sometimes it’s the only way to fit it into a busy day. There are suggestions that fasted cardio burns more fat because you’re tapping into your reserve stores rather than drawing energy from your breakfast, but there have also been suggestions that muscle mass can be lost. And, just to complicate matters further, there are contradictory claims which suggest that you will not experience more fat loss from fasted exercise. However, findings have shown that there is very little to no difference in the amount of fat loss in subjects who train fasted or fuelled. (Take a look at the study here).
– So, make of it what you will. I suggest doing whatever works best for you. I tend to do fasted HIIT because it’s easier for me to fit it in, but I eat before a weights workout because I have more time and I’ll be training for longer. Don’t be afraid to experiment (unless you have medical reasons in which case you should check with your doctor!) and see what suits you best.
- I would just like to add that ‘having abs’ should probably not be your main focus – it’s easy to get caught up with aesthetics, largely thanks to social media, but there’s so much more to fitness than this. What Instagram photos don’t tell you is how you feel after a workout. The rush of endorphins and sense of progress or achievement is a huge part of being fit, and goals that aren’t based on looks are much more likely to be sustainable and less likely to make you unhappy. Try to focus on these instead!
I hope this has answered some of your questions – if you have any questions, information or experiences to share then please comment below!
Thank you for reading,