Whether you call them love handles, jelly bellies or beer guts, out-of-shape abdomens are a major problem for most adults. Chances are that the more desperate have done countless sit-ups and leg lifts, but all it got them was tired – and even more desperate. So, what do you do to bust a gut? You launch a two-prolonged attack. Here it comes!
Ask the average person the part of his body he likes least, and chances are about 9 in 10 that his/her eyes will drop to his belly. Why just the average man? Even some runners who click 60 miles a week jiggle around the middle.
Scientists think they may finally have some answers. The mutinous middle is partly genetic. But although there is little anyone can do about the genetic factor, recent research findings may help us get a better grip on those love handles. Apparently, a previously unrecognized and controllable factor also contributes to abdominal girth: It’s the fat in the diets, and the oil-soaked fries. We’re talking about dietary fat.
Research suggests that dietary fat, especially the saturated kind, may harbor a special proclivity – above and beyond its caloric contributions – for converting to body fat in the area of the gut.
So, fat in the stomach tends to become fat on the stomach.
Is the answer simply to starve off that gut? Many people don’t realize that attractive abdomens require a two-pronged approach. First, you have to get rid of excess fat by burning more calories than you consume. This means doing aerobic exercise and watching what you eat.
Second, you need to tone and strengthen the abdominal muscles – not through endless repetitions of sit-ups, but by doing effective abdominal exercise, using proper technique.
Proper technique may mean unlearning a few tricks. The old-style sit-up – in which the legs are kept straight and the exerciser raises his body to an upright, sitting position – has been firmly relegated to the dustbin of history by exercise physiologists. This outdated movement puts strain on the lower back, and doesn’t fully contract the abdominal muscles. Instead, it’s the large hip flexor muscles in the thighs that end up doing most of the work.
The best exercise for strengthening your abdominal muscles is the crunch, also known as the abdominal curl. This is a modified sit-up, in which you raise your shoulders slightly off the ground while keeping your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor.
Lie on your back on a carpet or mat (a bare, hard surface will grind against your tailbone), arms crossed at the wrist over chest, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Pressing down the small of your back, slowly lift your head, then your shoulder blades, curling your chin toward your chest as far as comfortably possible. (Don’t sit up. The trouble with a full sit-up is that hip flexor muscles come into play, aiding the abdominals and undercutting your workout.) Hold this upright position for a count of five, and then slowly lower your shoulders.
As an alternative, try Roman crunches: Drape your calves over a bench or chair, a position that stabilizes your hips and relieves the stress on your spine.
Maybe you’re looking, instead, for the advanced class. If so, you could do crunches as you hold in each hand a small dumbbell – say, a 1- to 5-poundre – to build extra power.
Lie on your back, hands either at your sides or, for ease, cupped under your butt. Slowly lift your knees toward your chest, keeping your hips flat on the floor and your feet together. Then gradually lower your legs back to the floor.
Lie down, arms at sides, the left leg bent at the knee with the foot flat on the floor, the right leg extended and raised slightly. With chin tucked into chest, hands behind your head and elbows pointed forward, lift your shoulders off the floor. Now twist your trunk so your right elbow touches your left knee, and then lower your head to the floor. Next, do the other side: Bend your right knee and extend the left. Curl up and twist so your left elbow touches your right knee, and so on. This movement keys on the external obliques, the muscles on both sides of the abdomen.
When performing these exercises, shoot for two sets of 10 repetitions each. Once you can handle 10 with ease, try 12, then 15. But more important than how many reps you can do is how you do them. For example, avoid arching your back, and try not to throw your neck and shoulders into the motion to cheat out those last few repetitions.
Move slowly and deliberately through each exercise, building a rhythm, going through the full range of motion. Hold the move at its most demanding point for a count of one in order to tightly contract the muscles. Breathe normally, exhaling on exertion.
But before you get down, remember to loosen up: Jog in place or climb some stairs to warm your muscles and stretch your shoulders, back, hips and knees.
If you can work out in a gym, machines like Universal and Nautilus all have excellent abdominal devices. 60 to 90 seconds on these weight machines will strengthen your abdominals as well as anything else you can do.
To get the most out of your crunches, follow these pointers:
- Use your muscles, not your momentum, to move your body in a controlled motion. To check, place one hand on your abdomen. As you curl up, you should feel your abdominal muscles contract and press your lower back to the floor.
- Work slowly and rhythmically. Count to two as you contract; hold the contraction for a moment, then count to tow as you return to your starting position.
- Exhale during each contraction; inhale as you lower yourself to the floor.
- Keep a space the size of your fist between your chin and your chest. This will help you align your neck and spine correctly, and prevent neck tension.
- Don’t secure your feet under furniture or have someone hold your ankles, since this shifts the workload from your abdominal to your hip flexors.
While abdominal exercises, if done correctly, can tone muscle, they can do very little to reduce fat. They simply don’t burn enough calories.
Best for fat-burning is aerobic exercise, the kind that makes you breathe rather than grunt. The classic huffers and puffers – jogging, cycling, swimming, owing and fast walking – are the best “fat burners”. These activities demand a lot of oxygen because they work the major muscle groups for extended periods. Anybody looking to cut a gut should engage in an aerobic activity for at least three 30-minute periods a week.
So the best prescription for a muscled middle is less fat, aerobic exercise and abdominal exercises to tighten the territory beneath a sagging mid-section. Incorporate all three and you may be able to turn that water-bed into a wash-board yet.