The fitness industry is a crazy business, especially when it comes to abs. For example, if you want to reveal your six-pack, you generally have two product choices.
1. The too-easy-to-work method.
You know this better as "5-minute abs!" or some such hype. But if this approach were really effective, even Chris Christie would have a washboard.
2. The so-hard-it-has-to-work method.
Think 60 to 90 minutes of exercise, 6 days a week. Now if you have the time and energy for this kind of regimen, we commend you. But plenty of people are missing one or the other. And that's just reality, not a cop-out.
So we wondered: Could there be an ab-sculpting program that actually works and is doable for most people? For the answer, we turned to Mike Wunsch, C.S.C.S., and Craig Rasmussen, C.S.C.S.
The answer: "Absolutely," says Wunsch, who teams up with Rasmussen to design the workout programs at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California. "That's exactly how we make our living."
One important fact about Results Fitness: Even in a recession, this Southern California gym has expanded. Twice. Why? Because its trainers have developed a fat-loss formula tailored specifically for busy people. (Read: mostly everyone.) The requirements are simple: 30 to 40 minutes a day, 3 days a week.
So how do these trainers do it when so many others have failed? They threw out the old guidelines. The new ones they've created are based on 21st-century science and the methods that work best with their clients. Now you can benefit, too.
Don't target your abs to lose fat
Back in 2002, we reported that it would take 250,000 crunches to burn a pound of fat, according to estimates from University of Virginia scientists. We're pretty sure those researchers published that statistic to make a point. But after almost a decade, the point still may not have hit home.
"I'm amazed at the number of people who think that simply doing ab exercises will make their belly disappear," says Rasmussen. "That is probably the least-efficient way to reveal a six-pack."
Do work every single muscle
"Muscle is your body's primary fat burner," says Rasmussen. Your muscles require energy to contract, which is why you burn calories when you exercise. But resistance training, unlike running or cycling, also causes a significant amount of damage to your muscle fibers. And that's a good thing.
"Your body has to expend energy to repair and upgrade those fibers after your workout," says Rasmussen. "And a single total-body weight-training session can boost your metabolism for up to 2 days."
So you shouldn't neglect a single inch of your body. That goes double for the legs, a body part that plenty of men either train just once a week or simply ignore.
Case in point: Syracuse University researchers determined that people burned more calories the day after a lower-body resistance session than the day after they worked their upper bodies.
Why? Because your lower half houses more muscle. The upshot: "A busy guy's smartest approach is to train his entire body every other day," says Rasmussen. "That allows you to elevate your metabolism maximally all week long, even though you're working out only 3 or 4 days a week."
Don't start your workout with crunches
"You can do lots of crunches and situps and still have a weak core," says Wunsch. "We see that all the time."
The reason: Classic ab moves like crunches and situps work the muscles that allow you to flex (that is, round) your lower spine. True core exercises, on the other hand, train the muscles that prevent your spine from rounding. They also allow you to transfer force from your lower body to your upper body (in a golf swing, for example), and vice versa.
Core exercises target the same muscles that crunches do, but they also include your hip and lower-back muscles. So what's a true core exercise? One that trains you to keep your spine stable and in its natural alignment. Besides the plank (more on that in a minute), scores of exercises qualify, including the side plank, mountain climber, and even the pushup.
Do start with core exercises
"We test everything in our gym," says Wunsch. "And we've seen that people achieve far better results when they do core exercises at the beginning of their workout instead of at the end." The reason: By training your core when your muscles are fresh, you achieve the fastest gains in strength, says Wunsch.
That's important for the average guy, Wunsch and his colleagues have found, because the core is the limiting factor in almost every exercise.
"A weak core is what keeps most men from lifting more weight in the squat and deadlift and just about everything else," says Wunsch. "If we focus on strengthening their core first, they'll ultimately be able to lift heavier weights, which allows them to work more muscle and burn more calories. We're thinking about long-term success."
Don't spend hours on your core
While 5 minutes of exercise a day isn't enough to reveal your abs, it is about the right amount of time to dedicate to targeted core training.
"We've found that just 2 to 4 sets of one or two core exercises is quite effective," Rasmussen says. "Our goal is to make you stronger, not more tired."
A 5-minute core routine prior to weight training has a side benefit, too. "It revs up your core muscles so they fire better as you do other exercises," Rasmussen says.
Do master the plank
Flip through any issue of Men's Health and you'll probably find some version of the plank. This exercise may appear boring and easy—after all, you look like you're simply holding a pushup position but with your weight supported on your forearms instead of your hands.
"The plank is easy only if you're doing it incorrectly or don't know how to make it more challenging," says Wunsch. What's more, he adds, the plank is key because it teaches you to make your core stiff. "That's a skill you need for almost every exercise."
So how do you perfect this exercise? Start by assuming a plank position, and then have a friend place a broomstick along your back. It should touch your head, upper back, and butt; this indicates that your spine is in proper alignment. If the stick doesn't make contact at all three points, simply adjust your posture until it does. That's the position you need to hold.
Don't waste a second on the treadmill
"If you have only 30 to 40 minutes to devote to a workout, then every second has to count," says Rasmussen. "In those cases, our clients do zero running."
His contention is that you can achieve faster fat loss with resistance training. How so? First, drop the assumption that running burns more calories than lifting does.
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.
There's also the metabolism boost of weight training. "Resistance training has a much larger metabolic impact than long-distance running does," says Rasmussen. "Plus, your body is being given a stimulus to gain strength and build new lean tissue."
One last efficiency benefit: Lifting weights through a full range of motion can improve your flexibility as well or even better than static stretching does, according to a University of North Dakota study.
Do keep your body moving
"Our goal is to pack as much physical work as possible into whatever time our clients have," says Wunsch. To that end, he and Rasmussen frequently implement supersets and circuits—strategies that save time without sacrificing results. To understand why, you'll need a few quick definitions.
Straight sets: This is a traditional weight-training routine, in which you complete all the sets of a given exercise before moving on to the next.
Alternating sets: These involve alternating between exercises that train your body using two noncompeting movements. For example, you pair an upper-body exercise that works the muscles on your front side—a pushup or bench press, say—with a lower-body exercise that emphasizes the muscles on your back side—the deadlift, for example.
The idea is that you work a group of muscles with one exercise, but instead of sitting around for a full 2 or 3 minutes while that muscle group recovers, you perform an exercise that doesn't heavily engage those same muscles. As a result, you can cut your rest time in half or eliminate it completely.
Circuits: These are similar to alternating sets, except that they involve three or more exercises. You can rest after each exercise in the circuit, or only after the last exercise.
How much time can these techniques save? A 2011 Spanish study found that men who trained with circuits achieved the same gains as those who trained with straight sets—yet their workouts were 42 percent shorter. But that's not to suggest you should hit the showers early. No, it means circuits and alternating sets can help you squeeze more total sets into the same sweat session.