I get asked a lot how to achieve and maintain a flat stomach and killer abs. The abs are one of the features of a physique that will stand out as much as bulging biceps or massive shoulders, and they’re often considered to be one of the visual aspects of a person’s fitness. So it’s natural that most fitness enthusiasts want to sport impressive abs.
This is a two-part series, providing 20 results-oriented tips on how to achieve a head-turning set of abs. Notice that the title isn’t something like Killer Abs in 20 Easy Steps. There’s a very good reason for that: it simply isn’t as easy as some people would like you to believe.
The good news is that it isn’t as hard as some others would have you believe, either. Like any other aspect of fitness and bodybuilding, it just takes discipline, and building good habits can make self-discipline easier. Put your program in overdrive by putting it on automatic.
Getting there takes the right exercise, diet and focus and isn’t “easy”, by any means. But by forming the right habits and mindset, it can be made a lot less difficult. I’ve put together 20 tips that have worked very well for me and many of the guys I’ve mentored. Here are the first 10:
1. “Help-Hurt Rule” – ask yourself constantly whether something will help or hurt your progress toward your goal
This may sound like something you automatically do whenever you’re making a major decision like what exercise routine or dietary program to follow. Actually, though, it can have as much or more impact with the small, everyday decisions we make, too. Can you skip one meal, cut short a workout or cheat yourself out of a couple of hours of sleep? These may seem like small things in the big picture, but these things can add up in a hurry.
If you teach yourself to analyze every single decision and activity in this light, you’ll move ahead toward your goal more steadily. And you’ll be surprised how after a short while, it becomes an automatic process – pretty soon, you won’t even realize you’re doing it.
Any decision that slows you down or detours you is something you’ll automatically avoid, once you get totally focused on your goal. Avoid bad decisions like the plague and you’ll be able to see the results in your physique more quickly.
2. Remove temptations – only bring healthy foods into your home
When temptations are all around you, whether at home, at a friend’s place or out and about, it’s easier to tell yourself that just one won’t hurt. But if everything around you is a healthy option, it’s harder to make a bad decision.
At home, at least, you’re in control of your surroundings, so if you don’t bring home foods that can slow your progress toward that washboard stomach you’re aiming for, you’re less likely to jump the tracks. The more temptations we’re faced with, the harder it is to stay on the straight and narrow path, so one of the first smart decisions you should make is to remove those temptations.
Bring home healthy foods and snacks. Fresh veggies, fruits, seeds and nuts are great healthy snacks that won’t set your abs-building back. If you’re giving yourself a periodic treat of an ice cream sundae, visit the neighborhood ice cream shop to enjoy it – if you bring ice cream home and put it in your freezer, it’s just going to tempt you to overdo it.
Ben Pakulski and Charles Poliquin convinced me that I should try the meat and nuts breakfast and that’s one of the best diet tips anyone has ever given me. It’s what helped me achieve my personal best: 4% body fat for the 2011 WBFF World Championship competition.
After your overnight fasting, the first thing you eat in the morning sets the pace for your neurotransmitters. A high-glycemic food that causes an insulin spike will trigger serotonin, so you may feel great, but you’ll also be more sluggish and tired, as a result.
What you need to do is prime your neurotransmitters to trigger acetylcholine and dopamine, by eating low-glycemic foods. The meat and nuts breakfast is ideal for this. It will satisfy your food craving, while increasing your sense of focus and drive. And it’ll work to put bulge in your muscles, not in your belly.
I never eat carbs in the morning, because it can cause insulin spikes (and the crash that follows). The meat and nuts breakfast creates a very slow rise in blood sugar, preventing that.
4. Meal cadence will optimize your protein synthesis
Part of building a great set of abs is building muscle size – shedding fat to reveal those muscles is another part. The last piece of the puzzle is proper nutrition. You knew that, right?
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is your body’s process of building new muscle fiber by the conversion of dietary protein. Those fibers are comprised of a variety of amino acids, one of the most important of which, for your purposes, will be leucine. In order to build new muscle throughout the day, you’ll need a constant supply of leucine, so eating high-protein meals several times per day will be necessary.
I’ve done a lot of careful research and experimentation with my own diet over the years, as well as with more than 700 face-to-face clients and many thousands of online students. What I’ve discovered is that the optimum program consists of consuming five whole-food meals and one shake during each day. This has been the most effective approach for 90% of my students, 90% of the time. When I tried getting my macronutrients in 2, 3 or 4 meals per day, I just found myself getting weaker and smaller.
Six daily meals is a great way to distribute your daily protein, too. You can usually get around 3 – 5 grams of leucine in every 30 – 50 grams of protein, so if you’re dividing that protein evenly across 5 or 6 meals (for example, on a 200 gram protein diet), you’re in good shape.
5. Don’t count calories
As far as I’m concerned, counting calories is a recipe for failure. Research has shown that all calories aren’t equal, yet there are tons of programs making gobs of money selling calorie-counting programs. This practice will probably keep the myth alive, but it won’t make it an effective strategy.
There are two basic reasons that following a calorie-based program won’t support a good program for fat loss:
- Different macros cause different hormonal changes, which can have a dramatic effect on your fat loss efforts. For instance, more carbs will result in more insulin, having a detrimental effect on your thyroid and cortisol profiles.
- Different foods break down with varying levels of difficulty. Calories from meat, for example, require a lot more effort to process and extract energy from, as opposed to pasta or processed cookies. What that means is that since processed foods break down much faster and can throw your hormones into chaos, while whole foods require more energy to process, you’re much better off sticking to whole foods.
Counting calories also takes a lot of time and effort, and most of us can’t be attentive enough to the process to even be reasonably accurate. Just the stress of calorie counting can be enough to elevate your cortisol level.
6. Give yourself some treat days – two half-days per week, for instance
I have a personal rule not to give myself any treat meals unless I’m under 10% body fat, just because I think any guy over 10% is fat. Once I hit 10%, I treat myself one meal per week, but not an evening meal. When you’re 90% on target with your entire program, you’ve earned an occasional treat, and they can actually be beneficial.
When I’m bulking, I usually give myself two half-day treat days per week, but between noon and midnight. The wife and I will step out for dinner on Thursday and Sunday, maybe hitting a movie and some treats, and that really helps control the cravings during the week, which helps me maintain a healthy long-term dietary program.
7. Earn every carb
Every carb you consume should be earned, and until you’re down to 10% body fat, you haven’t earned any. You should be on a low-carb (not no-carb) diet until you get down to 10%). For some big guys, low-carb might still call for 200-300 grams per day, but that should still be low-glycemic carbs and green vegetables, focusing on healthy fats and proteins, until they get down to 10% body fat.
By beginning the day with a greens drink, you’re starting the day off with a healthy amount of the micronutrients necessary to lean down and build muscle. Plant-based proteins, plenty of vitamins and minerals and a load of antioxidants, with minimal caloric intake, is ideal. I call juicing the ULTIMATE in fast-food nutrition, because you can get tons of nutrients into your system within a measly 15 minutes.
I generally start off with a base of celery and cucumber and build on that. I really like to add kale and broccoli or spinach, parsley and some mint. You can play around with different flavor mixes to keep your taste buds in the game… just be certain to get lots of dark leafy greens into the mix.
Chia seeds, chlorophyll and aloe vera are great additions, as these gelatinous fibers help your body excrete toxins. You’ll be amazed at how quickly these super foods can put your health on a new track.
9. Be cautious about building food allergies
In general, it’s always wise to be cautious about creating food allergies, but even more so when you’re trying to build a flat stomach, as the bloating and slow-down of the digestive process, from induced allergies like those of gluten or lactose, can stop your progress cold.
If you feel as though you may be developing an allergy to a food, you really need to get tested. At the least, though, you should eliminate that food from your diet for a couple of weeks, just to see if you feel better. If you’ve developed a sensitivity, cutting back will generally result in less gas, swelling, bloating and fatigue.
Some of these symptoms can be experienced without having an allergy to a food, of course. A mere sensitivity or difficulty in processing a particular food can be enough to give you gas, fatigue or bloating when you consume it. If you find that eliminating it for a couple of weeks helps, you may just want to remove it from your diet permanently.
Try to never repeat the same fat or protein in one day. Rotating them can keep your diet more palatable, but it also helps ensure you’re getting a more complete variety of the healthy fats and amino acids your body needs. Try a new protein every week, by adding foods like venison or elk, buffalo. scallops or turkey to your diet. Don’t just consume chicken and beef – get some variety of different seafood, poultry and red meat into your diet.
There you go – there are 10 tips for helping you sculpt your abs, that you can try some or all of. They’ve worked well for me and for my clients, and I’m sure they’ll work equally well for you. If well-defined abs are the prize you’re after, you’ll probably want to use every tool that works for you.
I’ll soon be bringing you another 10 tips for your arsenal, but in the meantime, since we haven’t talked about workouts specifically aimed at developing a flat stomach, you may want to check out my brand-new abdominal workout program, to help you say “Goodbye, gut“: Get Ripped Abs
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