Getting a flat stomach takes more than just countless sit ups. Find out the formula to a flatter, more defined mid-section.
Dear Fitness Nerd,
A very broad question that I’d like to read your opinion on regarding stomach flattening.
I’m a massive gym user and fitness freak. At the moment I weight 12.7 stone and at 6′ 2″ consider myself not only very healthy, but also quite physically fit. However, people who are heavier than me and often shorter have a leaner and more defined mid-drift (abs, obliques, back, shoulders, etc.)
My question is simply with a healthy diet in mind, how many sit ups a day would an average gym user need to do before they see results and a “flatter” stomach? Thanks! — Jack
Despite what you might have heard, a flat stomach really has less to do with the amount of sit ups you perform and more to do with your overall body fat levels.
While sit ups and other abdominal exercises like crunches, jack-knifes and hanging leg raises can all help develop more muscle in your torso (as well as contribute to overall core stability and strength), getting a flat stomach or having definition in your abs is really 80 percent diet.
The Myth of Situps For a Great Stomach
It’s a common myth that getting a flatter stomach and better abs is just a matter of performing more abdominal exercises.
This has to do with some misconceptions around spot reducing body fat.
Many people seem to think that performing situps will burn fat in your belly. While there actually is some evidence that the body will draw on localized fat stores to power muscles in the vicinity, belly fat is typically one of the last things to go on a person. This is why you can be fairly lean in other areas of your body, but still have a gut.
If you don’t drop overall body fat levels, but still perform lots of ab work, you will add muscle to your abs, but you’ll still have a layer of subcutaneous fat obscuring them. This can actually make you look “thicker” in the mid-section than if you performed less abdominal exercises. This is especially true if you are doing a lot of oblique work under resistance, which can square-off your waist if your body fat levels remain high.
Low Body Fat: The Key to a Flatter Stomach
While it is possible to flatten out your stomach through moderate loss of belly fat, if you want to get a really lean, defined torso with abdominal definition, you’re going to have to get your body fat levels down at a minimum into the “fitness” category and preferably at ”athletic” category. Body composition is everything when it comes to getting abs.
In men, that muscle typically won’t start to show until you get into the 10-12 percent body fat range, and it doesn’t really start to pop until you hit the high single digits.
Women will start to show good abdominal definition around 15 percent body fat, and can achieve a “ripped” look at between 12-13 percent. However, it’s difficult for most women to maintain body fat levels in the 12-13 percent range for long periods of time (and there are some health issues that can arise with sustaining levels below 15 percent for extended periods.)
Now, there are men who have higher body fat levels and also have the appearance of “flatness” combined with muscle in their abs. They may also show some definition. This is usually because they have trained their abs under resistance, which increases the size of their abdominal muscles and fills out the space under the belly fat — giving the appearance of a more “solid” torso. The larger your frame is, the more you can get away this.
So this is one way to improve the appearance of your abs without necessarily dropping down into very low body fat levels. However, this approach will create a more “blocky” midsection — and not necessarily a leaner, narrower one. However, it still tends to look more solid aesthetically.
The V-Taper: The Secret to a Leaner Looking Mid-Section?
From your question, I also think your are looking for overall improvements in your upper body and torso — not just a six pack.
There are some visual tricks that you can do to give the appearance of a more lean midsection. One of these is to improve the broadness of your back, shoulders and chest — which will create more of a V-taper and make your waist look smaller in relation to your upper body.
Exercises to Improve V-Taper and Give An Appearance of Leaner Waist
To do this, I would focus on performing things like standing military presses for your shoulders, chest pressing exercises and especially plenty of back work. If anything, I would put more emphasis on back exercises (things like pull-ups and rows) and less on the chest, since most men have under-developed backs due to an over-emphasis on chest pressing movements.
Improving your back development can help improve your v-taper from both the front and from the rear, which will make your waist look smaller. Having well-developed lower lats (those “batwings”), in particular, can also really help improve your V-taper.
Wide-grip pullups as well as cable rows and bent-over barbell rows (with your body perpendicular to the barbell and the weight being pulled toward the center of your belly) can also build thickness in your lower lats.
Form is really important with the bent over rows, because if you are drawing the weight up to your chest instead of stomach, you’ll be emphasizing your rear delts and middle-back (and to some extent your traps), instead of your lower lats.
Many people find performing bent over rows in a Smith machine is beneficial, since you can use the machine to stabilize yourself when you are in a position that is perpendicular to the floor. This can be pretty challenging with a free-weight barbell in a squat rack, especially as you begin to increase the resistance as you become stronger. An added bonus of performing bent over rows is that you’ll also typically experience some improvements in lower back strength as well.
What About Those Situps and Crunches?
Sit-ups, crunches and other abdominal exercises can be part of building a better stomach and mid-section, but they aren’t going to get results on their own.
In terms of how many crunches or sit-ups you should do for stomach flattening, more isn’t necessarily better.
The abs are not particularly unique and more-or-less respond to the same training protocols as any other muscle group. The abs do have less potential for muscle hypertrophy (size) than say your thighs, but performing high-volume ab work isn’t going to overcome this. Performing 100 rep sets of crunches or sit-ups isn’t going to build more abdominal muscle — it’s just preferencing slow-twitch muscle fibers that contribute to endurance, not size.
If getting some ripples in your abs is your goal, consider performing your ab exercises with some resistance. For instance, place a plate or dumbbell over your chest during crunches. Or, if you have access to a cable machine, trying bent over cable crunches.
Instead of going for volume with your ab work, concentrate instead on doing 15 good form crunches, with a strong contraction at the top of the motion. Do two to three sets and be done with it.
Crunches have overall been found to be superior to sit ups when it comes to abdominal recruitment, so I would encourage you ditch the sit ups and opt instead for crunches. Sit ups tend to recruit the hip flexors rather than the abs, so you get much more bang-for-you-buck with crunches.
I would also try to add in some form of leg raise, which will improve the development of your lower abs and increase overall core strength and stability. These can be performed as hanging leg raises or in a Roman Chair. Bicycle crunches have also been shown to result in high ab recruitment in a 2001 study conducted by the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University.
Other Tactics for Flattening Your Stomach
Jack, there are a couple other tactics that you can experiment around with to see if you can strip off some belly fat and get a leaner torso.
You don’t mention what your current cardio routine is like, but you might consider trying some high intensity interval training (HIIT), which some research indicates may do a better job of burning abdominal fat than duration or solid-state cardio.
Also, try playing around a bit with your daily calories and macro-nutrients. It could be that you are eating too much each day, which is causing you to either put on additional body fat, or at least keep you from taking any off. Also, some people find that increasing protein and healthy dietary fat while pulling back a bit on carbs (especially simple carbs and sugars) can help them lean out a bit.
For more details on how to do this, check out this step-by-step guide for losing belly fat.
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