The Ab-solute Truth

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A few nights before I wrote this I conducted my 3-hour Breakthroughs seminar. As I walked into the Grand Ballroom at the Marriott, a very excited woman ran up to me and apologized for the brief interruption. “Phil, I’m sorry, I know you have to get on stage, but I just need to know, how can I get a waist like her?” She pointed to a woman wearing a half shirt (belly shirt?) who was proudly displaying a lean midsection. She asked the question as if she were the only one who harbored this unanswered enigma. I calmly said, “don’t worry, 3 hours from now you’ll understand.” I walked up on the stage realizing I had just met someone I’d met 17,000 times before. Let me explain.

In the course of my career, I feel as if I meet the same 12 people over and over again. They have different faces, and different names, but the questions are pretty much the same. There is the over-aerobicizer, the muscle wanter, the sugar-holic, the diet addict, the supplement junkie, and of course the “waistline hater.” Although everyone who asks believes his or her question is unique, the “trim the waistline” question shows up in various forms, but the questions can all be clumped together so a single answer would suffice.


  • How do I reduce my waist?
  • How do I flatten my gut?
  • How do I get the “six pack?”
  • How do I get great abs?
  • How do I trim down?
  • How do I get ripped?
  • How do I get rid of the beer belly?
  • How do I get a waistline like those models?
  • How do I get rid of love handles?
  • How, how, how, how????


You have a few options. You can cut calories and perform crunches, you can try one of the hot new incredible infomercial devices, you can buy a fat burner, or you can go to the gym and use the ab machines. Oh, and then there’s the other option. Eat right, understand the respective functions of the various abdominal muscles, work the body as a whole, and allow for onoing fat release. Of all of those options, there is only one that “works,” 100% of the time. Unfortunately it appears to be the most complicated, but when the smoke clears you’ll find it’s the “secret” you’ve been searching for.

Let’s first understand why the first supposed options I mentioned will leave you discouraged.

Cut calories and do crunches


I’ve written no less than 100 articles about the pitfalls of calorie deprivation as a fat loss solution. The bottom line is, it slows metabolism, causes the body to sacrifice muscle, and leads to the summoning up of some protective biological processes that cause your body to cling to fat. If you want “great abs,” that means you want bodyfat levels low enough so you can see the rectus abdominus through the skin, and while caloric deprivation eats at muscle, crunches do absolutely nothing to reduce the subcutaneous fat in the midsection.

One of the hot new incredible infomercial devices


These devices are cyclical. In other words, one new model or design emerges as an incredible discovery and millions upon millions of dollars are generated by the sale of the product to anxious buyers. Research, the FTC, and user experience all kick in to prove that the device is ineffective and it is pulled from the marketplace, but hardly a day passes before the new miracle ab trimmer emerges and the process repeats all over again. The bottom line is, even those few devices that actually do stimulate muscle contraction that might lead to muscular development are not waist trimmers. Working the muscle does not reveal the muscle through layers of fat. It is a flawed approach destined to fail people. The science of infomercials is not about getting results, it’s about getting people to pick up the phone and recite their credit card numbers aloud.

You can buy a fat burner


This one’s simple. There isn’t any true fat burner. High level scientists are playing around with genetic manipulation, with microscopic computer robots that can remove fatty deposits, and with redesigning the entire hormonal environment, but none of that research is actually making its way into bottles. The bottles usually contain stimulants, many with addictive properties, and the ads are usually deceptive and misleading. If you want to better understand the fat burners, you might find my article on ephedrine valuable, or, if for now you just want to believe me, you’ll accept that nothing in a bottle will miraculously deliver “abs.”

You can go to the gym and use the ab machines

Doing the “Ab machines,” is a great way to kill time, in some cases a great way to kill your lower back, and a very ineffective way of reducing fat around the waistline. Do these machines have their place? Sure. Some of them, if used properly, can strengthen the rectus abdominus and the obliques, but that is a very different goal than that sought by most who say they want “great abs.”

The Real Ab-Solution:


It’s important, before fully delving into the solution, to understand precisely what we do mean when we say “great abs.”

We mean bodyfat levels are low enough so the tendinous inscriptions that run across the rectus abdominus are visible. Translation, you can see the “six pack” (which is really an eight-pack).

We mean the rectus abdominus is reasonably developed so once fat levels are low enough, the muscle definition and mass are both aesthetically pleasing and the muscle is functional.

We mean the obliques, the muscles that lie under the dreaded “love handles” are also visible and reasonably developed.

We mean the deep lying abdominal muscles involved in maintaining the integrity of the abdominal wall are strengthened to prevent the tummy from protruding.

Now that we understand what we’re seeking, let’s zero in on the solution.

Eat right


“Eat right” sounds so simplistic, but it’s a vital element in they synergy required to reduce that subcutaneous fat clouding or preventing abdominal definition.

The idea is not only to eat healthy foods, and to avoid that which we know as junk food, but to eat in a manner that supports the desired goal. If “great abs” are the goal, the real trick lies in stabilizing blood sugar, taking in adequate combinations of nutrients, and maintaining a hormonal environment (a balance of pancreatic hormones) optimal for ongoing fat loss. This ideally would be a nutritional program built around nutrient complete meals. The meals would be free from simple sugars and refined carbs, low in saturated fat, and balanced with protein, complex carbs, fiber, and essential fatty acids. Most bodybuilders, who have mastered leanness, consume a meal every 3 – 3 1/2 hours and in each meal include a lean protein, a starchy carbohydrate, and a fibrous carbohydrate, a concept I refer to as “Supportive Eating.”

Understand the respective functions of the abdominal muscles


Rectus Abdominus – the rectus abdominus, as I touched on earlier, is the “six pack” muscle. It is located in the anterior (front) abdominal wall, an is divided by tendinous inscriptions and contained by the rectus sheath. Its primary function in body movement is to flex the trunk or to draw the rib cage toward the pelvic bone.

Lying on your back, the rectus abdominus works to draw the torso upward to a point of 30 degrees. Beyond that the hip flexors take over which is why many of the oft-used sit-up type movements where the feet are fixed in place are limited in their actual stimulation of the rectus abdominus muscle.

The rectus abdominus also contracts to increase intra-abdominal pressure such as in the act of coughing or childbirth. What you should understand is, that “six pack” is in there, even if you can’t see it. It’s also important to note that this muscle is used during virtually any movement requiring stabilization of the trunk, such as squats or overhead presses. Abdominal crunches do “work” the rectus abdominus, but they really play a little role in going from “I don’t like my belly” to “I love my abs.” Unfortunately, far too many believe that crunches are, in and of themselves, the solution, and a crunching routine without the other elements in place is a guaranteed exercise in futility.

Tranversus Abdominus – attached to the ribs, the spine, and the pelvic bone and maintains abdominal integrity. This is the muscle, which acting sort of like an internal corset, leads to the flat tummy so many seek.

Obliques – the external obliques are those muscles you can see when the love handle fat goes away. They connect to the line that runs down the middle of the rectus abominus (the linea alba) by connective tissue and the iliac crest, the crest of the pelvis bone. They compress the abomen, flex, or twist the trunk. A common mistake in trying to reduce love handles is the incorporation of weighted side bends and twisting abdominal movements. These will develop the external obliques, but will not assist in fat loss leading to a more prominent fatty deposit on each side of the waist. Because the obliques are called to act in stabilization, balance, and twisting, “great abs” usually do not require direct focus on training these muscles. The internal obliques, like the transversus, are deep lying muscles which assist in providing intra-abominal integrity and support.

In the quest for the flat tummy and great abs, exercises that target the deep lying muscles, primarily the transversus, are more instrumental than endless sets of crunches and twists. If you move your crunches from the floor to the stability ball you get a greater extension on the movement while providing support for the lumbar region. This brings in the deep lying muscles that you want to target. Another valuable movement is the “captain’s chair,” otherwise known as the hanging leg raise, which, when the pelvic bone is tilted so the hips are rolled forward at the top of the movement, asks the transversus to act. Back in the 70’s, bodybuilders used to perform both a pose and an exercise called The Abdominal Vacuum where, in a standing position with the arms extended overhead (elbows bent, hands behind the head), the abs were sucked in as if they were trying to touch their bellybuttons to their spinal columns. This is yet another way to help develop intra-abdominal strength and support.

Work the body as a whole


Because the abs are involved in stabilization during free standing movements, it’s important to perform compond movements that ask the body to move as the body was designed to function. Squats, lunges, presses, and standing curls all have their place, not only in increasing muscle mass and respectively metabolism, but also in strengthening the abdominal musculature.

Allow for ongoing fat release


This is the element that most leads to making those “abs” become visible. Eat right, work the body as a whole, optimize circulation with moderate aerobic exercise, and fat release should be consistent and ongoing, and a little at a time, those abs will shine through.

He’s been called The Father of Personal Training, The Master of Body Transformation and America’s Most In-Demand Fitness Professional. But what truly defines Phil Kaplan is his undying defense of the Fitness Truth, unwavering support of Personal Trainers, and undeniable passion for helping people improve their lives.

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