We get it—sometimes you’re running seriously late and the only thing available at the corner coffee shop is a croissant or a bagel. But taking two more minutes to find a Greek yogurt or make a smoothie will go a long way for your #abgoals. “We’re not only bad about having a heavy carbohydrate breakfast but we’re also pitiful at getting our protein in the morning,” says certified athletic trainer, Jackie Buell, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of health and rehabilitation sciences and sports medicine at Ohio State University.
A protein-packed breakfast will help hold over your appetite so you’re not craving a snack before you’ve even sat down at your desk. Plus, loading up on the macronutrient in the a.m. can help stave off cravings for sweets later in the day, reports a study last year from the University of Missouri. Aim to start your day with 3 to 4 ounces (or 20 to 30 grams) of protein; a little bit of carbohydrates in the form of fruit, dairy, or whole grains; and a touch of healthy fat, like Greek yogurt and sugar-free granola or a fruit-and-veggie packed protein shake.
If you wake up and head straight to the gym, you may be asking for a sub-par burn. “If you’re going into a 45-minute workout in a fasted state, those last 15 minutes are probably not as intense as they could be since your carb—and therefore energy—stores are empty after fasting all night long while sleeping,” Buell explains. This is especially true if you are heading into a HIIT routine since that high level of intensity requires serious fuel. Plus, in a fasted state, your cortisol levels will be elevated which will actually cause your body to break down muscle to be used as fuel, adds Darryn S. Willoughby, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., director of the Exercise and Biochemical Nutrition Laboratory at Baylor University in Texas. If nothing else, try to get in 30 to 45 grams of carbs (like a large banana) an hour before you hit the gym, Buell recommends.
“You want to build the most muscle when your abdominals are fresh from your rest day and ease off from there while they’re repairing,” advises LA-based personal trainer Lalo Fuentes, C.S.C.S. “Assuming Sunday is your day off, to get those abs ripped, start your week with heavy or difficult exercises and decrease the weight as the week progresses.” That means Monday, go for leg raises with weights, Swiss ball rollouts, and the like. By mid-week, bench crunches with rotations, and by the end of the week hit plank and its variations.
Whether you should focus your efforts on the treadmill or weight rack to score a six pack depends on your current fitness level: A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had healthy participants perform seven ab exercises, five days a week—but no cardio. After six weeks, they did have better endurance in their abdominal muscles but they didn't actually shed any of their belly fat. Meanwhile, a study from Duke University did a head-to-head comparison of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and combination of the two and found cardio significantly reduced belly fat. If you’re carrying a spare tire, focus your energy on the treadmill. But if you’re well on your way to a washboard, a 2014 study from Harvard actually says you should stock up on strength training—established gym rats who lifted for at least 20 minutes per day, every day accumulated half as much belly fat over 12 years than those who stuck to just cardio.
Here's another perk to nixing your nicotine habit: Research presented earlier this year at the Endocrine Society in San Diego found that smokers who kicked the nasty habit lost weight, specifically in their abdomen. You have to be patient though—eight weeks into the study, participants actually gained fat around their stomach, but by the end of the six months the new non-smokers lost and kept the weight off of their mid-section.
Forget parking it on the floor and doing 500 situps. Researchers from Occidental College in Los Angeles found that crunches performed on a stability ball activated the ab muscles up to 38 percent better than crunches on the ground. But if you’re climbing onto the ball, your best bet is actually to try the Swiss ball rollout—where you place your fists on a ball and roll forward, extending your body into an inclined plank. A study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy compared traditional crunches and a handful of fancy exercise ball moves (like a roll-out and pike) and found that a Swiss ball rollout is the most effective for activating all of your abdominal muscles while minimizing the strain on your back.
“People often do two or three sets of ab exercises at the end of their workouts and expect to have a six-pack,” says Fuentes. If three sets scored you enviable abs, well, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Instead, integrate core exercises throughout your regular routine. Switching to one set of abs moves every three regular sets will not only help give your other muscles time to rest but also help work your core with less burn, he adds. Plus, if you save it all for the end, your body is already tired from the hard workout, so your abs get shortchanged. Shoot for nine sets throughout your workout at 15 reps each, he advises.
We’re all about bodyweight workouts, but when researchers from the University of South Florida compared 97 exercises, they found free weight moves activated the core muscles more than traditional core, core stability, stability ball, or non-core free weight moves. The good news? You probably don’t need to learn new moves—just how to add a few lbs to the ones in your usual rotation.
Protein is the MVP when it comes to muscle-building nutrients—but you can actually have too much of a good thing. “You have to find the right energy balance to facilitate fat loss, and too much protein is just extra calories,” says Buell. Your body can only metabolize around 30 to 35 grams of protein at once, so if you refuel with a 50-gram shake or a 10-ounce steak, you’re just adding unnecessary calories to your daily count, she explains. Shoot for 20 to 30 grams every three hours, which a 2012 study in Nutrition & Metabolism found is the ideal strategy for building muscle.
A common mistake guys make is just focusing on the rectus abdominis—or what you traditionally think of as the six pack, Fuentes says. Crunches, V-sits, and bicycle crunches all target these mirror muscles, but you actually have four other areas of your abdominals: the lower rectus abdominis, transverse obliques, internal obliques, and external obliques. A six pack doesn’t look the same without that vertical definition in your obliques or strength in the lower abs, so you need to target all five muscle groups.
You know most of your muscles need one day in between workouts to repair and build properly—but your abdominal muscles are an exception and can actually be worked every single day to exhaustion, says Fuentes. “Build a plan for the week that includes all five abdominal areas so your body develops equally,” he advises. The first week, try one move for every group, every day. The next, split them into two groups and choose two moves for each muscle group. Trade off which you’re targeting Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and which Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can change up how you go about it, but the key is to aim for at least nine sets of core moves a day.
Need a morning pick me up but don’t do coffee? Reach for caffeinate tea over soda—even if the pop is diet. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years compared to those who skipped the stuff. The lack of calories is actually working against you here, the researchers say. A sweet taste tells your brain you’re ingesting calories, but since artificial sweeteners offer up to 600 times the sweetness of sugar without any actual substance, the link begins to weaken in your brain, causing you to crave sweeter and sweeter treats and gain weight over time. Meanwhile, a 2014 study in The Journal of Nutrition found that the polyphenols from a morning cup of green, black, or oolong tea may reduce inflammation as well as fat around the stomach—and it’ll provide a.m. alertness.