We’re obsessed with abs. At least you’d think so, the way the word ricochets from one magazine cover to the next. Clients routinely ask about getting a six-pack.

Here’s a secret. Attendance at my gym’s mind-body class (which includes tai chi, yoga and Pilates) was down when members thought it was woo-woo or girly or … I dunno, perhaps not “hard” enough. After I went on a campaign telling everyone the class was the best one for toning abs, members flocked.

I didn’t lie. I just sold the class in a different way.

There are two issues when it comes obtaining to a lean, toned torso. One is building a strong core — or abs. The other is losing your belly fat.

First, let’s address sculpting a strong midsection. To lay the groundwork, here’s a quick physiology lesson. Your abs are made up of many layered muscles that act like a girdle both circling and running up your midsection. These hard-working muscles hold in your insides (obviously very important) and support your spine and other bones so you can walk around and go about the business of daily life.

It’s pretty shocking how many of us have forgotten how to engage our core muscles. A big chunk of my time as a trainer is spent teaching clients how to train themselves to use those muscles the right way.

Here’s a quick method to see what it feels like to properly engage your core:

  1. Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent, one hand on your lower abs, just between your hip bones.
  2. Push up through your heels into a bridge, raising your hips (without arching your back) toward the ceiling.
  3. Take a moment to feel where your core is at that moment, both with your hand and with your mind.
  4. Lower your hips.
  5. Breathe in deeply, feeling your lower belly rise.
  6. Exhale and draw your navel to your spine and very slightly tuck your pelvic bone, till you feel some tightness in your lower abs, without rounding your low back.
  7. Press back up into bridge and feel how much more stable your abs and back are. Voila! Core engagement!

Because the core involves so many muscles, a good ab routine hits those muscles in different ways. You need a front flexion (like a crunch) to work the muscles along the front, a side flexion (like bicycles, where your elbow reaches to the opposite knee as you crunch) to work the side muscles, and to work the invisible but oh-so-important deep ab muscles, you need a static hold (like a plank or bird dog).

I’m a big fan of doing those exercises in a circuit, for time, not reps. A basic routine could include 30 seconds of crunches, 30 seconds of bicycles, and a plank for 60 seconds, and then resting for about a minute before repeating.

And yes, you can overdo ab workouts. Doing more won’t necessarily get you faster results. Work them at most every other day, but for most of us, once or twice a week is enough.

As for losing the belly fat, beyond aesthetic concerns, it’s vital for health – according to the National Institutes for Health, if your waist is too big you’re at risk for a whole spate of health issues from diabetes to heart disease and cancer.

How big is too big? The American Heart Association recommends less than 35 inches for women and less than 40 inches for men, but some studies by the American Cancer Society are pushing for markedly smaller waist measurements, down to 30 inches or less for women and 35 inches or less for men.

It’s no secret that getting leaner through the midsection is all about the diet. First, improve the nutritional quality of your food – think about eating nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, lean proteins, fruit, good fats, and fibrous “starches” like whole grains and legumes. Cut out the empty calories containing sugar and processed food, which studies link to belly fat. Then, attack your portion sizes, decreasing how much you eat.

For all the attention we give them, getting great abs is actually pretty simple, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy.

Wendy Watkins is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at the Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club in Brewer.


Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.