7 Tips For Strong, Defined Abs

In my nearly 20 years in health and fitness, I've often come across the same question: “I workout everyday, but I still have belly fat … why?”

Despite what we think, it's simply not enough to workout daily or just eat healthy food. Of course that's all very important for your health, but when it comes to great abs, there are several other crucial factors that can't be avoided.

Here are seven things you should do and pay attention to in order to get a flat, defined, strong and healthy mid-section this summer:

1. Cardio isn't enough.

Fact is fact, and I'm here to tell you cardio alone isn't enough to burn belly fat. Strength training increases muscle mass, and because muscle is far more metabolically active then fat (it needs more energy to live) you'll burn more fat (belly included). The simple fact is you must add resistance training to your workout if you want a great belly.

2. Stress causes belly fat.

You’ll be surprised to hear how much of the weight you carry has to do with hormones called cortisol, insulin and leptin.

  • Cortisol: A stress hormone that triggers fat storage. If you're placing your body under stress daily, including incorrect workout structure, overtraining, stress at home or work, stress due to yo-yo diets or lack of sleep you're triggering this stress hormone. As just one example, a study concluded “that both insulin and cortisol are potent and possibly physiological regulators of leptin expression,” which basically that stress hormones are very much responsible for triggering overeating and messing with your body’s signaling system for energy use, fuel storage and balance.
  • Leptin: Produced by your fat cells and plays a role in appetite control. It can also act to slow your metabolism. To help regulate this hormone you must exercise, stay active and eat clean. Research has found excess body fat can cause a condition known as leptin resistance, meaning your brain isn’t affected by leptin even though your body contains higher levels of it — basically, when you have too much sugar and poor-quality foods, the hormone is overproduced and the body does not respond to it correctly.
  • Insulin: Every time you down a carb-heavy meal or sugary drink, your blood sugar spikes. In response, your body releases insulin, whose job it is to pull extra glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream. Gaining weight can often lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which cells become less responsive to the hormone, and to diabetes.

While all three of these hormones have a lot to do with weight gain and fat storage in your mid-section, it's important to understand regulating them requires clean eating, exercise and a routine to balance stress.

3. Breathing is crucial.

Incorrect breathing during even your toughest workout can hurt your flat belly goals. When you panic breathe during exercise, your adrenal glands release cortisol. That response, which is meant to give you a burst of energy for fighting or fleeing, causes you to accumulate and store fat in your belly.

Additionally, cortisol production can remain at high levels due to sustained stress and leave you craving high-sugar or high-carb foods. Breathing correctly means breathing deep into your belly — never shallow "panic" breathing with your mouth. Aim to fill your belly with air by breathing in through your nose. No matter how hard your workout, never allow yourself to shallow breathe through the mouth.

4. Overtraining won't help.

Just because you're working out doesn’t mean you're getting the benefits. This means having a training plan, not just training at random. When you train, you should be doing a specific sequence of exercises, lifting weight and having a goal-specific work-rest structure. Aim for daily activity.

Make sure to find a complete program, not a single workout. The program should have workout plans, calendars, a nutrition education and also a good structure.

5. Impatience is a leading factor in not reaching your goals.

You get on a program, get excited, give it your all for a week or two ... and then what? If you don’t see as the results you'd like in the first week or so, you get disappointed and switch to a new program, diet or workout.

But the truth is that everyone gets results at a different pace. If you abandon a workout too soon, your body doesn’t have the opportunity to make the changes you're asking it to make. If you pick a program, give it a chance; stick with it all the way to the end, be patient and enjoy the learning process.

6. Fat-free foods are not your friends.

Fat-free foods might seem like a good idea, but they're often full of hidden sugars, additives and preservatives, all of which will trigger poor hormone response and hunger cravings. You have to eat real, whole food. Look for good fats like avocados, salmon, nuts. Eat fiber-rich foods, leafy greens and fruit. Enjoy natural proteins and all-natural carbohydrates from sweet potato, kasha, quinoa and whole grains.

Be picky about what you put into your body and don't let a food label sway your judgment.

7. Looking for "perfection" is dangerous.

The truth is that your abs might never look like those of your fitness mentor or an underwear model. But they can be defined, strong and capable.

Learn to look at your gains in terms of strength, function and then looks, not just looks alone. We're all distinctly unique and so are our strengths, weaknesses and abs. Recognize and respect your body, hard work and results.

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