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Both Diet and Exercise Are Key To a Flat Stomach

By Rozanne M. Puleo

Americans are "ab-sessed" with the appearance of a flat tummy.

Each day, thousands of sit-ups and crunches are done in gyms across the country in the hopes of attaining this goal. Fitness instructors have satisfied American's quest for the perfectly sculpted stomach by creating hundreds of different ways to exercise this one area of the body.

And for those who are looking for an easy road to beach beauty, numerous infomercials touting electrical stimulators and gut enhancing workout machines tempt viewers with the prospect of seemingly effortless approaches to a solid middle.

So will all these efforts really result in a firm stomach? Not by themselves, experts say.

The Truth Behind a Tight Tummy

Strong abdominal muscles good to have for several reasons, including protecting our internal organs, aiding the lungs in breathing, and maintaining good posture, which can help reduce low back pain.

But the idea that exercising the stomach muscles will result in an attractive, toned midsection is false.

"You can have very strong abdominal muscles, but never see them because of a layer of fat covering them," explains Jeffrey Potteiger, director of the health and human performance laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.

Without diet modification and cardiovascular exercise, you simply won't lose the fat that will show off your midriff. "If you are not burning as many calories as you are taking in, you will not change the appearance of the fat tissue surrounding your abdominal muscles," says Peter Francis, director of the biomechanics lab at San Diego State University.

And there is no such thing as spot reduction, adds Potteiger. "When you lose body fat, you lose it from everywhere, and there is no way to target one particular area."

No matter how convincing some infomercials may seem, the truth is that there is no easy way to attain a toned midsection. Most of the models depicted in those ads were selected because they already look that way.

"Most of those people have never even used those machines," says Potteiger. They've either been blessed with great genetics or they've been engaging in a strict diet and exercise regimen that allows them to maintain a low level of body fat."

He concludes: "If you want your abdominal muscles to get stronger, you have to work them harder. If you want to get a washboard appearance, you have to rely on diet modification instead of working to make them stronger."

Strengthening the Abdominal Muscles More Effectively

Just because strong abdominal muscles do not directly translate into a toned, washboard-like midsection does not mean that you should avoid exercising them.

But because gym-goers have hundreds of different options to exercise their abdominal muscles, Francis set out to evaluate which ones were truly most effective.

He and his colleagues studied 13 of the most popular abdominal exercises, measuring the effectiveness of each by the level of electrical activity in the abdominal muscle during the movements. Of the 13, three exercises required the muscles to work significantly harder than the rest. Two can be done without fancy equipment.

"The bicycle crunch exercise, the reverse curl and the 'Captain's Chair' proved to be the most effective exercises as far as muscle recruitment goes," says Francis. "And what we found was that the things you pay for are no more effective than the ones you don't, except for the 'Captain's Chair,' which is typically not a piece of equipment for the home."

So, to start working on that "summer stomach," eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and include cardiovascular activity in your exercise program. Then, try these three proven ab-workers at your home or gym:

Bicycle Crunch: Lie on the floor with your lower back pressed into the floor. Bring the hands behind the head. Starting with the legs bent at a 45-degree angle, bring the right knee into the chest while extending the left leg out straight. At the same time, rotate the torso so that the left elbow goes to the right knee, then switch so that the left elbow goes towards the right knee.

Reverse Crunch: Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed into the ground. Raise your legs into the air and bend your the knees to a 90-degree angle. Keeping your legs still, lift your hips up off the ground, and return to starting position.

Captain's Chair: This exercise requires a piece of gym equipment, the Captain's Chair, which looks like a tall chair without a seat. Stabilize your body on the chair by pressing your back against the back pad. Place your elbows on the armrests and grip the handles. Step off the footrests and let your legs hang while holding yourself up. Lift your knees towards your chest and then return them to starting position.

Begin by performing 8-12 repetitions of each exercise, about 2-3 times per week. As the exercises become easier, begin increasing the number of repetitions.

While these exercises are considered the most effective, they are not necessarily the most appropriate for everyone. If you are just beginning an exercise program, it is important to consult a qualified personal trainer who can advise you where to start. If you've had any history of injuries, especially to the low back area, you should consult a physical therapist or an exercise physiologist before you begin.

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information is nutritional in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. This notice is required by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

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Last modified: June 28, 2015