Being an animal in the gym can be a good thing, but acting like one anywhere else can actually keep you from your goal of a lean, ripped physique. Hard partying, lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and other bad choices just don’t mix with the fitness lifestyle that produces impressive abs, no matter how hard you train. You need to be able to take your foot off the gas—and that means putting an intentional emphasis on your recovery post-workout.
“Recovery is equally important to the work when it comes to seeing results and sustaining them for the long haul,” says David Otey, CSCS, PPSC, a Men’s Health Advisory Board member and creator of the Men’s Health 90-Day Transformation Challenge: Abs. “Making physical changes to your body means you have to work harder than you normally do to force your body to upgrade its existing structure. That extra work requires proper recovery.”
Here are five ways you’re self-sabotaging, and why correcting them can lead you to the eye-popping abs you seek. You can find information like this and a whole lot more in the new Men’s Health training guide 90-Day Transformation Challenge: Abs. In one volume, you’ll get all the tools you need—information, a nutrition guide, and workouts—to build your abs in just 3 months.
You’re Not Eating Right for Abs
You’ll never see your abs if you’re still eating like a little kid. Not only do foods like burgers, pizza, and beer contain too many calories to keep you from the deficit you need to lose fat, they offer little nutrition relative to the amount of calories they provide. Hard work in the gym requires more nutrients to support recovery, and the trick is to get those nutrients from foods that don’t cost you lots of calories at the same time.
Beef and cheese aren’t inherently bad; you just need to make smarter choices with them. Both can be good sources of protein, which you need to support muscle growth. Choose ground beef that’s 90 to 95 percent lean, so you get more protein and fewer calories. Reduced-fat cheese goes for the same reason. Other good high-protein, low-calorie foods are chicken breast, turkey, and fish.
Green vegetables are also important for muscle recovery, as well as providing vitamins and minerals that help your whole body perform better in your workouts. Add more asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, and kale into your diet. Can’t stand the blandness of vegetables? Here are 26 ways to make eating them actually enjoyable.
You Don’t Use the Right Supplements
Eating better will go a long way toward helping your body bounce back from workouts, but there will likely still be gaps in your diet that can keep you from reaching your potential. The right supplementation can help filling them.
If you’re not taking creatine monohydrate yet, what are you waiting for? Apart from being the most well-studied sports supplement in history, it’s A) proven safe and effective for supporting muscle and strength gain, B) easy to find, and C) cheap to buy (usually under $30 for a supply that will last you months). In its position stand on the subject, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition declared that creatine is the most effective ergogenic supplement available for increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass.
“Newer research suggests that creatine can support memory and brain function under stressful situations,” says Mike Roussell, PhD, a Men’s Health nutrition adviser. “Creatine will also aid in superhydrating your muscle cells, which boosts nutrients that support optimal recovery.”
A multivitamin is another smart supplement choice. “Research suggests that when calories are restricted you are at greater risk for suboptimal essential micronutrient intakes,” says Roussell. In other words, eating less while dieting costs you some important vitamins and minerals, and a multivitamin supplement can help make up the difference.
Of course, if you have trouble reaching the amount of protein you need to consume in a day with whole foods alone, a protein powder can be useful as well. Most nutritionists, Roussell included, recommend that active people who strength train consume one gram of protein per pound of their bodyweight, and protein supplements can provide 20 to 25 grams in one chug.
You Don’t Sleep Nearly Enough
Staying up late partying, scrolling on your phone, or watching TV eats into the time your body would otherwise be rebuilding itself from your workouts. “If you are going to use more energy than you typically would by working out,” says Otey, “you need to recharge more energy with sleep. Working out is when the breaking down happens; sleep is when you build yourself back up stronger.”
Not only does a lack of sleep shortchange your workout recovery, it can wreak havoc on your diet—the most important part of any ab-shredding program. A small trial in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that men who were deprived of sleep tended to eat foods that are higher in calories and carbs; meanwhile, a study in Nature Communications revealed that decreased sleep increased subjects’ hunger and appetite.
Aim to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, even if that means going to bed earlier, reducing your TV time, or bailing on nights out with buddies to do so. Simply put, the less you sleep, the harder it is to get abs.
You Don’t Drink Enough Water
You know those T-shirts that say, “Save water, drink beer?” Don’t listen to them.
Your body is 60 percent water, and when it comes to beverages, old-fashioned H2O is all it really needs. Water carries nutrients throughout your system, allowing for the other metabolic processes that let you train hard and recover from that training.
“If you aren’t flushing new water into the system,” says Otey, “you are placing more strain on the essential organs in your body. The general recommendation from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is about 15.5 cups of water (3.7 liters) a day for men.” Note that any liquids you consume can be counted toward this number, so the occasional protein shake, diet soda, or black coffee is fine. But having sugary, fatty, or alcoholic drinks in place of water can add a lot of calories to your day without you even realizing it (liquids are easy to over-consume because they’re so easily chugged down), so learn to appreciate the stuff that comes out of your tap.
If plain water bores you, adding some lemon juice or a berry or two at the bottom of the glass can add flavor for virtually no extra calories.
You Work Too Hard
Maybe your problem isn’t a lack of discipline, but rather too much. You could be pushing yourself harder in the gym than you should, doing more than what’s needed to see results. That can mean overtraining. “Overuse of any muscle actually leads to atrophy of the muscle,” says Otey, “which is the exact opposite of what you want when you are trying to build your abs.”
Old-school bodybuilders believed that the abs needed to be trained every day with hundreds of reps to keep them looking sharp, but modern trainers know better: They should be trained like any other muscle, and that means with a handful of sets and time to recover.
Otey recommends training your abs, at most, six days per week. Make sure your ab training focuses on four movement cornerstones: exercises that use the abs to brace the spine (as in planks), rotate the midsection, as well as resist unwanted rotation (cable chops and Pallof presses), bend the torso forward (crunches), and integrate with movements that challenge the whole body (farmer’s walk). Two or three exercises per workout, done for two to four sets each, should be enough. That covers all the work your abs can do, and there’s no need to force any more onto them.
For more ab-shredding advice—complete with a workout plan and nutrition tips—pick up the 90-Day Transformation Challenge: Abs.
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