On a normal Sunday I went in to do some close grip bench and some other upper body assistance work after hitting some easy fat man cardio of sled pushing and slow jogging outside (very soft j). I’m in my normal small world of 80s hair metal, electronica, and various other awful music walking from one exercise another exercise due to my typical supersetting work.
When walking around I notice a student of mine training. I wave and nod, and student returns the gesture. The student is doing set after set of sit ups. I carry on with my workout with thinking much about it a few minutes later I see the student again now doing leg raises. The cycle repeats to the student now doing crunches, then machine crunches, then pull down kneeling abs. Finally the student goes on to walk to nowhere on an eliptakillmyself.
I like this student, they are a hard-working, disciplined, and intelligent individual. But this student just made an investment of their time and energy in to training that was vastly unproductive for them. I won’t stop the student or force a conversation on training with them, but I do think about these scenarios and this is what I would tell them:
Stop wasting your time.
I can assume that you are working to get defined abs. The good news is you already have abs, the bad news is they are covered by a layer of fat. The amount of fat on top depends on really two things, your total amount of body fat and your genetic predispositions for body fat accumulation in certain areas. So this brings us to a simple point, if you want your abs to show, or just a defined midsection you need to decrease your fat mass.
Sadly, spot reduction is a myth (so negligible they aren’t worth counting). Doing large amounts of work with the muscle group you want to define will not cause you to decrease the amount of fat directly above that muscle. When you are “burning” fat, that fat is coming from stores all over your body, from inside your muscles, your visceral fat (which is usually one of the first to go which is a good thing), to that right under the skin all over your body. It doesn’t follow any scientifically verified pattern (but some have theories), but everyone is different from where it tends to go from first. So we have to lose a lot of fat to get some regions to be lean. Forearms, calves, feet, neck, and hands tend to be first, abs, low back, and hips tend to be the last.
So since we are talking now about losing fat, we need to burn calories and a solid amount of them. A pound of fat is about 3,500 calories. This is more calories than most people take in a normal day. So our goal now is to run enough of a caloric deficit to burn off that many. So if we can run at a 500 calorie deficit every day (and we are only losing fat now, not muscle) in a week that has netted us one pound of fat loss. Do that for a few months and you will be looking leaner (the number of months depending on where you started off at).
So burning lots of calories requires lots of energy to be used by muscles. The bigger a muscle is the more calories it will be able to burn with each contraction. This is why people with large amounts of muscle mass can seemingly lose weight fast. They simply have a bigger engine of which they can burn calories with (why most guys lose weight faster than women). There is a bit more to this, but I’ll probably talk about it later on.
Back to the abdomination. Your abdominals no matter how much you train will always be smaller and weaker than your legs (barring paralyzation or polio). So if we want to make our abs show up we should work on using the muscle groups that can burn more calories faster. So good choice with doing some cardio, let’s just make sure it is difficult enough to be helping us attain our goals. Resistance training itself also burns calories when we use the large muscle groups (especially in multi joint exercises like squats and deadlifts). So let’s hit those movements and add in some cardio, and now we have an effective and simple means to help decrease our fat mass so our abs will start to be more prevalent.
What are we glossing over here; well-balanced muscular development, appropriate rep ranges and loads, and most importantly nutrition. All of this is well and good, but if you are McMurdering your GI every day you aren’t going to be winning the battle of the bulge in the way you are hoping. I don’t want to force people to live on diets they hate, but your workout only makes up maybe one tenth of your day if you are very intense with your training. The rest of the day is when you can help or hinder your progress. The two to four meals (on average) that you take in can make or break progress, but that is a longer discussion for a later time.
I give props to this student for being in the gym and training hard. I respect their choice for what they do for their workout and wish them well in the future. My goal is just to be able to get more out of your training than you would otherwise. We all make mistakes in the gym (I continue to do so on a weekly if not daily basis), but our goal should be to get the most out of our training time. Don’t just train harder, train optimally. I’m still trying to figure out that optimal part.