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SoYouWanna tone and flatten your abs?

So you want abs like Brad Pitt's in Fight Club, huh? Not a bad idea. After all, flat abs not only help you look better in a bathing suit, they also confer many health benefits. Strong abs:

  • Help improve your posture

  • Prevent you from injuring your back when lifting heavy objects

  • Lower your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes (because you have less body fat)

  • Protect you during your athletic activities (just ask Derek Jeter of the NY Yankees, who has been sidelined more than once for a strained abdominal muscle).

Having a tight stomach is partially determined by genetics. It is just a cruel fact of nature that not all human beings are blessed with a body type like Sylvester Stallone or Cindy Crawford. Nevertheless, if you persistently follow an abdominal-building routine, you may be in contention to win the newly instituted Nobel Prize for 'Most Ripped Abs.' (Really. Check this article out.)

We will warn you, though. It's not just about crunches, or diets, or exercise, or reading intriguing SYWs (as fun as those things can be). It's really about committing yourself to a program and sticking to it.

1. Make the commitment

The most important part of starting an abdominal-building routine is to be serious about it. You cannot expect major results in days or weeks. The spare tire will eventually disappear, but it can take up to a year and a half, depending on your initial level of fitness, to develop toned abdominal muscles. So it is important to stick with it.

The good news is that it will not take long before the new routine becomes a habit. After all, it doesn't take long to get into the habit of putting on a seatbelt when you get into a car. After a while, you just do it. It's the exact same with sticking to an ab program (minus mangled car wreckage). If you make the effort over the course of 30 days to stay committed to a new abdominal-building routine, you will find yourself doing the routine as a matter of habit, which makes it easier to stay motivated.

But please be careful to not get too obsessed. Those guys you sometimes see running in dangerous snowstorms are totally hooked on the endorphin rush (endorphins are opiates produced naturally by the body to insulate against pain by creating a natural high). They often drop dead of heat exhaustion, dehydration, and stupidity. Keep in mind that your goal is mostly aesthetic, and you should not let your ab program run your life.

2. Eat right

Forget crash dieting; it doesn't work and it makes you cranky. The problem with crash diets is that people almost always regain the weight, creating a cycle of weight-loss/weight-gain that is even unhealthier than being steadily overweight. So listen up: having a permanently lean waistline and flat abs requires a long-term commitment to a low fat, but healthy, eating plan. From now on, think of 'diet' as a general eating 'lifestyle' rather than as the thing you see Richard Simmons trying to sell you. It doesn't mean "not eating;" it means "eating right."

Be aware of your food intake

One rule of thumb is to consume carbohydrates, fat, and protein in a 55:30:15 ratio, which is to say that 55% of calorie intake should come from carbs, 30% should come from fat, and 15% should come from protein. Here's how you can calculate these percentages:

  1. Multiply the grams of carbohydrates in your meal by 4 - that's your calorie intake for carbs

  2. Multiply the grams of protein in your meal by 4 - that's your calorie intake for protein

  3. Multiply the grams of fat in your meal by 9 - that's your calorie intake for fat

  4. Add your three numbers together

  5. Divide each calorie intake number by the sum of the three numbers.

  6. Multiply each calorie intake number by 100

You will then have the amount of carbs, fat, and protein as a percentage of the amount of calories in your food serving

For instance, a meal has 40 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein, and 10 grams of fat, and your meal has 600 calories. So:

40 x 4 = 160 g of carbs
10 x 4 = 40 g of proteins
9 x 10 = 90 g of fat

Add these together, and you get 290. Divide each individual number by 290 and multiply by 100.

Fat: 160/290 = .55 x 100 = 55%
40/290 = .14 x 100 = 14%
90/290 = .31 x 100 = 31%

So it's very close to the recommended 55%-30%-15%.

Keeping track of caloric intake should be easy enough, but some of you might be too darn busy to keep whipping out a calculator every time you want a snack. In that case, keep in mind that the recommended allowance is about 65-85 grams of fat per day. Especially stay away from saturated fat - you might as well pump lard directly into your veins. As for caloric expenditure, you can use the fact that average daily caloric expenditure varies from 1600 to 2400, depending on the amount of exercise or other physical activity you do. You may also want to try tracking your food, calories and exercise with an online tool like The Daily Plate.

The only way to lose the excess fat is to eat less fat. The rule of thumb invoked above suggests you should not eat something in which fat makes up more than 30% of its calories. Basically, that includes anything tasty. If you need some advice on specific foods, check out this list of tips.

3. Do cardiovascular exercise

The body (men's, women's, and hermaphrodites' alike) contains up to 30 billion fat cells. If you want to chop away the fat, you have to either shrink your fat cells or get rid of them. And the only way to shrink or kill fat cells is to use up the energy stored in them. Eating right will prevent them from getting bigger; only a cardio workout will actively shrink them.

"Cardio work" is basically anything that makes you sweat: running, stair-climbing, sports, stuff like that. For a cardio workout to be effective, though, your heart rate has to increase and stay high for at least 20 minutes. At the 20-minute mark, the body stops running only on its stored energy, and it turns to its fat deposits (and all of your exercise over 20 minutes will pull from that stored fat). We suggest that you don't bother yourself with insignificant details like "how does this happen?" It's magic. All that matters is that it really works.

How to construct a successful fat-burning cardio workout

There are the four ingredients to a successful fat-burning cardio workout:

  1. Stretch out
  2. Warm up
  3. Work out
  4. Cool down

Stretching is key; it prevents you from hurting yourself, it gets your body prepared, and it keeps you from getting sore the next day. Here is some advice on doing it properly.

The warm-up is a 3-5 minute light engagement of the activity. If you're going to run, then it is a 3-5 minute light jog to get your blood flowing. If you're going to play basketball, then it's a light jog around the court.

The workout is, obviously, the part where you sweat 'til you stink. It should last between 15 and 45 minutes, though that depends on your current fitness level; if you are just starting to work out after a long period of inactivity, start slow (maybe 10 minutes a day for a week or two) and bump up your time as your conditioning improves.

The cool down, a 3-5 minute jog followed by stretching, allows the body to gradually return to a normal heart rate while getting the excess blood out of the extremities. If you don't want to be sore the next day, then it is 100% vital to stretch after engaging in cardiovascular activities.

This workout should be done 3-4 times a week.

The aerobic activity in which you choose to engage can be whatever you like: running, biking, and brisk walking are very popular. Once you have chosen one or perhaps two (to avoid boredom and thus stay committed) activities, make sure that you get a comfortable, proper-fitting pair of sneakers or you risk injuring your knees and feet. Whatever exercise you do, it is extraordinarily important that you do the exercises correctly, whether it is biking, rowing, stair-climbing or dog-kicking. Also keep in mind what your "weak points" are. For example, biking on a machine that allows you to lie down may help to avoid lower back injuries. It is a good idea to consult a trainer at your local exercise gym about the proper technique for doing your chosen exercise.

4. Do abdominal-targetting exercises

We just heard that collective groan; quit your belly-aching. (We know… an awful pun.)

Ab exercises are important because they're what help you look good after you've chipped all the fat away. Think about it - you can lose all the weight you want and you'll look skinny, but it's the ab exercises that create the 6-pack look. Ab exercises also help to suppress fat buildup; bigger muscles mean that the fat you eat burns quicker.

One advantage of building the abdominal muscles is the many different exercises to choose from, helping you to avoid the monotony of endless sit-ups and thus to stay motivated. One surefire piece of advice is this: AVOID SIT-UPS. These old-fashioned exercises are almost always done incorrectly, putting extra unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on the lower back while failing to fully train the abdominal muscles.

The fitness profession has settled on crunches as the most basic and effective way to tone the abs. Here's how to do a proper crunch:

  1. Lie down

  2. Put your hands behind your neck (don't pull too hard on the neck)

  3. Pull your knees in just above the hips with your feet flat on the floor

  4. Lift your shoulders no more than 30 degrees above the ground
  5. Hold for 3 full seconds

  6. Then slowly return the shoulders to a resting position.

  7. Repeat until you are ripped

Beginners should do 1 set of as many repetitions as it takes to make the abs burn. It is standard for huge bumpy musclemen to do 3 sets of about 25 to 30 repetitions. Do these exercises at least 3 times a week.

That's it, you say? Not exactly; crunches work the upper abs, but you can't forget about the lower abs or obliques (love handles).

A good exercise for working the lower abs is leg lifts. You can do these lying down on a flat bench or any other bench-like surface. Here's how to proceed:

  1. Lie down flat on your back on a bench

  2. Lift your legs (straight out) about 45 degrees in the air

  3. Then return them slowly to the resting position (without touching the ground)

  4. Repeat until you cry

The sets and reps should be the same as for crunches. Reverse crunches, in which you pull the knees into your chest as you lift your shoulders, are also effective ways of exercising the lower abs.

Doing crunches with a twist will work the obliques. Just lay your knees to your side instead of having your feet flat on the floor. Then do your normal crunches (be sure to do both sides).

For a more detailed description of many more abdominal exercises, visit SeekWellness.com or How to Build and Define Your Abdominals on eHow.com.

5. Do little things

Your diet, cardiovascular exercise, and ab exercises will present 99% of your results. But the remaining 1% can be incredibly useful in your quest to become a Greek statue. These are just "little things" that you can do.

One suggestion is to "dress down." Wear clothes that stress your vertical appearance: vertical stripes, pinstripes, and ties often do the trick. Also, darker clothes create a perception of distance from the observer, which tends to make you look a few pounds lighter. (Dark clothes hide the shadows of bulges too).

Also, there are little things you can do during the day to exercise your abs. Every bit helps. Right now, we want you to flex your abs for 5 seconds. Hold it. We'll wait. C'mon, feel the burn! Go! Go! Go! Wuss! Phew… you did it.

Finally, it is highly recommended that you consult with your doctor before you start any rigorous change of lifestyle that includes a change of diet and increased physical activity. This helps you to determine the status of your health and thus the level at which to begin.

We wish you the best of luck, and say hello to Hans and Franz for us.

SoYouWanna know more? Check out our full-length article SYW learn the basics of yoga?