Crunches alone won't lead to abs

Singapore's Lau Ee Shan spiking the ball against her Vanuatu opponent at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Total body movements like playing beach volleyball are more effective due to the use of large muscle groups.
Singapore's Lau Ee Shan spiking the ball against her Vanuatu opponent at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Total body movements like playing beach volleyball are more effective due to the use of large muscle groups.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Total body movements the best way to lower body fat but genetics, age & sex also play a part

NEW YORK • We are here again: A couple of months from swimsuit season. And you might be looking in the mirror at any number of eyesores - beer belly, thigh rub, bra bulge, love handles, saddlebags - and asking: "Can I get rid of that through exercise and diet?"

In other words, spot reduction.

"No, it doesn't work that way," says Todd Miller, professor of nutrition and exercise sciences at George Washington University. "Fat in your body is like gas in your gas tank. Thinking you can reduce fat from your stomach alone is like saying you want to use gas only from the right side of your gas tank."

Fat, just like petrol in your car, is stored energy. It gets recruited equally from all over your body and sent to the muscles to be burned, Miller says. But why then do we carry more of it in certain areas?

"Genetics is the most important determinant for where fat is stored," says Scott Kahan, director of the National Centre for Weight and Wellness. "Often, we have relatively similar shapes as our parents."

Gender and age are also part of the equation, Kahan says.

Men tend to carry more fat in the midsection, and women tend to have more around thighs and hips. A toned look requires not only low body fat, but also a genetic predisposition to have a fairly equal distribution of fat all over the body.

FORGET ABOUT TARGETED FAT LOSS

Fat in your body is like gas in your gas tank. Thinking you can reduce fat from your stomach alone is like saying you want to use gas only from the right side of your gas tank.

TODD MILLER, professor of nutrition and exercise sciences at George Washington University, says spot reduction is a fallacy.

Low body fat means roughly 15 per cent for a woman and less than that for a man. In comparison, the American Council on Exercise lists 25 to 31 per cent body fat as average for women; for men, 18 to 24 per cent is average.

If you had two men standing side by side, both with 15 per cent body fat, but one carries it evenly and the other does not, the former would be more likely to have the six-pack abs, Miller says.

The best way to achieve 15 per cent body fat?

"Total body movements, high-intensity drills, adequate rest and a boring diet," says personal trainer Gabe Free.

When he was trying to trim fat, that meant a diet consisting of lean proteins and vegetables with a few cheat meals here and there. His breakfast every day was kale and eggs. He kept up his usual workout routine, including dead lifts and squats.

"I didn't lose weight, but I leaned out," he says. His body fat percentage - fat-to-muscle ratio - went down.

The reason total body movements like planks, squats and lunges are more effective for weight loss and overall fitness than, say, crunches, is that using more large muscle groups requires more energy and builds more muscle, Free says.

More muscle means a higher resting metabolic rate. But that has nothing to do with spot reduction.

As Kahan puts it: "You can't do more squats and expect to lose weight around your thighs."

The proximity of fat to the exercise you are doing does not matter. This is why the ever-present ads for various "ab busters" are misleading. The abdominals are a relatively small muscle group and do not require a lot of energy to be engaged, Free says.

In fact, being overly focused on one muscle group can do more harm than good, Kahan says. It can create muscle imbalances. If the front of the body, including the abs, is too strong and the back is too weak, we get the hunched-over "caveman look" - which can also cause back pain.

Age is important, too, when it comes to body fat. As we get older, our lean body mass (muscle) tends to decrease, especially in men, whose testosterone levels start dropping in their 40s, while fat increases.

In ageing women, inactivity seems to be more instrumental in fat gain than hormonal changes, Miller says.

Apart from surgery, fat cells never decrease no matter how many kilometres you run or how many kilograms you bench-press. They are set in childhood and adolescence, and after that, they just shrink or balloon depending on your habits.

The takeaway, then, for six-pack purposes and beyond, is that healthy habits are lifelong - and the younger you start, the better.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 22, 2018, with the headline 'Crunches alone won't lead to abs'. Print Edition | Subscribe