How to get tighter abs for women

There’s no one right way to get that 6 pack abs, which may be why so many myths abound. Let these top trainers set the record straight.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

There’s no one right way to tackle your midsection, which may be why so many myths abound. Let these top trainers set the record straight.

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MYTH 1/ You can zero in on your lower abs

AB FACT The rectus abdominis (or the six-pack) attaches at the bottom of your sternum and the crest of your pubic bone. It’s one long muscle, and you can’t isolate just part of it.

“In all our studies, where you actually measure people exerting against a force, the upper and lower rectus don’t work independently,” says researcher Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and author of Back Mechanic: The Step-by-step McGill Method to Fix Back Pain.

“The rectus acts like a rope, and the tension is equal all along the length of it.” If you’re trying to target extra flab in your lower abdomen, do some high-intensity interval training to amp up your calorie burn and then head to the market to buy healthy, whole foods.

A combination of serious calorie burning and clean eating is the best way to get rid of belly fat (see Myth 4 for more on this).

MYTH 2/ Abs are made in the kitchen.

AB FACT Not so fast – the gym is missing from that recipe!

“Yes, you need to have less belly fat if you want to see the abs, and that reduction does come primarily from diet,” says dietitian Cliff Edberg, who is also the national program manager of personal training for Life Time Fitness in Minnesota. “But you still need to train those muscles if you want them to be strong.” To do that, target your middle from all angles. Throw in total body moves and add weights if you want those ab muscles to pop.

MYTH 3/ To improve your core strength, you should keep your abs tight all day.

AB FACT Free the belly! “You wouldn’t walk around with your glutes contracted all day or your arm curled halfway up, would you?” says trainer Galina Denzel, who is also co-author of Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well: 52 Ways to Feel Better in a Week.

“Keeping your abs pulled in for all that time can put extra pressure on your stomach, uterus, and bladder, and decrease the volume of your lungs.”

Training those core muscles correctly during your workouts – and learning how to engage them and keep them that way while doing moves (see Myth 6) – will teach them to automatically kick in to stabilise you.

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MYTH 4/ You have to choose between carbs and your abs.

AB FACT You can have your pasta and cropped tops, too. “In the ’90s we vilified fat, and now we’re doing the same to carbs,” Cliff says. “But they’re part of a healthy diet.” A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate four to seven servings of whole grains a day on a low-calorie diet, lost twice as much as fat as a similar diet group who ate less than one serving a day. The key is having a healthy amount of grains, veggies, and fruit instead of refined, processed carbs, and eating lean protein as well as good-for-you fats, too.

MYTH 5/ The bigger the move, the better the ab firming.

AB FACT There’s certainly something to be said for working a muscle through its entire range, but sometimes it’s the tiny contractions that really supercharge your muscles.

“Think about a side plank, which is an isometric move,” says Trisha Curling, owner of Ani O Yoga in Toronto. “You don’t see any movement, but you feel it! And you’re working all your deep stabilisers – the multifidus (along the spine), transversus abdominis (360-degree band around your centre), and quadratus lumborum (along the back side of the abdominal wall) – plus your rectus abdominis and obliques,” she explains. “In addition, you’re building heat internally, which revs your metabolism.”

Another great isometric exercise: Try farmer carries, where you walk back and forth holding a heavy weight in each hand; this lights up the transversus abdominis.

MYTH 6/ Your abs are the centre of your core.

AB FACT They’re definitely crucial, but – along with your transversus abdominis – the multifidus, pelvic floor, and diaphragm are the deepest core muscles, and if they don’t work correctly, all your other moves will be just a bit weaker.

It’s like building a house on a faulty foundation. “I had a patient with abs of steel, but she couldn’t figure out why she had back pain,” says physical therapist John Martinez, owner of Australian Physio/ Therapy Experts in New York City. “Turns out, her back and pelvic floor were crazy weak. She never spent any time strengthening them.”

Try this “dead bug” move: Lie face up with knees bent over hips and arms straight up over shoulders. Pull your belly button in to engage those deep muscles, lift your pelvic floor up, and draw your rib cage down. Hold those while you breathe. Next, alternate moving your legs down and up, then arms back and up.