Is this you? You’re plugging along lazily through life when one day you see a photo of some well-paid actor, model, or athlete in a bathing suit and you note that their stomachs are perfectly flat, perhaps, to your horror, even rippling with muscle.

You look down. Standing up, you can’t quite see your belt beneath the muffin top. Sitting down results in a roll of fat rising like a slow-motion tsunami. You feel embarassed and out-of-shape. Taking a good, hard look in the mirror, you observe that overall your body isn’t so bad; it’s just this. You imagine yourself with a flat, muscular tummy, and decide that this is going to be a changing day for you.

So you do a little research, you talk to a few people, and they all advise you that the conventional way to flatten and strengthen your stomach is to do sit-ups and/or crunches.

Before you know it you’re well into a daily routine of both crunches and sit-ups. You pride yourself on your discipline and look forward to having a body that’s baited for bear.

Trouble is, after a month or two you still can’t see your belt and the mounding roll still rises stubbornly when you sit down.

Don’t cry, and don’t give up; you’re not alone.

What’s the hold-up? Should you be doing more crunches? More sit-ups? Cutting out one to just focus on the other? Or maybe chucking both in favour of a more effective exercise?

What Works?

What’s more effective in building core muscle and flattening the abdomen— sit-ups or crunches? A big part of the answer to this question depends on who you are and what you need. Male or female? How old? What’s your body fat index? What’s your daily physical routine? Have you ever been physically injured? Are you normally lean or do you struggle with maintaining your weight? Does your body tend to respond well to strength-training or does it whine and cuss when asked to perform feats of strength and endurance?

The Place of Abdominal Exercises in a Program of Overall Fitness

It’s clear that you want to build belly muscle, but why? Are you a bodybuilder seeking to build an abdomen that Grandma could have scrubbed out her tea towels on? Are you trying (and quite wisely we might say) to strengthen your back and reduce the risk of pain and injury by strengthening your stomach muscles? Or do you just want to improve your physique and develop total body fitness without wasting a lot of your precious time?

As important as the gut-busting question is to most fitness seekers, it’s not the most important item on a strength-trainer’s checklist. Working out abdominal muscles is also called “strengthening the core.” Whereas building the strength of your midriff is great for improving your looks, your posture, and helping you avoid back problems later in life, if your goal is overall fitness and ease of movement, it’s just not a top priority. It’s as if the midriff has its own reasons.

So let’s indulge the midriff a little and answer today’s question: Which exercise works best?

What is This Thing Called a “Sit-up?”

full-set-upsLet’s look at sit-ups first. By definition the sit-up is an exercise done lying on your back, knees bent (not required but it does work better this way), lifting your torso, and returning to the floor again without using your arms to pull or push yourself up. Your repeat this exercise for a prescribed number of repetitions in a prescribed number of sets.

The sit-up works abdominal muscles, but more of your body is involved than in crunches. If you hook your feet under something you can end up using muscles from your lower legs all the way up to your neck. This can be good or bad depending on your physical conditon. Those with neck, back, or hip problems may find it they’re pushing their luck by doing sit-ups.

The metabolic nature of muscle cells allows them to burn calories even when we’re at rest, so building muscle all over the body is always a great plan. Building all mucsle groups also improves your energy level, balance, and posture, giving you a better appearance even if (sorry!) the sit-up itself, hard and uncomfortabe as it may be, doesn’t really burn much fat.

And Then There Are Crunches . . .

woman-doing-crunchesThe crunch is similar to the sit-up— you also lie on your back with your legs bent at the knees. Your feet are shoulder-width apart and your hands can be resting at your sides on the floor, folded on your chest, or touching your ears. Instead of raising your whole torso, just raise your head and shoulders until you feel the contraction in your stomach muscles. Try to make your stomach muscles do the lifting work. Breathe in as you lower yourself down and breathe out as you lift yourself again. Repeat.

Crunches are just for the belly muscles, and if all you care about is your belly for now, crunches are every bit as effective as sit-ups. In fact, a recent study from Memorial University of Newfoundland shows that crunches have a slight advantage over sit-ups for building abdominal muscle.

Sorry again, but crunches don’t burn fat either, and getting rid of the fat is the key to seeing those ripping muscles.

This is why your stomach is still a sand dune instead of the smooth beach you’re longing for. If you did sit-ups and/or crunches regularly, you’re certain to have built up muscle strength and all the benefits that go with it. But if you want to see those muscles, you have to unbury them. More about that later.

For now let’s have a look at what both sit-ups and crunches look like when done properly.

If You had to Choose Just One. . .

If you had to choose sit-ups or crunches, the choice should be made based on your needs and strengths. If you’re in relatively good physical condition, sticking with sit-ups is fine. But if you’ve experienced spinal, back, hip or neck injury or weakness it might be best to go with crunches only. Crunches are also easier for someone with a long torso.

On the other hand, if you’re a beginner or not in the best of shape, it might be best to avoid crunches because they can cause back pain for those not used to working out. Fitness trainer Anthony Renna, who works with golfers and executives, has actually cut crunches and sit-ups from his exercise programs because he’s seen that they increase bad posture due to the stress on the spinefor his client group.

That being said, those who can handle it should really consider doing both.

Each of these exercises works on different stomach muscle groups and so a truly effective exercise program for a reasonably fit and healthy individual incorporates both.

But is it Enough?

man-with-solid-absMany fitness coaches report that the question they get most often is how to develop a strong, firm, flat stomach with visible muscles. We’ve somehow come to define the healthy physique, male and female, as one that includes a washboard stomach, this in spite of the fact that most of us are born with a capacity to store our most stubborn fat at the equator.

Body builder and fitness trainer Tom Venuto says that both sit-ups and crunches work great for strengthening the torso, but if your goal is to be able to see your own six-pack, you’re bound to be disappointed. Why? Because no matter how mighty those muscles are, they just ain’t gonna show under that jiggling lard apron. An effective gut-busting routine must include finding ways to trim the fat.

In Venuto’s view you can even reduce how many sit-ups and crunches you do, if you add the bonus of more cardiovascular activity, weight training, and changes in your diet. Sure, keep on doing crunches and sit-ups, but anything more than two to four 10-25 rep sessions twice a week may be superfluous.

Venuto explains that our fat cells aren’t just little energy storage tanks; they also serve as endocrine glands signalling and being signalled by the rest of the body regardinsg the body’s needs and capacities.

To make a long story short, neither crunches nor sit-ups nor any other abdominal exercise can create the inner metabolic climate necessary for burning away excess fat.

Three half-hour cardio workouts a week are adequate for health and weight maintenance, but to seriously cut the fat it’s best to do cardio 4-7 days a week for 30-45 minutes each session. Mixing these up with more intensive weight training sessions will take you a long way. Remember, even if you’re not targeting your core specifically, these muscles are still engaged. The body doesn’t work in isolation, even if we target certain muscle groups when working out. While running, or walking you’ll notice your core muscles are also hard at work to keep you upright and stable. In weight training workouts, you also use your core muscles for stability and supporting the other areas of your body that you’re targeting. For example, when doing leg raises with weights, you’ll feel your stomach muscles working.

One popular exercise that provides an upper body workout, strengthens the core and also involves cardio is rowing. Using the rowing machine, you must push with your legs and pull with your arms simultaneously. Your core muscles have to work hard when you lean back at the end of the rowing cycle and engage the final pull of the handles to your chest. The key here is to make sure you have good form. Ask a trainer to help you perfect your form so that you can get the most out of this exercise.

In addition to regular cardio and weight training workouts, you can incorporate other core strengthening exercises apart from sit-ups and crunches into your routine. These additional exercises will keep you from getting bored, and will also help you target the different muscles in your belly-area. What exercises can you try?

  • The Plank This exercise seems easy at first, but as the seconds tick by, you start to shake and shudder as your muscles grow tired. How does it work? Stretch out on your belly on the floor. Then, lift yourself up using your elbows and toes, so that you are holding yourself up off the floor. Keep your buttocks in a straight line from your shoulders to your heel, so it will be a slightly diagonal line. Time yourself. You might want to start with two 30 second sets and work your way up to 45 second, and then one minute sets. Over time, you’ll see that your muscles are growing stronger.
  • Wall Sits This exercise targets your thighs, quads and core muscles. All you have to do is sit at a 90 degree angle against a wall with no support beneath you. Cross your arms over your chest, resting each hand on the opposite shoulder. Time yourself for sets of 30 seconds and work your way up to 1 minute or longer. When you feel confident, you can even add a weight to the routine. Hold a circle weight over your chest, starting with 10 pounds and work your way up to heavier weights.
  • Knee and Leg Lifts You’ll need to use gym equipment for this exercise. Most gyms have a captain’s chair. It’s the chair that is high off the ground with no seat, just armrests and a backrest. There are hand grips for you to hold on to as well. What you need to to is grip the handgrips and keep your back against the back of the chair. Then pull your knees up to a 90 degree angle and lower them again. Try 10 reps. You can also try interspersing your knee-lifts with full leg lifts. Without using a swinging motion, lift your legs so that your back and legs form a 90 degree angle. Then lower them. The key here is slow and steady. If you swing your legs, you’re missing the workout. Try 10 reps of leg lifts as well. Slowly you can work your way up to doing several sets.

These exercises can be done in addition to a few sets of sit-ups or crunches, or you can use them instead of sit-ups and crunches for one or two workouts a week. The variety will help you use your muscles in different ways and will also keep you from dreading just one type of exercise. There are many other core-focused exercises to explore. Once you’ve made a routine using the above exercises, sit-ups and crunches, you can ask a trainer to suggest other exercises so that you can continue growing your repertoire.

Exercises are great for strengthening your core and losing weight to show off your rippling muscles, but there’s more to consider. Moving your body is only part of the picture. Read on to learn about what else can influence how impressive your abs appear.

You Aren’t What You Don’t Eat

fish-and-saladNo amount of exercise will get you to your ideal abs if you’re not willing to give up that cappucino and doughnuts habit. Neither should you think that dieting will give you the results you want. The scientific evidence of the metabolism-slowing effects of greatly calorie-reduced diets are pretty much everywhere, and we know that most people who reduce on these alone nearly always gain back the weight they lost and more. Don’t waste your time suffering through a diet only to end up fatter than you were before (and maybe even with less muscle mass).

A good all-around eating regimen for life includes consuming slightly fewer calories than you need. Learn to count calories and be aware of your personal caloric needs (based on your weight height, and age), and then take in 15% fewer calories than that daily. Eat more meals but smaller ones, and eat a bit of protein with each meal. Eat whole (natural and complete as opposed to refined and processed) foods, reduce fats, and drink lots of water.

This will give you enough energy to work out and to maintain and build muscle mass as well as keep you from eventually getting so hungry and out of control that you make the local restaurants want to take down their “All you can eat” signs.

So What’s the Short Answer?

Suit yourself. Look at your own needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Choose sit-ups, crunches, both, or neither, based on your body’a abilities and needs. If you can swing it, doing both crunches and situps combined with regular aerobic exercise like running, speed walking, cycling, stationery bicycles, treadmills, or swimming will give you the most tangible results.

Whichever you choose, for maximum benefit it’s important to use good form. A fitness coach can tell you if you’re doing the exercise properly. Also consider using variations (twisting your body and touching your left elbow to your right knee as you rise from the sit-up, for example) to keep from getting bored with the repetitions.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: Getting rid of that last scrap of belly fat may not be the smartest goal in the world. For one thing, depending on your body type this might be near to impossible. Many people, especially women, have survived periods of starvation with a bit of pudge that stubbornly refuses to melt. This is because Mother Nature dictates that fat is essential to health, being an important source of stored energy and nutrients. So before you go off the deep end with diet and exercise or even start considering surgery, take a step back and and look at the big picture.

Your New Abs Plan in a Nutshell
  1. Take a good hard look at your physical makeup, needs, weaknesses, and what you want to achieve.
  2. Make a realistic goal (e.g. two inches off the midriff in the next six months), and be ready to adjust it if needed.
  3. Decide whether sit-ups, crunches, both, or neither, will be a part of this plan.
  4. Incorporate regular sweating-and-panting exercise into your weekly routine—4-7 days a week for 30-45 minutes each session— and make it something fun enough to stick with!
  5. Take a good look at what you eat each day and do all you can to remove foods that are processed and that contain white sugar and white flour.
  6. Consume as great a variety of whole foods (unrefined, unprocessed natural foods) as you can manage, keeping your daily calorie count to 15% less than your daily calorie needs.

May your abs do you proud!