Say it like a mantra: your stomach is more than your abs. While the six-pack may be the star of the show, it's your other core muscles -- the obliques and transverse abdominis -- that act as the literal supporting cast to hold you in and give you a well-defined torso. For faster toning, hit your core from all sides through workouts and healthy eating. You'll start with two reliable standards: the basic plank and crunch. You'll then challenge your body with variations that target your entire core. Perform cardio and integrate a bloat-busting diet, and you'll see noticeable tummy subtraction in four weeks.
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The Plank and Beyond
Master the plank to strengthen your core, back and shoulders. Move into a pushup position on the floor, with your weight supported or your palms and the balls of your feet. Make sure your body forms a straight line from your heels to the top of your head and your hands are directly under your shoulders with your elbows straight. Pull your navel toward your spine to engage your core muscles. Hold for one minute. Work up to two minutes.
Hold the plank position, supporting your weight with your palms, to begin the horizontal plank, a variation of the traditional plank that targets your transverse abdominis . While keeping your back straight, shift your weight slightly to your left as you lift your right arm off the floor. Hold your right arm straight out, parallel to the mat. Lower your arm back to the floor slowly. Repeat for one set of 10. For an added challenge, hold a light-weight dumbbell in your right hand. Switch arms and repeat the exercise. After two weeks, work up to two sets of 10 on each arm
Assume the plank position, this time with your feet on top of your stability ball. Tighten your abs, plant your palms on the floor with your elbows straight, and make sure your body is in a straight line from your toes to your shoulders -- you'll need the support. Using your feet to stabilize the ball, bend your knees and move your hips and core to draw a capital A with the ball, then B, and so on. Do as many letters as you can with good form, working up to the entire alphabet by the end of week two. Once you've mastered the alphabet, you can try numbers or simple shapes.
Stand up straight, shoulders relaxed and feet shoulder-width apart, to begin a variation of the plank called the inchworm. Bend at the waist and place your palms on the floor in front of you. Carefully walk your hands out in front of you, letting your heels rise off the floor, until you're in the plank position. Keeping your back straight and core engaged, walk your feet forward slowly until you reach your hands -- your movement and body shape should mimic an inchworm. Repeat for one set of 10 to 15 "inches," working up to two sets after two weeks.
Crunches and More
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart, to perform a crunch. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows bent. Tighten your stomach muscles to lift your head and shoulders off the floor. You're using your hands to support your head -- not to push your head forward -- which would put a strain on your neck. Slowly lower your head and shoulders to the floor, keeping your core tight. Repeat for one to three sets of 10 to 15 crunches.
Move into the sit-up position, this time with your stability ball under the middle of your back. Make sure your feet are planted on the floor. Tighten your abs to perform a basic crunch, then move your upper body to the left, then forward, then to the right and back to your crunch position. Imagine you're drawing a large diamond or circle in the air with the top of your head. This movement engages your obliques. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides, moving to the right first instead of the left. Start with one set on each side, working up to two sets by the end of week two.
Lie on the floor or a mat with your hands behind your head, legs extended, to perform reverse crunches. Pull your navel to your spine and press your lower back into the floor. Keep your back pressed to the floor as you lift your legs into the air, feet together, knees straight. You can cross your ankles if you choose. Slowly lower your legs back to start, keeping your core tight. Repeat for one set of 10, working up to three sets of 10 by the end of week three.
Sit in a sturdy chair to perform a sitting variation of the crunch called the captain's chair. Sit on the edge of the chair, feet on the floor, with your palms planted on either side of your thighs and your fingers facing forward. Tighten your abs by pulling your navel toward your spine as you lift your feet off the floor and bring your knees to your chest. Slowly lower your feet back to start. Perform one to three sets of 10. If you're at a gym, you may find a piece of equipment called a captain's chair where you can perform this exercise.
Cardio and Diet
Perform at least 150 minutes a week of moderate cardio, including running, cycling, swimming and elliptical exercise. For best results, work up to 300 minutes of cardio in weeks three and four. Regular cardio will help burn fat and expose the abdominal muscles you've been building.
Eat 80 to 90 g of lean protein daily in fish, chicken, lean red meat, nuts, legumes and soy products. About 35 percent of your calorie intake should come from lean protein.
Fight belly bloat by drinking plenty of water. While your actual water intake comes from both beverages and food, aim for at least eight 8-oz. glasses of pure water to keep yourself hydrated and prevent your body from retaining water.
Avoid trans-fats or any food that contain the words "partially hydrogenated" anywhere on the ingredients list. Trans fats, which are used to increase food's shelf life, are notorious for packing fat around the waist.
Cut back on sodium, carbonated drinks and caffeine, all of which increase belly bloat. Stick to 2,300 mg of sodium daily. This is especially important in week four, since a week of bloat can mask a month of hard workouts.