If you're thinking about "toning" your chest and stomach, what you're probably seeking is a leaner, sleaker look as opposed to achieving body builder musculature. Women usually aspire to tone muscle where men want to build.
Achieving a toned look is a two-tiered process. First, it's a matter of losing the excess body fat that can make your chest and stomach look flabby. Secondly, you'll want to strengthen and even build some muscle fiber so that when the fat dissolves it will reveal sexy muscle definition.
Diet and exercise to the rescue!
Fat Must Go First
It's important to understand that you can have an amazingly sculpted chest and well-defined abs, but nobody will know if they're covered in a thick layer of fat. So first think about losing excess weight.
There are innumerable diet schemes and many of them work -- for a while, anyway -- but the best plan is one you can stick to as a way of life. For most people that means a sensible, well-balanced diet that balances protein, fat and carbs without going to extremes.
The law of the land is you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose a pound of fat. That's a nice number because, according to the National Institutes of Health, the optimal rate of weight loss is one to two pounds a week. That means creating a deficit of 500 to 1000 calories a day. A combination of calorie restriction and cardiovascular training can accomplish this quite handily.
The Spot Reduction Myth
For the sake of your sanity, it's important to be aware that there's no such thing as "spot reduction." You just have to lose weight all over and wait for your chest and abs to catch up. They may trim down first or they may go to the end of line.
Unfortunately, your metabolism doesn't give a thrift store bikini where you want to trim down. It may be encouraging to know that muscle functions at a higher metabolic rate than fat, so when you start gaining muscle, you'll be automatically burning more calories and expediting fat loss.
Hopefully, you're making a commitment to total body health as opposed to fixating on your chest and abs for appearance sake. So a well-rounded program that includes cardiovascular training and core strengthening exercises is the best way to go. But let's take a moment to focus on each area individually.
Working your abs is a pretty straightforward proposition. The show case ab muscle is the rectus abdominus (RA). That's the sheath of muscles that girds your belly from the soft spot at the bottom of the ribs and down to your waist, and it's where the proverbial six-pack lives.
It's a long muscle and is well-worked by crunches at the upper end and leg lifts at the lower. You'll also want to give the external obliques, the muscles flanking the sides of the RA, their due with variations such as cross-over crunches. For added intensity, move your ab work to an incline bench.
One last note: the transverse abdominus, the deepest lying abdominal muscle, is not seen but is often heard because its neglect can lead to problems with the lower back and pelvic muscles. Sucking in your stomach ("hollowing") and bracing is as if you're going to take a punch ("bracing") will activate the TA. Plank position is a great way to perform bracing, and you can also make it a part of doing push-ups, a truly awesome exercise for the whole trunk that will help you accomplish both your ab and chest goals.
Working out the chest means working out the pectoral muscles, better known as the “pecs.”
Barbell bench press? Pec deck? Bent-forward cable crossovers? Yes! These top the list of the American Council on Exercise's Best Chest Exercises. And it's good to rotate these exercises because they may each activate the chest muscles in slightly different ways. Since pretty much all chest exercises activate the shoulder and upper arm muscles, you'll be strengthening your triceps and deltoids along the way.
While the pecs are the largest muscles in the chest, there are actually several smaller muscles that support the pectoral muscles, such as the trapezius muscle around the shoulders and the latissimus dorsi, or “lats,” at the sides of the back of the ribcage. For trap exercises, the barbell shrug is king: from a standing position, simply hold the barbell with overhand grip and shrug your shoulders up as high as you can. Lat pull downs will take care of the lats.
Designing Your Workout
A common misconception about resistance training is that lifting heavier weights for fewer reps will bulk you up, whereas lighter weights for a greater number of reps will tone you. The truth is that unless you're making a determined effort to bulk up, it's unlikely that you're going to becoming a muscle-bound freak by lifting heavier weights. Work to the point of temporary muscle fatigue -- the point where your muscles just won't do any more for a minute or so between sets.
That said, heavy weights get you there faster than lighter weights, but either way you need to push it to fatigue. Heavier weights are better for developing brute strength while lighter weights are better for endurance.
A good place to start is beginning with lighter resistance and trying to complete one or two sets of eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise, pausing for 30 to 90 seconds between sets. Work up to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions that make the last couple in each set feel very hard. Aim for two to three workouts for your chest and abs per week on non-consecutive days.
- National Institutes of Health: Weight Loss and Nutrition Myths
- ACE Fitness: Myths and Misconceptions: Spot Reduction and Feeling the Burn
- ACE Fitness: Abs, Abs, Abs!
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: Core Strength Training for Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain
- ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises
- ACE Fitness: When Strength Training, Is It Better To Do More Reps With Lighter Weights Or Fewer Reps With Heavier Weights?