Most fitness experts recommend setting goals that establish healthy habits rather than fixating on visible results like uncovering your six-pack abs for good reason: “Very few people can achieve this look, regardless of what they do,” says Stephen Ball, professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. “Most women who make this their goal will fail and ultimately give up exercise all together.”
That’s because the rectus abdominis—the primary muscle responsible for making the stomach look more defined—is typically covered by belly fat that you can’t spot reduce. “You can work your abs all you want, but if you have a layer of fat over them, the ‘pack’ can’t be seen,” Ball says. “It’s very unrealistic for most people to have body fat percentages low enough to see the abs.”
The only way to beat the odds is to develop core strength while reducing overall body fat. Although everyone responds differently to diet and exercise—and you should consult with a healthcare provider before changing things up—here are the lifestyle tips that have worked for three trainers who have particularly chiseled cores.
Eat carbs before workouts.
“I eat carbs at a point in the day when I need the most energy,” says Sims of the body's primary source of energy. On days when she teaches up to seven classes, she refuels with a sweet potato served with ghee (aka clarified butter), a carb-heavy snack that helps her power through workouts.
Eat protein after exercise.
Your body uses protein to rebuild the muscles it breaks down during workouts. It's why Sims chows down on foods like eggs, chicken, and tuna within 45-minutes of exercising, although science suggests timing may be less important than getting enough protein on days you work out.
Pair natural sugars and fats.
At breakfast, Sims eats eggs and avocado with her berries; for a snack, she’ll have an apple with almond butter. Both combos contain simple carbs—read: quick energy—from whole, not processed foods, and healthy fats, which keep you satisfied.
Know your triggers.
“It's important to know what might make you bloated," she says. “Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts don't always sit well with me, so I will avoid them before photo shoots.”
Go beyond crunches.
Sims prefers exercises that challenge you to stabilize your core against imbalance or gravity, like a hands plank with dumbbell pull-through and ab roll-outs using a core-training wheel. “They challenge the entire core by resisting movement instead of creating it,” she says of these moves, which she recommends doing in sets of 10 three times. You can repeat the series several times a week.
Activate your abs during every exercise.
“You can turn any exercise into a core-focused exercise by drawing your navel in toward your spine to stabilize the rest of your body,” Sims says. This also can be done anytime you're just sitting around.
Brittany Perille Yobe
Eat similar meals every day.
“I pretty much eat the same thing, or substitutions that are very close to my normal meal plan, every day,” Yobe says of her daily food intake, which includes a protein bar before her morning workout, a protein shake afterward, and two meals including chicken or fish, veggies like a green salad or bok choy, and a carb like rice, pasta, or potatoes. She also snacks on rice cakes with peanut butter, carrots, celery, and nuts. Although she admits this can be boring, the approach makes it easier for her to get all the nutrients she needs while remaining satisfied throughout the day.
Eat before bed.
Lest she wake up hungry or starve her muscles of the protein they need to rebuild while she sleeps, Yobe eats Greek yogurt, which contains casein, a slow-releasing protein, right before going to sleep. Some research suggests the technique helps with muscle recovery overnight.
Ditch your scale.
“Too many people get hung up on how much they weigh, but the scale can be very discouraging because of the daily fluctuation in the time you weigh yourself, bloating, and hormones,” says Yobe, who knows that muscle weighs more than body fat.
Trust no-equipment workouts.
Alcantara insists you don’t have to schlep to the gym to squeeze in a core workout. At home, you can strengthen your abs with one minute of mountain climbers, one minute of flutter-kicks, 15 to 30 toe-touching V-ups, and a one-minute plank hold. Then repeat the entire circuit four times up to twice a week.
"To get [results] you need to be consistent, hard-working, focused, patient, and dedicated, which happen to be the exact elements every person needs to be successful at pretty much anything in life.”
Eat mostly unprocessed foods.
“The quality of the calories coming from something like broccoli versus chips is dramatically different,” Alcantara says, speaking to the nutrients found in whole foods.
“There's this notion that carbs are bad and that you need crazy amounts of protein to be lean and fit,” says Alcantara, who disagrees, and eats just as much carbs as protein, although the ideal ratio varies based on your goals. “Whatever you eat to get the results you want has to be sustainable, otherwise you're going to end up right back where you started with the same habits that got you there.”
Follow a program.
Alcantara is all about consistency—one reason why she recommends choosing a structured fitness plan rather than shooting in the dark and praying you surface with abs. "Follow it to 100 percent, do it back-to-back," she says. Many fitfluencers offer their own programs, but you'll want one from a certified fitness trainer like Alcantara, who offers an eight-week guide.
Work body parts besides your abs.
“You want to have abs? Well, you need legs. And your chest, and arms, and calves,” she says. After all, muscle imbalance can lead to injury in everyday activities. “Balance is extremely important.”
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.