I remember the time in my life I was most obsessed with exercise. At 20 years old, home in Los Angeles for the baseball off season, I was at the peak of my training. It was January, and I always started to feel like I wasn’t prepared for the upcoming season at precisely this time. I lifted weights in the morning, then headed to the field to throw, take swings and run in the afternoon. I pushed myself to the point of exhaustion, usually crashing in the early evening.
My brain hadn’t developed as much as my body; I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted abs. I set my alarm for late in the evening, woke up, did a traditional sit-up video routine, ate and went back to sleep.
America has a love affair with a flat stomach or six-pack abs, and it’s one I fully understand. Everyone has a different trick for that elusive ideal. Five minutes on the internet will return suggestions for leg lifts and sit ups, and late night television is filled with infomercials for core machines and diet pills promising instant success.
The formula is actually pretty simple. First, the body fat we carry has to be low enough to see the abdominal definition. This is absolutely a challenge. Second, throw out all of those isolated ab exercises that claim to blast away fat and replace them with one – basic, traditional squats.
I have not done a sit up or leg lift in many moons. I squat regularly and have more abdominal definition than I did at 23 years old.
Think about it logically. What causes the abdominal muscles to contract more, lying on your back and lifting your legs or placing 200 pounds on your shoulders and dropping deeply into a squat, recruiting every muscle in your body (especially in your core) to handle the load to thrust that weight back up?
The squat is the perfect exercise. Moreover, it is extraordinarily beneficial beyond just toning the abs. Squats promote mobility and balance and generally help folks become more adept at performing day-to-day activity.
I suggest starting with body weight and building up to as much weight as you can safely handle over time.
Proper form here: http://www.builtlean.com/2010/07/20/how-to-do-proper-squat-technique/
A great video for demonstration purposes here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbxxs1PErLQ
I do squats, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 5 sets, 5 reps with as much weight as I can handle.
For beginners doing body weight squats, I recommend 5 sets of 25 reps the first time out, gradually adding weight as it becomes safe through experience.
Great post, Gabe. Your blog is my new favorite daily read. Keep up the good work.
Gabe Kapler says
Thanks so much, Ryan!
Thomas Gilbride says
You nailed it. I worked out like crazy for years and could not get there. I changed my diet and dropped all the crunches. I maintained the traditional squat, deadlft, and bench press with some interval training. I lost 41 pounds and are starting to see the 6 pack definition.
Gabe Kapler says
You inspire me, Thomas.
Susan Altman says
You have inspired me to start doing squats 3 times per week. Also,tThanks for posting the videos – I appreciate how important correct form is to prevent injury.
Mike Weinmann says
@Gabe — just subscribed to the blog this week and am loving it so far. Big believer in eating real food and regular intense exercise as part of a healthy evolution i’ve experienced since 2008. As part of that, I have started competing in triathlons (3 ironmans so far with another one scheduled for May ’14) and therefore already cook my legs 5-6 times per week. I fear that adding squats into my routine will negatively impact my run+bike workouts. Understanding life is all about trade-offs and that my focus on the tri-life might limit/delay my ability to achieve the elusive six-pack, I was curious whether you knew of any alternatives to the squat that limit the strain on your legs but achieve a comparable core workout? I did recently start a regular core routine of pushups, planks, bridges, crunches, etc and think that’s helping. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge!
PS – I remember when you came up with the Tigers and was sorry to see you leave the D.
@mike kettlebell swings
Mike Weinmann says
Great call, Colt — will check them out
Micah Mann says
Another great post Gabe. I never thought about how useless sit ups were compared to squats. I do squats now but giving a lot more attention to these going forward!
Gabe Kapler says
Thank you, Micah.
You inspired me. Did squats this morning for first time in 3-4 years. Feeling like my shoes are made of lead today, but the squats are in my routing for good or until my next injury.
Just squatted with the barbell instead of free weights for the first time today. 25 pounds may not sound like much but my entire body disagrees. Bring on the flat tummy.
Juan Hernaiz says
Gabriel, so you recommend me to just squat and diet and no abs?
@ Juan It’s not just Kaps advice tons of science behind it. Try it out. Train the same Remain the same
Great post — I definitely want to try squats. At the place I workout they have a Cybex machine (similar to this: cybexintl.com/plate-loaded-smith-press.aspx) for doing squats. Does anyone know how this compares with doing squats with a barbell?
Gabe, I love squats but I have heard/read more recently about concerns over squatting regarding the compression of the spine due to heavy weight being placed over the shoulders and subsequently creating a great deal of pressure on the spine. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Gabe, great post… just one follow up question. It says for beginners to do 5 sets of 25 reps with body weight. Does that mean just no weight at all? Then the idea is eventually you build up to more weight and do 5 sets of 5 reps with as much weight as you can handle? Just making sure I read it right. Thanks!