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24 Mar 2017

A Fitness Post: Ruka's Guide to Abs/Muscle Definition

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In response to requests for fitness advice (largely from fellow fashion fans), I decided to write a post that provides accessible and thorough fitness tips from the perspective of a busy student! 
This post covers topics such as the recommended frequency of exercise, how to get stronger, what to eat to build muscle, body fat percentage, and the difference between losing fat and losing weight. I will also share my 30-minute, no-equipment abs routine and linked resources. 
I am not suggesting that you have to be slim or muscled look to enjoy fashion or even be fit and healthy. But some of us do prefer to have a such a look for a variety of reasons. If you are one of those people, I hope you find my guide helpful!




(An awkward, obligatory photo for this kind of post...)
The recipe for getting muscle definition in the abdominals is the same as for getting recipe definition anywhere else. You need:
(1) low enough fat in the area and
(2) larger muscle mass.
 
But unlike for other muscles, (1) tends to matter more for abdominals and (2) is actually easier for abdominals.

1) Body Fat & Losing Fat

How low of a body fat percentage do you need to have abs? (Assuming that you also train properly.)
This will differ from person to person. But designated-female-at-birth (dfab) people will start to see some ab definition in the lower 20% area while designated-male-at-birth (dmab) people will start to see some ab definition at around 12%. For “cut” abs/”chocolate abs”/some "pack" abs/etc., you would need a lower body fat percentage. But body fat levels that are below 14-18% for dfab people are actually considered to be suboptimal for overall health, so I cannot recommend them.

How do you measure your body fat percentage?
The best way (cheapest and most accurate) is to do so with body fat calipers. You can get them for around $6 USD on eBay! I use the Jackson-Pollock formula directly, but good instructions/calculator scan be found here and here.

What is the difference between losing fat and losing “weight”?
When someone aims to “lose weight,” they typically lose both fat and muscle. That may help lower your body fat %, but losing muscle isn’t ideal. (Especially when you have to put in so much work to build them!) Losing fat aims at maintaining as much muscle as possible, but also results in “losing weight.”

How do you lower your body fat percentage and lose fat/maintain muscle?
To lose 1 lb of fat, you need to achieve a cumulative deficit of 3500 calories (or 7700 calories for 1 kg of fat). To create a calorie deficit, you need to burn calories than what is needed for maintaining your weight. I recommend this total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator. Calorie-burning cardio should be used to supplement dieting, as dieting alone is pretty strenuous for most people.
But calorie deficits also make you lose muscle. To maintain or build muscle, you need to eat sufficient protein (at least 1 gram per lb of body weight or 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight) and train your muscles so that they will not tend to shrink.  MyFitnessPal (phone app and website) is great for tracking calories (it has a huge food database) and macronutrients (carbs, fats, and protein). The general advice is to not overdo it by eating too little--it could be dangerous. Research has also shown that moderate rates of weight loss/moderate calorie deficits are the most sustainable.

What are the benefits of having a lower body fat?
Other than the aesthetic benefits, people with a higher percentage of muscle mass burn more calories during the same activities. For example, since I have higher muscle mass, I get to burn 150 more calories each day than someone who is the same weight but has an average amount of muscle mass! For a short and small person like me, 150 calories is 20-30 minutes of moderate cardio. Or a small cup of ice cream, if you see things like that. :p

2) Gaining Muscle: Training & Diet


How do you build muscle or maintain strength gains?
You gain muscle in a particular area by putting stress on those muscles. Your body responds to the repeated over-usage of those muscles by increasing their size. To maintain strength/muscle gains, you should aim for progressive overload: gradually increasing the stress of your training. For example, one might start with 3 sets of 10 push-ups each day for 2-3 weeks, and then up it to 3 sets of 15 push-ups. You should find increasingly easy to do the original workout. 

How long and often do you need to train to gain muscle? (This might be the most important question for busy folks out there!) 
The more often you train (with sufficient intensity), the better it is for gaining muscle. The optimal schedule for gaining muscle would be to train the specific muscle group 5-6 days a week and rest for 1-2 days. But research has shown that among young people, even a reduced training schedule of 1 session a week (from 3 sessions/week) leads to strength gains. 
The sample workout I will provide below takes about 30 minutes, so you can actually still be on your (likely very slow) way to getting abs even if you just train for 30 minutes once a week!

What do I do after I have achieved my goal abs (or other muscle goals)? How can I maintain them?
To be safe, you should still probably train at least 1-2x a week just to maintain your muscle. You can reduce each individual workout as well (ex. do 3 sets of a particular exercise instead of 5). The key is to let your body know that it still needs those muscles. If you stop working out altogether, you will lose the muscles that you worked hard to build! #gymbody is kind of a commitment, haha. 

What should I eat to build muscle?
Protein! You should eat 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight (or 2.2 grams per kg of body weight) each day to maintain or build muscle. Some very good high-protein (which I define to have high protein relative to calorie content) are chicken, turkey, and greek yogurt. Beef or turkey jerky and protein bars make good snacks. I recommend the soy-based Simply Protein bars and (if you don’t mind some artificial ingredients) milk/whey-based Quest Bars. Protein powder is also good. I personally and unable to recommend foods to the vegans and vegetarians, but there are guides out there to help (such as this one).
When you are strength training, it is also especially important to have an overall balanced and nutritious diet. Tracking macronutrients (carbs, fats, and protein) with tools such as MyFitnessPal would help a lot.

You can build muscle at a faster rate if you eat about 10% more than your weight-maintenance calories/total daily energy expenditure. Of course that would detract from the fat loss, so people who want to lose fat and increase muscle mass usually try to only do one at a time ("cutting" and "bulking" cycles). For this extra 10%, the calories can come from carbs or (yet more, lol) protein.

How do I get abs?
To get abs (assuming you already have sufficiently low body fat), you need to train your upper abs, lower abs, and obliques. Technically you can just train one of those areas and still “have abs”... but they won’t look the abs that are popularly advertised, haha.

What is the difference between a four-pack, a six-pack, and an eight-pack?
Whether you have a four-pack, a six-pack, and an eight-pack depends on your level of abdominal muscle definition and/or your genetics. A person with a four-pack may get a six-pack by training more or reducing their body fat percentage. But it is also possible that that person, by virtue of their genetics, has abdominal muscles structured in such a way that makes it incredibly difficult or impossible to get a six-pack! I would recommend that you take what you can get and not become obsessed with six-packs or eight-packs.

How long does it take to get abs?
It depends on how much fat you need (or don't need) to lose and on how often you are able to train. It took me about 1-2 months, but I luckily didn't need the fat loss portion...

3) A Simple Ab Workout Routine


Here is the super simple routine that I find best! 
Duration: 30 - 45 minutes
Equipment: None! A yoga/exercise mat would make it more comfortable, though.
Apps: For timing the sets/reps, I recommend the Intervals app!

Exercise 1: Sit-ups (or crunches) 
Targeted muscles: upper abs/entire abdominal region
Sets: 4
Reps: 25
Rest: 30 seconds between each set
Tips: Avoid using your hips or “bouncing” to make it easier. Keep your feet planted and legs stable. You get more out of sit-ups if you do them at a slower, more controlled pace.

Exercise 2: Leg raises
How to do leg raises (but you don’t actually need a bench)
Targeted muscles: lower abs
Sets: 5
Reps: 20
Rest: 30 seconds between each set
Tips: Don’t let your feet touch the floor during a set. Don’t swing your legs to make it easier. You also get more out of leg raises if you do them more slowly.

Exercise 3: Russian twists
How to do Russian twists (Weights are optional. I just touch the ground on each side and hold it for half a second!)
Targeted muscles: obliques
Sets: 5
Reps: I either go for 1 minute at a steady but fast pace or aim to do 50 touches (25 for each side).
Rest: 40 seconds between each set
Tips: Make sure that from the side, your torso and legs form a “V” shape (and are both about 45 degrees off the floor). I personally find the workout more strenuous if I hold the twisted position/touch the ground for a little bit longer on each side.
Note that the number of reps and sets in this three-exercise routine are my personal preferences for my goal of muscle maintenance. You may want to adjust the numbers depending on your strength level or fitness goals!
--
And that’s it for this guide! Thank you so much for reading it. I hope you find it helpful. If you have any recommendations or corrections for this guide or if you know any relevant new fitness studies, please let me know!

3 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this guide ^___^ i am totally in awe of your body and dedication. No wonder whatever you wear looks amazing on you!!

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome! I'm happy that you enjoyed my post. ^^
      Ahh not at all. >_< I just want to be the strongest that I can be. The process is slow but worth it!

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