It’s the hottest month of the year and everyone is striving for that coveted six-pack—or at least a slimmer middle. And everyone has their own ideas about what they need to do to score the results they want. Some of them are right on track. Others, not so much.
Here, experts share the four most common strategies that, although well-meaning, can sabotage your abs efforts and keep that dream middle out of reach.
1. Getting Caught Up with the Little Stuff
Spend too much time on the interwebs (or just talking with your health-fanatic friends about the latest diet craze), and you can quickly get sucked into trivial little ideas about fat loss, explains board-certified sports dietitian Georgie Fear, R.D., C.S.S.C., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.
“You see people who won’t eat bananas because they are high in sugar or peas because they are high in starches, but who can’t lose weight because they are still eating too many calories overall,” she says. “They get so focused on the details that they can’t see the big picture.” Sound familiar?
The solution: Before you get too laser-focused on the little things, remember that shedding fat is about taking in fewer calories than you burn. So focus in on the few key behaviors that have the biggest impact on your calories-in-calories-out equation, Fear says.
Exercise is definitely a major way to help you move the calories-out needle, but adjusting your nutrition can be an even more effective strategy. After all, it’s far easier to swap out a 400-calorie dessert for a 100-calorie piece of fruit than it is to burn 300 calories at the gym. To start shaving extra calories out of your day, Fear recommends nixing sugary, processed foods and cutting way back on alcohol. For most people, those two simple changes make a significant difference, she says.
2. Skipping the Weights
In many exercisers’ minds, cardio is still king. But when it comes to torching that layer of fat hiding your abs from view, it’s anything but. In fact, 2015 research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that, minute-per-minute, strength training is far more effective at fighting abdominal fat compared to cardio.
The solution: Cardio (especially high-intensity cardio) still has a place in your workout routine, but if you’re aiming for a tighter, more chiseled-looking stomach, resistance training is where it’s at. “Try to strength train at least four to five times per week, even if it’s only for 30 minutes at home,” says Mark Barroso, C.P.T. Barroso recommends focusing your lifting sessions on “structural exercises” that recruit one or more large muscle groups at once while loading the spine. Think barbell back squats, deadlifts, and standing shoulder presses. Because these moves recruit multiple major muscle groups, they give you a huge metabolic boost—but they also work your core in a big way. (But more on that next…)
3. Putting Too Much Focus on “Abs Exercises”
Crunches and planks are great, but if you spend so much time performing them that you don’t have time for all of those structural exercises we just mentioned, there’s a problem. After all, findings published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research show that structural exercises actually train the muscles of the core more than traditional core-specific exercises do (think supermans and side-bridges). And they definitely burn more calories.
Related: The 5 Most Effective Abs Exercises
The solution: Program your workouts so that you save exercises specifically for your abs for right before your cool-down. That way you can make sure every single upper, lower, and total-body exercise you perform also hits your core, says Barroso. Squeeze your core like you’re about to get punched in the gut and maintain good posture with a long, neutral spine as you perform your structural lifts, he says. You’ll immediately feel (and see) your core working like never before. Bonus: Engaging your core increases your total-body strength, meaning you might even be able to go up in weight.
4. Going Super-Low on Carbs
Despite what fad diets everywhere would have you believe, cutting carbs can easily throw your six-pack results into reverse. “It can sap your body of the energy you need for tough workouts and decrease sleep quality, which is repeatedly linked to weight gain and higher levels of abdominal fat,” says Fear. Research published in Nutritional Neuroscience even shows that people following very low-carb diets spend less time in the restorative REM stage of sleep. (This may be because the hormones your body produces to help convert fat into energy when carbs are M.I.A. also affect sleep.) Plus, when you cut down on whole-food carbs, you automatically reduce your fiber intake, she says. That can trigger constipation and bloating, and leave you feeling hungrier—none of which will give you the sleek-looking middle you want.
The solution: Fear recommends paying less attention to cutting all carbs, and more attention to replacing refined carbs (like white bread, crackers, and pretzels) with whole ones (like sweet potatoes, quinoa, and fruit). “Focusing on good-quality choices is all most people really need to do,” she says. To keep your carb intake under control, fill a quarter of each meal’s plate with starchy carbs like whole grains or potatoes and half of your plate with non-starchy veggies (like leafy greens or zucchini) or fruit. (Save that last quarter for carbs.)
If you exercise for more than an hour, you may need some additional carbs to fuel your performance and promote recovery on those days, says Fear. On more intense workout days, up your starches to fill a full third of your plate, she says.