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Abs are hard to tone, first to bulge, and thoroughly unforgiving after overindulging. The key to firming a flabby middle? Finding the right exercise plan. We helped four readers create dedicated eight-week workout routines in order to lose a stubborn pooch, love handles, post-pregnancy pudge, and a too-round tummy. Three of the women followed a mix of cardio and strength moves designed by Paul Frediani, a senior trainer at Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York City; the fourth practiced Pilates with a private trainer. The women also consulted New York-based nutritionist Lauren Antonucci, RD, for healthy eating suggestions. Here's how they fared in the battle of the belly bulge.
Weight: 144 lb.
Body fat: 25%
Weight: 141 lb.
Body fat: 23%
"Jess was training for a marathon when we started working together, so she was already pretty fit," says Frediani. "She just needed to strategically focus on her abs to get rid of her extra pooch." Jess did strength moves like biceps curls, shoulder presses, and back extensions while seated on a stability ball or standing on a balance board twice a week to work her core muscles. In addition, she ran three to four times a week, combining distance, interval, and steady-paced workouts.
To de-flab Jess's middle while fueling up for training, Antonucci told her to eat a healthier breakfast and add more protein and fiber to her diet. The dietitian advised having egg whites or low-fat yogurt with whole grains like cereal in the morning, followed by a balanced lunch and dinner, plus two healthy snacks during the day.The Ab-Solution
Three weeks into her plan, Jess noticed a difference in her waistline. When she popped in for a visit with her parents after four weeks, her mother's first words were "Wow! You've slimmed down!" The next weekend, she pulled on a pair of old jeans and was shocked to find that they slipped on without being unbuttoned. After eight weeks, she'd dropped a full dress size and lost three pounds, 2 percent body fat, and 2 inches from her waist. Her abs were firm and flat, and her arms, legs, and butt were noticeably more toned. "To celebrate, I went and bought two new pairs of size 6 pants!"Favorite Move: Balancing Oblique Twist
Stand on a balance board, holding a 12-pound medicine ball with arms extended. Rotate from side to side. "Balancing on the board forces me to use my abs and work harder than just sitting on a machine," says Jess.
Weight: 132.5 lb.
Body fat: 27%
Weight: 127.5 lb.
Body fat: 23%
Frediani put Lisa on a twice-weekly strength program with exercises that worked several muscle groups at once, such as squats and shoulder presses, plus stability ball moves to target her deep abs for a flatter, firmer look. She also did 40 to 60 minutes of fat-blasting cardio four to five times a week, with a mix of steady-paced workouts on the treadmill and Spinning classes.
Because Lisa's job involves dining out, Antonucci suggested she eat small meals like fruit and nonfat cottage cheese every few hours to prevent overeating and also advised consuming less alcohol and drinking more water.The Ab-Solution
At first, her program went fairly smoothly. She found herself looking forward to her workouts and the "good soreness" that she felt. Then a business trip three weeks into her program sidelined her workout and diet plans. Back home, she hired NuKitchen, a company that delivers meals and snacks daily based on a set amount of calories, to get a handle on portion control. By the following week, her clothes were noticeably looser in the waist and hips.
After two months, Lisa dropped a pant size and lost five pounds, 4 percent body fat and an inch from her waist and hips. "I definitely noticed the changes happening in my body, and I could see my love handles going away," she says. "I'm thrilled at how my clothes look on me now!"Favorite Move: Biceps Curl on Stability Ball
Sit on a stability ball with knees bent 90 degrees, feet on the floor, holding a 10-pound dumbbell in each hand. Curl weights toward shoulders; hold 1 count and release. To increase the intensity, lift one foot off the floor.
Weight: 209 lb.
Body fat: 34.5%
Weight: 191.5 lb.
Body fat: 29.5%
Julie was struggling to lose 20 pounds left over from her second pregnancy; she also wanted to heal a sore back and tone a flabby middle. She met with an instructor twice a week at Power Pilates in New York City. "Pilates is perfect for new moms, because it helps strengthen the deep abdominal muscles that are stretched out during pregnancy," notes Howard Sichel, CEO of Power Pilates. In addition to Pilates, Julie did 30 to 40 minutes of cardio four times a week, including running, stair-climbing, elliptical training, and cycling.
Antonucci recommended that Julie cut back on snacking -- especially on her 3-year-old's leftovers -- which added an average of 200 to 300 extra calories a day. In addition, she made healthier food selections such as a salad with grilled chicken or a veggie burger with steamed cauliflower.The Ab-Solution
"On my first day I felt big and clumsy," says Julie. In the beginning, her lower back hurt from having to compensate for weak abs. But by the end of the third week her back pain had disappeared, and she was seeing results. Her husband noticed too. "One night we were leaving for dinner and out of the blue he said, 'You look really great.'"Favorite Move: Scissors
Lie faceup on floor. Lift left leg 6 inches and right leg toward ceiling. Bring shoulders off the mat and grasp right calf. Gently pull right leg toward head twice; switch sides. Pull twice on each leg before alternating sides.
Weight: 137 lb.
Body fat: 25.5%
Weight: 131.5 lb.
Body fat: 25%
Because she found strength training boring, Emily did a boot-camp-type workout, using body weight for resistance. Between moves such as crunches, leg raises, and push-ups, she jogged or did jumping jacks for one minute. "The circuit was designed to blast calories and strengthen all her muscles, especially her core, without letting her get bored," says Frediani. She also did 30 to 60 minutes of low-impact cardio such as swimming or the elliptical machine three to four times a week.
Antonucci noticed that Emily ate lots of starches but not a lot of protein, produce, or dairy, which may have contributed to her apple-shaped middle. The dietitian suggested that Emily, who does not eat meat, add more fish, dairy, and soy to her diet.The Ab-Solution
Emily's first two weeks started strong: She learned new exercises and started seeing results. "I was surprised to feel stronger after just a couple of weeks," she says. Unfortunately, her early progress slowed because of vacations, workplace pressures, and her upcoming wedding. Even so, small dietary changes helped her avoid weight gain, and she still managed to work out once or twice a week. By the end of the eight weeks, her training paid off: "My fiance noted that my abs had more definition -- and even at my thinnest, I've never had any visible muscle tone there!"Favorite Move: Stability Ball Crunch
Lie on a stability ball with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and hands behind head. Tighten abs and lift shoulders off ball. Hold 1 count; return to start. "This exercise supports my back but isolates my abs," says Emily.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July 2006.