To Get Great Abs, Should You Focus On Your Workout Or Your Diet?

When it comes to toning and building muscle, here's your answer.

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“Abs are made in the kitchen.” How many times have you heard this phrase? Whenever I do, I can’t help but imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger in an apron, whisking the contents of a mixing bowl with vigor, his personal “recipe” for sensational muscles being prepared like some muffin batter at the kitchen counter.

Obviously, the phrase is not meant to be taken quite so literally, but what, exactly, does it mean? And perhaps more pressingly: is it even true?

First, some physiology. We all have muscles, from the bulkiest beef cake in the gym right down to the gangly teen who hasn’t quite grown into his or her own limbs yet. Without muscles, we wouldn’t be able to move. Period. But many people aren’t satisfied with simply knowing their muscles are in there, somewhere, hiding; they want to see them.

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What are the barriers to seeing them? For some, it’s simply a matter of building them up to be more visible on a regular basis. Many, many people, however, find that even if they’ve successfully trained their body, they don’t quite look “ripped” the way they wanted. This is more an issue of body fat percentage being too high; you could have washboard abs, but you’ll never see them if there’s a layer of fat over them.

Developed, defined muscles have more to do with the right training program than with diet, right? It’s true that if you’re looking to build muscle (ladies, you might call this “toning,” but I assure you, it’s still a process of building muscle) you have to work out. Specifically, you have to lift weights—and heavy ones at that. No amount of protein powder and kale juice will make your muscles magically grow if you don’t first train them. Similarly, if you want to lower your body fat, the appropriate exercise schedule can make a world of difference.

On the flip side, though, it’s entirely too easy to out-eat your gym session.

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Working out doesn’t  burn nearly as many calories as we tend to think it does. There’s a stark contrast between the effort it takes to burn 500 calories at the gym and to eat it in the form of Dunkin Donuts on your way home. This becomes an especially crucial piece to the puzzle if you fall into the camp of people looking to reduce body fat as opposed to strictly build muscle.

Even more importantly for the argument that muscles are “made” in the kitchen is the fact that we are, quite literally, what we eat. The foods we choose as fuel for our bodies determine everything internally. Do we have enough nutrients to build new cells and replace old ones? Do we have stable, usable energy? The foods we eat become the building blocks for our bodies. Fast food, lots of sweets, and caloric beverages give us empty energy, low in the nutrients that we need to recover and thrive. Look at foods less in terms of straight calories and more in terms of what that food has to offer you. Nourish your body and it will respond that much better to the demands you place on it.

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Now look: I am both a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, so obviously I’m going to tell you that both nutrition and fitness are crucial to wellness. In the gym, we correct our imbalances, build strength and mass, and hone power. In the kitchen, we fuel and recover.

Perhaps, then, it’s more appropriate to say that abs (or glutes, biceps, or quads) are in fact made in the gym; but they won’t truly shine unless you consider what’s going on in the kitchen, too.

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