You’ve been working your core since high school and still can’t see your abs. It’s a common complaint: The elusive six-pack is one of women’s most frustrating fitness conundrums. But—get this—the solution isn’t planking for hours on end. It’s burning fat.
“You can do all of the crunches you want, but unless you are addressing fat, you are going to be spinning your wheels,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Tony Gentilcore, cofounder of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. Now, that’s not to say crunches, planks, and cable chops can’t strengthen your core muscles—which is important if you want a tight, flat stomach—but core strengtheners don’t burn the little layer of fat that sits between your abs and skin. No matter how strong you get your core muscles, belly fat has the potential to mask them from sight.
Most women need to get their body fat percentage down to about 20 percent to uncover the abs they’ve worked so hard to strengthen, says Gentilcore, but that exact number is a little bit different for every woman since each one carries her fat in different areas. If you don’t carry it in your belly, consider yourself lucky. Remember that lower isn’t always better, though. Having too low of a body-fat percentage (generally about 16 percent or lower) can cause your estrogen levels to drop, your periods to cease, and your bones to weaken, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Also (and while it’s completely unfair!), it’s important to keep in mind that it’s easier for men to sport a six-pack than it is for women. “Women’s hormones program them to have a higher body-fat percentage than men,” says Gentilcore. So if you’re doing the same workout as your boyfriend and his stomach is more ripped than yours, don’t beat yourself up.
So how do you actually get your body fat percentage where it needs to be? Here’s how Gentilcore recommends prioritizing your plan of attack:
You need to burn more calories than you’re taking in to burn fat, and the most efficient way to do that is to practice clean eating, he says. Why? Think of it this way: To shave 500 calories from your day, you could either forgo that whipped cream-topped blended coffee beverage or spend about 45 minutes sweating it out on the treadmill. Which one seems easier to you?
MORE: 4 Foods That Burn Belly Fat
2. Strength Training
Multi-joint exercises like squats, rows, bench presses, and lunge variations are crucial to a six-pack. “These exercises train a lot of muscles, meaning you’ll have to work harder [than if you performed isolation moves],” says Gentilcore. You’ll also burn crazy calories both during and—since building muscle boosts your metabolism—after your workout. Bonus: Performing multi-joint moves requires you to use your core muscles to brace yourself and keep correct form, which means you’ll sculpt your abs while you’re burning fat. Still, when focusing on strength training, it’s important to incorporate core-specific moves, such as planks and cable chops, so that you have toned muscles to show off once that fat is burned.
MORE: A 5-Move Workout to Fire Up Your Muscles and Boost Your Metabolism
Getting your heart rate up is vital for your health, but when it comes to burning calories and uncovering those abs, it’s far less efficient than proper nutrition and strength training. Plus, compared to strength training, cardio tends to burn a greater number of calories from muscle. That said, you shouldn’t leave cardio out of your abs-training plan entirely. Circuits and high-intensity intervals can also help you carve a killer core, and they burn more calories (and in less time) than steady-state cardio.
MORE: 7 Reasons To Try High-Intensity Interval Training