If I had to pick the most egregious misconception in the fitness field conveyed in countless publications and most locker rooms, the washboard abs myth would be a serious contender.
The assertion invariably goes something like this: you don't get washboard abs because:
either you don't exercise your abs properly/enough
or what you need is a miracle "ripping" supplement
MIRACLE PILL RIP OFF
I am going to address the second part of this dubious statement first because the answer is short : there may be supplements that may help you get ripped (but not specifically ripped in the midsection) but if they do work then, either they are illegal (remember the phen-fen scandal 10 years ago http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fen-phen) or if they are still on the market they are hazardous to your health.
All these supplements act in pretty much the same way, by artificially increasing your Resting Metabolic Rate and/or suppress your appetite, which, especially for middle aged persons, may have deleterious consequences on their cardiovascular system and other vital organs.
So definitely stay away from any supplement that promises you to get ripped in 2 weeks: either they are a rip-off (pun intended) or, if they work, you are gambling with your health. The same pretty much goes for any miracle diet pill: they are either dangerous or the only thing they will slim down is your wallet.
EXERCISE ONLY GOES SO FAR
Now for the "exercise" explanation of why you can't get washboard abs: unless you are a complete beginner, chances are your abs routine is pretty much OK (simply make sure not to hurt you back while working out your abs, more on this in a subsequent post). You may be able to squeeze out 10 or 20% more efficiency out of your abs workout but this would not change the picture dramatically.
Many of you may have pegged your hope on some miracle abs machine. Not all of them are useless but their efficiency is systematically exaggerated by your proverbial shopping network host: none of these things will make the difference between a beer (or junk food) belly and a washboard.
So here is the "secret": by the time you are 40, 70% of the way your mid-section looks like is determined by a single parameter: your diet and only about 30% depends on your exercise regimen (these figures may be less clear cut :-) for athletes in their 20's but this principle would still remain valid).
In other words if your belly is fat, which is the case for the vast majority of people in their 40's and beyond, male or female, then you must change your diet.
BUT WHY WOULD YOU WANT A SLIM MIDSECTION ANYWAY?
In my opinion a fat belly is a particularly serious issue for two reasons: first, nothing makes you look older than a fat midsection, even for those who otherwise do not look their age. Not a single day passes by at the gym when I don't say to myself: "this guy would look great if only he did not have a belly to ruin his figure". What's the use spending countless hours at the gym if your belly can betray your age in a glance?
The second reason is even more dire: there is an overwhelming consensus in the medical community today that belly fat is tightly correlated with the risk of developing at least two life-threatening conditions: heart disease and diabetes even if your BMI stays normal
Having said that, if your concern is only to keep healthy you don't necessarily need a washboard anyway. A "moderate" belly albeit unsightly will not necessarily harm you: health risks start increasing with a waist circumference of 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women. To learn more about this topic I recommend you read this fine article from USA Today.
THE EXTREME ATHLETE'S BEER BELLY
I will always remember my encounter with this lovable 50-year old salesperson in a San Francisco bike shop last march. Not surprisingly this guy was a big-time bike enthusiast so we struck up a lively conversation during which he mentioned that he was riding an average of 200 miles a week!! (for the sake of comparison, my average is only about 50 miles, which in my opinion is enough to stay healthy). Guess what? This guy had a pot belly virtually indistinguishable from that of your average couch potato.
Even though I have been witnessing this phenomenon time and again at the gym, I was still fascinated by such a paradox because this guy probably burned in excess of 10,000 calories per week simply exercising. This really is an impressive figure for a 50-year old man.
Then came the explanation out of his own mouth that I had surmised the second he told me he biked that much: "yes I ride a lot and the good thing about it is I can eat whatever I want " NO YOU CAN'T (at least if you want a flat belly).
What he did not tell me is that he most likely also drank too much alcohol, probably beer (more on this in a later post).
THE "CALORIES IN/CALORIES OUT" BALANCE IS EVERYTHING
For most of us middle aged people, no matter how much we exercise, if we don't mind what we eat and drink, we will get fat. And in most men and some women this will first translate into a fat belly.
Exercising on a regular basis alone has never been proved to be efficient in keeping you thin, let alone making your belly flat. The only "secret" there is to keeping your waistline under control is disarmingly simple: Do not eat more calories than your body burns. If you waistline expands, cut back on the quantity of food and drink (except for water, coffee or tea) you take in. That's it.
Forget about these moronic miracle diet ads; food discipline is all it takes. I know this is easier said than done. But this is all you need to know to reach your goal if you really want a flat belly.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
I personally work out my abs only about 30 to 40 minutes a week without specific equipment and I don't take any supplement beside creatine (which does nothing for definition). On the other hand, as you probably know by now, I am a stickler for what I eat. You can see for yourself what my 30-inch waistline looks like in the above picture.