You’ve been doing more cardio than a marathon runner. You’ve been doing crunches until just breathing makes your midsection ache. You’ve been busting out the ab roller so much, it needs new treads. But for some reason you still don’t have abs. Confused? You shouldn’t be. If you want your abs to show and really pop, you’re going about it all wrong, amigo. And your six pack is destined to forever stay hidden in the fridge.

Don’t feel so bad though, the vast majority of people have it all wrong when it comes to getting visible abs. Let’s break down two of the biggest misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Crunches Will Get You Abs

The general thought is that if you want abs, you have to train them. A lot. At the outset it makes sense, and it’s not entirely wrong; to strengthen your core and get your abs to pop, you do need to train them. But crunches, leg raises, sit ups, and ab rolling alone will never get you the abs you’re looking for.

Misconception #2: Cardio is the Key to a Shredded Core

I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true; cardio is not your secret to abs. The reasoning is simple: Most people blindly associate cardio with weight loss, and weight loss means abs, right? So by the transitive property, cardio is the key to abs.

Sort of. But not really.

Cardio can be a great piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the answer alone. It’s a catalyst. It isn’t cardio that actually leads to weight loss, which is why you’ll see so many individuals hit the gym and take to the cardio equipment day after day, yet when you see them months later, they still look overweight and out of shape.

The Real Secret to Abs

The real secret to abs is actually pretty simple – proper diet and nutrition. The common mantra in the health and fitness world is that “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym,” and it couldn’t be more true. Everyone has abs, but they aren’t always visible because in a lot of instances there is a layer of fat covering them. If you’re going to change that, you have to lower your body fat percentage, and to do that you need one thing: a calorie deficit.

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You have to intake slightly fewer calories than you burn in a day, which in turn forces your body to use stored fat for energy, thus burning the fat and leaving you leaner. Now that being said, cardio can help you with this – the extra calories burned can be calculated in to your caloric deficit for the day. But it’s still just one small part of a much bigger picture.

The same goes for ab training. Once you lower your body fat percentage and your abs start to pop, ab and core training is abs-olutely pertinent for keeping your midsection strong and conditioned. But again, it’s one small part of the bigger picture.

How to Implement a Calorie Deficit

To find your perfect calorie deficit, it’s going to take a little bit of math.

It starts with finding your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which is the number of calories your body burns in a day, at rest. In other words, it is the number of calories you would need to consume to maintain your current weight if you laid in bed and watched reruns of Alias all day. Then you factor in your level of activity and exercise frequency and intensity – called your TDEE or Total Daily Energy Expenditure – and find your magic number. I suggest using a free online BMR calculator to save yourself about 10 minutes and a page of scrap paper. The calculator linked above from IFFYM.com will ask you to answer several questions – including age, height, and activity levels – then email you two numbers; your BMR and your TDEE.

Once you know your TDEE, you want to subtract about 500-600 calories from that number to find your starting calorie deficit. For example, my BMR is 1728 and my TDEE is 2674. If I subtract 600 from my TDEE, I’m left with 2074 as my calorie deficit.

Remember, your number is going to depend on how active you are throughout your workday, how often you exercise, how intense your workouts are, and how much recreational activity you partake in. While I workout often and quite hard, my day job sees me sitting at a computer for the bulk of my day, and your TDEE calculations will factor such things in when it spits out your number.

It’s also important to note that this will all be just a starting point. You’ll most likely need to adjust your numbers as you progress and track how much weight and body fat you are losing, and at what rate. And when it comes to hitting your caloric numbers, the name of the game is clean eating – try to fill your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, greens, lean meats, nuts and beans, and plenty of water.

Getting abs isn’t as hard as most people tend to think, it just takes a bit of math and a lot of discipline. Armed with the right knowledge you’ll be on the road to ripped abs in no time. Honestly, it’s a piece of cake. That you can’t have.