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Why a strong core is more important than six pack abs

If you want to be truly fit and strong, stop obsessing about the perfect body shape and focus on strengthening your core instead

Gain true fitness by strengthening your core.
Gain true fitness by strengthening your core. (Istockphoto)

A 28-year-old with a “dad bod” is named the MVP after he makes the right throws and runs his heart out to help Kansas City Chiefs win a second Super Bowl title in two years. His name is Patrick Mahomes, a three-time Super Bowl winner and MVP and star of Netflix series Quarterback. Mahomes’s physique and shape came under fire after he put up a shirtless image of himself during a post-game celebration in the dressing room, just after his team had secured their place in the biggest game night in all American sports. He was called bloated, fat and also dissed as someone sporting a beer gut. 

So venomous and vile is the online world, that even a serial winner and one of the best athletes in the world is not immune to completely unwarranted body shaming. Mahomes, however, is wiser than to lash out at these faceless, nameless, cowardly critics, and his spirited response was: “I have a six pack, it’s just under the dad bod. If you feel, there might be some skin there, but underneath that, the six pack is there. You just gotta get real close and squint a little bit. I think you’ll see it.” 

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The connection he makes between true core strength and athleticism is instructive. This is the year of the Olympics, and chances are that you will see a lot of top athletes who are fit and fast but don’t flaunt a six-pack or a flat midriff: Weightlifters who effortless move 200kg overhead, boxers who knock opponents out with a punch or two, wrestlers, shot put throwers or hammer throwers with a big gut. Neither Mahomes, nor the Olympics athletes are unfit or have a weak core. The fact that they are playing at the highest level is proof of their fitness and strength. It is as Mahomes says, their six pack is under a layer of fat and skin.

 “The elusive six pack is a superficial muscle below the chest. It’s an eight pack for some, and in some freak cases the rectus abdominis has a pack of 10 muscle biscuits. It’s visible due to lower levels of body fat in the trunk region,” says A.K. Abhinav, Bengaluru-based coach and founder of Namma Crossfit. No matter how fit you are, most times the six pack is just not visible, as humans tend to accumulate fat in the trunk and stomach region. 

“Our body generally stores fat first in the trunk region and as you cease physical activity you tend to store fat closer to the extremities of your body… around your palms, legs and face,” adds Abhinav. Regular physical activity and exercise will start burning fat around the extremities first and in the stomach region last of all.

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Does a lack of visible abs means you’re lacking? Far from it. So, instead of fixating on useless crunches in the pursuit of cosmetic abs, focus on getting your core stronger. You will find that you are not only happier, but also fitter and performing your routine tasks and recreational sports much better and more efficiently. 

Strengthening the core and all the muscles that surround and support the spine, will help our legs and the rest of the body also grow stronger. Core strength comes from a combination of isometric holds, strength training and cardio, contrary to the popular belief that planks alone would do the trick. “We see a lot of people doing planks for five minutes. You can do it for five years but you will never get a strong core. Mix it up, just like your fitness routine,” says Abhinav.

For a strong core, your focus ought to be on stimulating skeletal muscle by including weightlifting, calisthenics, gymnastics, swimming and sprinting alongside isometric holds. Start by lifting low to moderate loads and focus on refining your technique, advises Abhinav, before progressing to heavier loads and more complex movements like the clean and jerk. 

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Some of the best core strengthening exercises are isometric holds such as planks, side planks, the superman hold, Copenhagen planks and glute bridges, as well as advanced isometric holds such as L-sit and L-hang. Instead of wasting time doing crunches, incorporate single arm suitcase deadlifts, hanging leg raises and single arm planks in your training programme. All of these activate the abdominal muscles to stabilise the body and enhance core strength.

Since a strong core requires a variety of exercises from weightlifting to cardio to isometric holds, you just might end up with visible abs if you also tweak your food and nutrition a wee bit. But for best results, focus on your core and not on abs. For that perfect social media picture, filters are easier than losing sleep. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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