One of the most unfortunate obsessions in the fitness world is the chase for the aesthetics of six-pack abs, rather than the body’s core strength. So pervasive is this that those working towards gaining a good-looking midriff often follow the wrong routines, the wrong form, and the wrong science in their quest. In the process, we forget the biggest and most surprising ab-hack: it’s actually simpler to unlock abs than you’d think.
The first and probably the toughest hurdle in this path is body fat. “When people take their initial steps into fitness, they believe that working on one area of the body to remove fat is possible. Well, it’s not. To lose fat, you need to do two things. The first is basic maths: burn more calories than you consume. The second is training your full body, and not just the parts you want to lose fat in,” says Anmol Gupta, a strength and conditioning coach based out of Delhi. The 27-year-old is a CrossFit trainer and also plays club-level basketball.
He says that the abs are a muscle group just like any other in the body, and therefore shouldn’t be overtrained. This could lead to lower back issues. “Repping out hundreds of crunches is not going to give you abs,” Gupta adds.
Which brings us to the biggest question: what is the best way to work on your abs, and how long should ab workouts be? “Focus of ab workouts should shift from the stereotypical ‘cuts and love handles’ based training to strengthening the core. My solution is to focus on keeping your core engaged while you do all your other workouts too. Then twice a week, pop in a quick six-eight minute ab workout which isn’t too complicated: slow and controlled crunches, leg-raises, and Russian twists. It’s dry and boring but when done well, can give you beautiful results,” says wellness coach Palash Bhise.
Bhise, just like Gupta, adds a lot of compound movements to his workouts. According to an article, What Are Compound Exercises? On the Australian Fitness Academy website, “…compound exercises use multiple muscle groups at the same time to perform a movement. A good example of a compound exercise is the squat; it uses many muscles in the legs and lower body, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes as well as engaging the core and lower back.” Gupta particularly loves the overhead squat as an excellent exercise for the core and abs, given that to complete the movement, one has to shoulder press a barbell and perform a squat at the same time.
He explains that abs are a part of the core, and says that this is something that is often forgotten in gyms. “You could say that the muscle groups under my chest and above my knees make up the core. That doesn’t mean just tightening the stomach. Look at fielders in cricket—they push the hip back and engage the glutes. This is something very few people do in a traditional gym set-up,” he says
During his ab core workouts, Gupta alternates between time-based and tempo-based routines. A time-based routine is one where you perform an exercise for as many reps as possible in a certain amount of time within a minute, and take quick rests between sets. The 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off routine works very well with abs. His favourites are pike sit-ups, V-ups, bicycle crunches, decline leg-raises, and hollow rocks. “I use the same few exercises for my tempo-based workouts as well. That means taking three to five seconds for every rep to increase time-under-tension. It will light up your abs like never before if you do 20 bicycle crunches, taking five seconds for each rep. Try it.”
Bhise’s “dry and boring” core workout, as he likes to call it, also includes planks (sometimes he rests in a plank between sets), hanging leg-raises and any exercise that requires core rotation. Another trick he suggests is to train your core as part of the warm-up. “Some people use the treadmill and some get their pushups out of the way while warming up. But doing abs first will wake up your core and that means your key lifts will be stronger. And stronger key lifts means a wholesome workout,” he says.
Of course, one has to take care of what they’re eating. ‘Abs are made in the kitchen’ is typical fitness jargon, but it is also true. Bhise understands that not everyone can go through intermittent fasting like he does, but there are workarounds to making dieting fun. “90 percent clean eating, 10 percent room for indulgence. Slide in a little reward here and there, like some dark chocolate. Sometimes I attach rewards to meals that I might not have enjoyed.” He says discipline in the kitchen will make you approach ab-training with the same fervour. “Your abs will vanish if you revert to a bad diet,” he adds ominously.
Both Gupta and Bhise agree on the fact that it’s important to find a sweet spot when it comes to ab training: somewhere between what is doable, with an extra challenge now to get stronger with time. “You’ll get there, maybe in a year, but it’s better than having a plan for two months, getting a six pack, and then seeing them go away because you couldn’t keep up with it,” says Bhise.
So the next time someone asks you to rep out a 100 crunches and 200 sit-ups, know the folly in that. Ab training doesn’t need so many reps, and is simpler, and even more fun than it is usually made to seem.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.