Looking to upgrade your midriff? That’s sensible: a strong core is what connects your upper and lower body, enhancing your stability and making you better at almost anything.
Whether you’re grabbing a box off the floor, tying your laces, swinging a squash racket or piloting a kayak down whitewater, a strong core will make you better at it – and if you’re low enough on body fat, it’ll also look good.
But myths about how to train your midsection abound, and many core strength training tips fall well short of the mark. Here’s what you need to know.
Train your abs like any other muscle
Recently, it’s become fashionable to claim that ‘compound’ movements like the deadlift, squat or overhead-press train your core enough – and that there’s no need for supplemental effort.
While there’s some truth to this – studies on muscle activation in the abs show that, for instance, chin-ups can actually work them more effectively than crunches – building a genuinely strong core means dedicated movements. Aim to train your abs once or twice a week – given them time to recover just like you would any other muscle.
Use low-rep workouts (sometimes)
You (hopefully) wouldn’t expect to build strong arms by doing hundreds and hundreds of curls with tiny plastic water bottles – instead, you’d progressively overload them with increasing resistance, using a low rep range to force them to work and get strong.
For the same reason, doing dozens of sit-ups can be counterproductive – instead, aim to use movements that test your abs over a 5-12 rep range, like weighted crunches or hanging leg raises.
Bracing is better than flexing
Reports are mixed on whether sit-ups are actually bad for you – most studies that consider the spinal effects of repeated flexing movements use, no joke, pig spines that are repeatedly bent by machines – but since your core’s role in everyday life is to keep you strong, stable and upright, your training regime should mimic at least some of those movements.
Use moves like the hollow rock, where you form a ‘dish’ shape with your entire body and then rock backwards and forwards on the floor, to test your ability to remain rigid under pressure. Three sets of 10 controlled reps is excellent work.
Slow movements are better than fast ones
Watch most people do ab exercises, and they’ll crank out dozens of ineffective reps, rather than concentrating on a few slow, controlled ones.
The Russian twist is a classic example. Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet lifted slightly, then shift your torso to one side and then the other. The trick? Most people just swing their arms left and right, rather than turning their entire upper body as a unit – tough to do for more than eight reps, but incredibly efficient at building a steely midsection.
Ab exercises can be effective
Traditionally, most gym-goers do abs last – this makes a lot of sense, as the core stabilises the body during other movements, so wearing it down before squats, chin-ups or even overhead presses can make those movements less effective. The problem? By leaving abs until last, you’re likely to lose concentration as you hit them. Instead, aim to do abs-only mini-workouts a couple of times a week – three sets of a minute’s plank with a minute’s rest, followed by a couple of rounds of rollouts or dead bugs, should do the trick.
You can’t just burn belly fat
You can’t lose fat specifically from one area of the body by exercising it more – your body draws from fat reserves all over the body, so the only way to get ripped abs is to reduce your overall body fat percentage.
One caveat, though: some studies suggest that an excess of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to fat being stored in the abdomen rather than elsewhere, so while you should still watch your diet, there’s also a case to be made for stressing less to trim down. Consider getting a meditation app, walking in nature for at least ten minutes a day, and otherwise cutting down on stress.
Watch your diet (if it’s worth it)
If you want to see the outline of your six-pack, you’ll need to be around 12% body fat or less – and if you want genuinely ripped abs, you’ll have to get to less than 10%.
The best way to do it: up your intake of protein and vegetables, which both fill you up and provide much-needed nutrients, and cut down on unnecessary, empty calories from booze, sugar and overly-processed foods.
It’ll take at least a few weeks for you to see results – and then you’ll need to maintain your new-found lifestyle to keep them. Remember: a six-pack isn’t really a great marker for health, so consider if it’s worth it to you.