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Did you know crunches are one of the worst ways to get a six pack (and can even harm your spine)? Read on to find out how to get that definition safely. Photo by Jonathan Borba

The DAO of Abs*

So let me ask you some questions. How many articles do you see that say, get a six-pack in 30 days? How many people do you see on the stretch mats on the gym doing a bajillion crunches, or flailing around doing some painful looking twisting exercise. Are you that person? It’s ok, your secret is safe with me. I was that person. The fitness industry gaslighting is fierce, y’all.

Let’s start by debunking some of this click-bait. First of all, did you know you have a six-pack already? Those are the muscles in the rectus abdominis, but only a small part of what is your “core,” which are all of the muscles that wrap around the front, back and sides. In fact, your “core” consists of more than 36 different muscles! And that rectus abdominis is the outermost and final layer! 

There are two key ways to get a healthy core, or six pack (or maybe 4-pack, which is totally respectable). First, focus on diet. This is why the saying abs are made in the kitchen – a nutritious diet with lean proteins and vegetables as a core staple is the foundation. 

The second layer is incorporating cardio. Without cardio, you won’t burn enough calories to see results. The third layer is some targeted precision training and ab work, which I will describe below. 

Hot yoga – one of the best for quickly toned muscles, including abs 

Why am I suggesting this? I can say unequivocally that I saw the fasted changes to the visibility of my ab muscles after just a few hot yoga classes. First, because of the heat, it burns more calories than “regular” yoga. So, it checks that box. Your body will need more oxygen, forcing you to breathe more deeply and thus getting more oxygent to the muscles.

All of the control in the poses comes from core work. While your core is working, you are also profusely sweating. This combination with the intense outbreath from your flow is guaranteed to make your abs pop! The beauty of the outbreath is that it also makes those tougher poses and that burn a little bit more manageable because you are literally focusing on taking in more oxygen- and your whole body is working harder but what feels like for less because you are using all of your system in synchronicity.

If you haven’t done hot yoga before, I highly recommend trying. And it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. A couple of tips to make the class experience the best one:

  • Once you book your class, call in advance to ask what equipment you will need. Many studios provide snacks for rent but you may want to consider bringing your own mat. The best ones I have seen are the Lululemon thick sticky mats and the Manduka mats. 
  • Another absolute must is to bring a big bottle of ice cold water. It will cool you down as you heat up so it’s more of a balance. Hydration before, during, and after (just like any form of exercise) is key. Even mild dehydration can cause some issues such dizziness to vast changes in blood pressure. 
  • I would also recommend that eating at least 2 1/2 hours before is preferable, so as not to get an upset stomach. My preferred pre-yoga meal is something simple like nut butter on top of a piece of sprouted grain toast, with a little honey drizzled for extra energy. 
  • Wear dark clothing at least for your first class on the bottom because you don’t know how much you’ll be sweating. No white or cream pants!! 

Another bonus is that getting acclimated to the heated yoga will actually help your body cool down faster when it’s hot outside. And in case you didn’t notice, it’s already a sweltering hot summer.

If this isn’t your jam, there are plenty of great options you can do at home, which I will get into next.

Pilates-based ab workouts 

Chloe Ting workout

I am actually pretty lazy about doing abs on my own when I work out. I usually save it for the end of my strength training workout, and by then I am lazy and looking at my phone between some half-hearted sets. I need a structured ab workout, and don’t want to always have to pay for an app when there are SO many great ab workouts. 

The first one I have learned about recently is the Chloe Ting flat stomach challenge. You can go  to her site and download playlists of any type of challenge you want to do, whether it be full body, abs, arms, etc. It takes you straight to YouTube and downloads the playlist, making it supereasy. Once you start doing the workout, she doesn’t waste a lot of time and goes straight into it. It’s also nice because you get a countdown of how much time is left. Her exercises aren’t necessarily novel, but they are well put together in a sequence that will hit every part of your abs and do not require any equipment but a mat (but I have also done it on carpet). If you have a mirror near by, that might be especially helpful because you may be able to see how your form is doing. 

These workouts allow a customized playlist and also give you a heads up on how much time is left until the next segment. What I like about Chloe Ting is she’s very low key and businesslike, with a simple background and very minimal cueing.

Blogilates 

An equally impressive source of free, quick ab workout is Cassie Ho’s blogilates channel. She also has an app. This is another series of short workouts targeted at various body parts but she has a lot to do with abs. For example, you can choose a menu exclusively with ab workouts. And they are all challenging, but you can customize to do one in as little as five minutes, as pictured here:

The great thing about both of the above apps is that even if you can’t work out that day, you can squeeze in a quick 5-10 session right before you go to work, when you get home while prepping dinner (hello, Instant Pot) or even if you are working at home and you only have a few minutes between calls.

If I had to advise which one is better, both are free, so it takes that off the table. I would say that if you don’t like chirpy instructors, go with Chloe. She has more of a monotone and pretty much blends in the background. Cassie is peppy and it can get borderline annoying if you aren’t in the right mood (like, say you have a deadline and had four hours of sleep – wouldn’t recommend). BUT, she does stay more true to Pilates and has much more variety of workouts, plus I would just say that her workouts are more difficult. I tend to do a little of both, depending on what kind of workout I want and what mood I am in.

Ab circuit training at home or on vacation

Or if you want to keep it more simple, try this workout from SkinnyMs. She recommends doing 1 round for beginners, 2 rounds for intermediate, and 4 rounds for advance. Do each exercise for 30 seconds and rest 10 minutes afterwards. You can use the Interval timer to time yourself

Beginner Level: Complete 1 round.

Intermediate Level: Complete 3 rounds.

Advanced Level: Complete 4 rounds.

Exercises:

  • Abdominal Twist
  • Plank
  • Reverse Ab Curl
  • Side Plank (15 seconds each side)
  • Scissor Twist
  • Flutter Kicks
The good thing about abs is that you can do a lot of the workout with no equipmennt and take it with you. If I go somewhere scenic on vacation, I usually do a run or a long walk and mix in some abs when I stop to take in a nice view.

Ab training at the gym

I like doing the following exercises with gym equipment:

During and after workout tips to solidify your ab results. 

  • It’s not a race! Don’t rush the movements. You know how you see those people flailing through kicks or twists. Yeah, they look ridic. Plus, the real work comes in both the contraction and the release. The more you can slow this down and engage your breath, the fewer reps you have to do and the better the results. 
  • Your breath is your best friend here. Inhale on the release, and exhale on the transaction, as if you were blowing out a birthday cake candle. That will maximize the contraction and also keep you going through the reps withou getting red in the face.
  • For exercises when you are flat on your back, tuck your chin to your chest to protect your neck. A good visual cue is to pretend you have a large grapefruit you are trying to keep from falling out. Also, many of these exercises aren’t dramatically better with raising your neck and head, so if that feels better, leave them down.
  • If your hip flexors are tight or start to get strained, that’s probably still from weakness in your core. Until you don’t feel that pull, do the modifications that the two instructors I mentioned above recommend, which often involve bending or lowering your legs.
  • When doing plank, look no more than a few inches in front of you and DOWN. You don’t want to know how many times I have caught women in barre or yoga class checking their shoulders out in the mirror while doing planks. Can’t blame them, because that angle makes everyone’s shoulders look awesome, but making that a habit will throw both your neck and shoulders out of whack!
  • You don’t have to train your abs every single day. Just like any muscle, they need recovery. You should certainly do exercises to activate your core if you are strength training (deadbugs is a good example)
  • Drink PLENTY of water, at least a liter or two before and after the workout. (Especially if it’s hot yoga). 
  • Make sure you get enough protein and carbs within 30 minutes of your workout.  For more of that, read my post on pre and post-workout nutrition
  • Stretch, including the front, back and sides. If you are working, standing side bends will open up your side body. At night, do a few cobras to stretch out the front of your abs and strengthen your spine. 

*The content in this article was peer reviewed by Neda Khalili, NASM certified trainer

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