Olympic champion Sarah Lindsay shares her tried-and-tested formula
Sarah Lindsay “really doesn’t like doing loads of sit-ups”. That may seem hard to believe, looking at her uber-toned middle – but the three-time Olympic speed skater believes core strength is built elsewhere in the body.
While the bid for a summer six-pack may leave most of us blasting through crunches as soon as the first crack of sunlight shows, Lindsay says a shapely midriff is best achieved by working the obliques (the muscles around your waist) and glutes (in your buttocks) – rather than trying to “spot-reduce the body fat around your abs, which you can’t do”.
She adds that, “you actually have to be pretty lean around the mid-section to be able to see visible abs”. Still, a washboard stomach is a frequent goal cited by her clients at Roar Fitness, her personal-training outfit, which has three locations in London and one in Dubai. A six-pack remains the ultimate signifier “that you worked hard for that body, which shows discipline and also self-care … It’s like the pinnacle, as far as being fit goes,” says Lindsay. Plenty of her clients manage to achieve it, as the gym’s many astonishing “before” and “after” shots demonstrate.
Having trained celebrities including Ellie Goulding, Mel B, Christine Lampard and Sheridan Smith, Lindsay says that a regimen of three 45-minute weight-training sessions per week is particularly important for retaining muscle, which diminishes with age, and, of course, healthy eating is crucial to making changes that last.
So how does Lindsay, 43, maintain her own fitness? “I do like to exercise every day, whether it’s training or just a walk,” she says. But her now-perfected morning routine focuses on “longevity”, as opposed to smashing her personal bests. This includes keeping her phone off for the first hour on waking, ice baths, grounding (where you put bare feet on the ground outside – even if it’s raining) and daylight exposure, rolling her sleeves up to maximise vitamin D intake.
While not ultra-restrictive, she tells her clients: “I don’t care what you eat,” and gets through a few squares of Läderach chocolate each day. Her focus is on fuelling her body around her fitness needs.
Protein typically occupies the largest space on her plate. For breakfast, there are “always eggs”, usually with avocado or leftover salmon in order to up the unsaturated fat content. Meals get lighter throughout the day: carbohydrates are typically last eaten “around lunch, just so it doesn’t sit heavy at night,” or via a protein shake right after a workout. For dinner, chicken or sea bass will be “dry-fried”, along with a good helping of vegetables. Fat loss is also key to having a well-defined six-pack, so make sure that you aren’t consuming more energy than you’re expending.
With weight training and a healthy diet in place, you should be able to maintain a firm core and abs and stave off the dreaded midlife spread. Lindsay says that once clients begin focusing on upping their strength, they are often spurred on by the results – and keen to push themselves towards once-unthinkable fitness goals. “All of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Wow, look what I can do, and look what’s happening to my body’, and you suddenly see the difference.’” Music to the aspiring six-packer’s ears.
Here are Lindsay’s top five ab exercises to try:
Lie on your back, your head on the floor, arms and legs straight in the air – “almost like a dead bug”.
With straight arms, lower both hands and feet toward the ground, then reach them back together in the middle.
Don’t over-correct: most people have a natural curve in their spine, which becomes more apparent when lying down. Pressing the bottom into the mat or tilting the pelvis forward to straighten this is not necessary. Lindsay says: “Maintain that slight arch, and, as you lower your hands and feet down, keep it still. As long as that arch doesn’t change, that’s where you’re going to be getting a really strong core.”
Keep your head on the ground: the temptation may be to raise it, says Lindsay, particularly if you’re following an online workout routine and trying to look at the screen. Ensuring it doesn’t move will avoid neck strain and help the spine stay neutral.
If meeting both hands and feet together feels too challenging, regress the exercise by bringing one hand to the opposing foot, and alternating between either side. Aim for 15-20 reps.
If 15-20 reps doesn’t feel challenging, add a weight, but “not too heavy – whatever you can use without your back arching”. Make the movement slower to increase the stretch further.
Single arm row
Tabletop, with one hand and knee on a bench. Put the other foot in a wide stance on the ground, hips should be straight. Place a dumbbell in your free hand.
Press the weight downwards in a straight line, bringing it back up tightly to your side, with your elbow pointing upwards. The dumbbell should be at your side at the end of the movement.
Keep the knee soft: don’t stiffen the leg on the floor, as this will risk possible injury when you pull the dumbbell in.
“There’s not a regression of this exercise, there’s just less weight to do,” Lindsay explains. “And that should be governed by the amount of reps, ultimately.” Having both a knee and foot on the ground means you can begin with a heavier weight: try seven or eight kilos to start with, doing 15 reps on either side.
Scale up the weight; over 15kgs for women, and over 30kgs for men. If 15 reps either side feels easy, increase the size of what you’re lifting.
Side plank with leg lift
Lie on one side, pushing yourself up onto your hand or elbow. Stack your feet on top of each other. Raise the other arm above your head.
Lift your top leg upwards, and return it to the starting position.
Don’t overdo it: when it comes to the leg raise, raising it “just an inch” will activate your glutes, which are “a big part of our core strength.”
Look in the mirror: “Visual feedback helps with this one, because you don’t necessarily realise your shoulders are going forwards, or if a hip is dropping.”
Ensure you’re comfortable and aim for 10 reps.
If the raises no longer feel difficult, try a static hold, where the leg remains above the ground for as long as possible. “Holding static is hard.” Aim for five or 10 seconds.
Cable wood chops
Using a cable machine in the gym, or resistance bands, place your feet hip-width apart and use both hands to pull from one side of your body round to the other.
The hand closest to the cable will be bent at the start, while the other, which is reaching across your body, will be straight. As you pull the cable over, stretching the arms out in front and rotating your midsection as far as you can, the position will reverse by the end, where the opposing arm is bent, and the other straight.
Follow with your head. Lindsay says a common mistake is keeping the head facing where you’re pulling the cable from, rather than allowing it to follow the rotation of the body.
As above, with 15 reps on each side.
Increase the weight, if using a cable machine; or, if using resistance bands, select a thicker one.
Lying flat on the ground, lift yourself up, placing your hands beneath your shoulders; you can also do this on your elbows. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, as should your feet, with the weight on your toes.
Technique “The most important thing is that you keep your body straight – it’s called a plank for a reason,” Lindsay says. “You’re trying to keep the tummy drawn up, engaging that core and keeping your body really straight.” Keep your bottom down, and the spine in a neutral position.
Breathe easy: “You’re trying to make it feel as easy as possible, so take in nice, deep breaths. You’re trying to breathe normally.”
Stay still: Don’t shift the weight from side to side, or rock backwards and forwards. “Staying really still will help create that stable base” that allows you to hold the position for longer.
As detailed above. Aim for holding the position for 45 seconds, in two to three strength-training sessions per week.
Holding the plank position, pick up a weight (Lindsay advises beginning with 3-5kgs) that’s placed underneath the opposite side of your body. Move the weight to the other side, then replace the arm on the floor. Use the other arm to put the weight back to its original position. You should be able to hold a static plank for at least a minute before attempting weighted pull-throughs. Increase the weight once you no longer feel resistance.