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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Abs

If Houdini had clenched his, would he have survived? Can you carve yourself an eight-pack? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Abs! Can a wacky electric belt give you a rock-hard six-pack? Does visible muscle make you a Herculean strongman? Let’s flex on some six-pack abs myths!

Lie #1: This Machine’ll Give Me Hella Abs With No Effort, Whut Whuuuut

There are a lot of devices out there that promise to give you a glistening six-pack with minimal effort. Things like electric muscle stimulation (EMS) belts and peculiar vibrating machines assure the customer they’ll soon be buff as shit.

“I’ve met a lot of people with six-packs,” says Joel Snape, former editor of Men’s Fitness and creator of training/self-help resource Live Hard. “And I’ve never met anyone who got a six-pack from one of those machines. The two key ways to have a defined six-pack are either to get such huge abs that they show through the fat — like late Latvian powerlifter Konstantīns Konstantinovsor to lose enough body fat that your abs show through, which EMS belts can’t really help with. Good ab exercises teach your body to move as a unit, to brace against resistance and during movement — that’s why strong abs help you to punch harder, or not fall over when a bus brakes sharply. I’m not sure EMS belts do that.”

Equipment and technology can complement exercise, of course. Snape recommends, if buying one such piece, going for an ab wheel — they cost about 10 bucks and are “a great showoff tool.” If going for two, he suggests a resistance band for Pallof presses

“EMS belts still require a bunch of effort,” says Snape. “You have to put them on, put up with people asking you what the hell you’re doing and so on, all while feeling like you’re being electrocuted in the stomach. Even if they worked as well as, say, doing three rounds of planks and a dozen dead-bugs a day — which I don’t think they do — I’d rather do the actual exercise.”

Lie #2: Look at That Dude’s Six-Pack, He Must Be Really Strong

Glistening abs aren’t really about strength. You can be really strong without muscle definition, or have beautifully defined musculature and struggle to lift your dinner. Some things come with hard work and some are preordained. 

The appearance of a six-pack is a lot more about body fat percentage than brute strength — low body fat often goes hand-in-hand with strength, as both are sought after through exercise, but some skinny dudes just have visible abs straight off the bat. “Your abs start to peek through when you hit about 11 percent body fat, which is manageable even if you eat cookies and drink beer a lot, and really pop once you get down to 8 percent, which is cover model shape,” says Snape. 

A six-pack still might be off-limits, though. Your genetics determine whether your rectus abdominis has two, three or four bands of connective fascia crossing it, which determines whether you can have a four-, six- or eight-pack. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a two-band rectus abdominis, so even in his bodybuilding days, where at any given point he was soaked in oil and holding multiple women above his head, he sported a four-pack. A fucking enormous one.

Lie #3: I’ve Been Working My Abs Out a Ton

Have you really? In 2002, Brazilian weightlifting trainer Edmar Freitas did 111,000 sit-ups in 24 hours, breaking every hour for a cereal bar and every four hours for a pee/dump

The world planking record changes hands fairly frequently, but is currently held by former DEA agent George Hood. Earlier this year, Hood stayed in a plank position for eight hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds, as verified by Guinness World Records. He also claims to have gone for more than 10 hours on a previous occasion. That is so, so long. Imagine a guy in your house starting to do a plank when you go to bed and still doing it when you get up in the morning. That’s insane.

There are ab-related records in less demand, though. In 1987, a British woman complaining of abdominal pain had 23,530 gallstones removed. Nobody’s massively keen to break that one.

Lie #4: So, If I Want A Six-Pack, I’ll Have To Exercise?

Well, no, you can cheat. A surgical procedure called abdominal etching aims to do what genetics can’t, and uses targeted liposuction to cut trenches in your fat, creating the illusion of an as-many-as-you-like pack. It’s gross! It’s easier than exercising, sure, but at least exercising doesn’t involve pressing foam into newly-created rivulets of flesh within your body to force them to heal weirdly.

A safer, cheaper bet is to take a leaf out of interplanetary metal barbarians GWAR’s book and draw muscles on your tummy with paint. The bigger the belly, the bigger the ensuing muscles. It’s a flawless optical illusion — Blothar The Magnificent doesn’t really have an eight-pack, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him.

Lie #5: If Houdini Had Clenched His Stomach He’d Have Survived

Harry Houdini, the most famous escapologist in history, died at just 52. The most frequently told version of the story is that he was punched in the stomach and, despite being famed for his stomach muscles, he didn’t have time to ready himself and the punch caused internal ruptures and killed him. 

There might be more to it than that, though.

After giving a lecture at McGill University on October 22, 1926, Houdini was chatting with a group of students in his dressing room. He had broken his ankle doing his Chinese Water Torture trick, and was lying on a sofa. One student, J. Gordon Whitehead — who really sounds like a dick — asked Houdini if it was true he could be punched in the stomach without it hurting. Houdini said he did indeed have a very strong stomach, and Whitehead started punching him, landing four or five hits. What an a-hole. 

That evening, Houdini complained of stomach pains, and his show the next day was performed against medical advice — he had a high fever and was soaked in sweat, and his doctor suspected he had appendicitis. He collapsed when the curtain fell and was rushed to hospital to have his ruptured appendix removed. He died of peritonitis caused by his appendix rupture on October 31st. Insurers ruled that the appendicitis had been caused by Whitehead’s punch.

However, there are loads of question marks surrounding the incident. Traumatic appendicitis — as in, your appendix fucking up by being battered — is incredibly rare. One theory is that Houdini had regular appendicitis but, having just been battered in the stomach, dismissed the pain from his appendix as an injury from the beating and inadvertently ignored all the warnings. Another suggests he ignored his health problems willfully, due to a contract clause which would cost him a fortune if he cancelled shows. Biographer Patrick Culliton believes Houdini was in fact prepared for the blows, but misjudged how it would work while lying down and was unable to move with the impact

There are darker theories as well, that Whitehead was working for disgruntled Spiritualists determined to get revenge on Houdini for debunking their work and exposing fraud. According to The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, there were at least three other incidents in Montreal that week that could be described as attacks on Houdini. Murder seems unlikely, in that, “I’ll punch this guy a bunch of times and he’ll die nine days from now,” is a bonkers plan, but the mysteries surrounding Whitehead do suggest some sort of vendetta isn’t out of the question.

However, arguably the most compelling theory states that the dressing room incident was made up or exaggerated for insurance reasons, to make Houdini’s death an accident rather than a consequence of illness, because that qualified it for a double indemnity payout — twice the money to his estate. The complete truth about what happened will probably never come out, but it certainly seems to make sense. Think of it as one last trick from beyond the grave — like pulling a rabbit from a hat, but the rabbit is a fat bunch of cash and the hat is “being dead.”