Hold up, do ab workouts really work, or are you just wasting your time with countless crunches and planks?

By Giselle Castro
March 03, 2020
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The days of fitness gurus touting hundreds of sit-ups as the key to a rock-solid core are long gone, but if you walk through the stretching area of your gym, chances are you'll see a handful of people laying on mats, crunching with reckless abandon. What gives? Here's what experts have to say to those diehard abs exercise fanatics—and the moves you should be doing instead.

Give it to me straight: Do ab workouts really work?

The problem with many abs exercises is that they promote the idea of ″spot training,″ aka focusing on one body part during exercise to change it. No matter how you slice it, spot training your stomach cannot get you ripped abs. ″You could do 1,000 crunches and sit-ups a night, but if there is a layer of fat on top, you will never see your abs come through," says Ashanti Johnson, owner of Chicago-based 360 Mind. Body. Soul. As the old saying goes, ″abs are made in the kitchen," but you can also credit genetics for whether you have a six-pack or not. Trainers are well aware of this, so exercise classes often diversify which abs moves are included for maximum benefit for all body types. As for what you can do? "Focus on full-body exercises that force you to use your entire core and burn fat and calories overall," says Tanya Becker, co-founder and chief creative officer of Physique 57.

But the soreness and burning sensation you feel after doing several sets of crunches must prove that ab workouts really work, right? Not exactly. ″This comes from fatigue because blood flow to the muscle drops, which means there is less oxygen available to the muscle," explains Brynn Putnam, founder of Refine Method. ″Less oxygen means that your muscle uses a pathway to make energy that doesn't require oxygen, and this leads to an accumulation of H+ ions that makes your blood more acidic and inhibits the muscle's ability to contract." Translation: your muscles end up feeling burnt-out, but there is no connection between this effect and actually burning fat or building muscle. (Related: Everything to Know About Slow- and Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers)

BTW, sit-ups can lead to biomechanical problems.

Did you know that bending the body in half repeatedly can potentially hurt your back and neck? Sebastian Lagree, owner of Lagree Fitness, hasn't included crunches in his classes for years for one simple reason: ″Repeated spinal flexion can lead to permanent damage to the spine." Those exercises alone are not enough to give you a strong core, either, which is the entire purpose of training your abs. Plenty of research has been done on the matter too, points out NYC-based HIIT instructor and personal trainer Robert Ramsey. "Dr. Stuart McGill, who is the spine genius that all strength coaches go to for data, has done studies that prove the spine is not meant to be bent in half,″ says Ramsey. ″However, exercises where the spine is straight while being loaded is a massive core stimulator. These include squats into the overhead press, push-ups, and planks." (These plank variations will fire up your core, guaranteed.)

It's also important to understand that the core is made up of more than just a few muscles in your stomach. ″There are more than 22 different muscles that connect, cross, and begin in the core area, and to focus on just the abdominals is doing your entire muscular-skeletal system a disservice,″ explains yoga instructor Alexis Novak.

So, how can you strengthen your abs? 

Simply put: Any exercise can be a ″core" exercise if done right. You can get stronger abs by engaging your core during your squats, deadlifts, lunges, or overhead presses (just to name a few). ″The key to working your core effectively is to maintain a ″neutral spine,″ or the natural curvature of your back, in every exercise you do,″ explains Putnam. ″Just be sure to work with enough resistance or intensity that you feel your core muscles reflexively brace or squeeze when you move.″ And don't forget, the core is really your whole body because everything is connected by fascial tissue, says Ramsey. For example, ″if you stand straight and extend your arms out and to the side, that is a core move because you're using it to stabilize those arms,″ he says.

But there are a few abs exercises you can definitely benefit from if you do them on the reg. ″Planks with different variations on the arms—resting on your forearms, with palms up, with one hand elevated, etc—are a good way to challenge the core muscles and to stabilize it in different ranges of motion," says Novak. And while Lagree swears by push-ups, side planks, and the Roman chair to strengthen all parts of your core, Becker's go-to exercises include the pretzel position (intended to target obliques and side back), the C-Curl hold, and lower back extensions, otherwise known as Supermans. Putnam suggests strengthening the core with exercises that focus on keeping a neutral spine, like planks, roll-outs, bird dogs, and kettlebell carries. In other words, there are plenty of options these days (including these 20 trainer-approved moves), so don't put yourself at risk for injury with moves that don't work.

Please forget about having a six-pack or an ab crack.

It's easy to get caught up on the aesthetics of your abs (a la the ab crack), but it's more important to focus on your core strength as a result of the hard work you put in. ″Work on perfecting functional movements that challenge your core, like squats and deadlifts, so you are able to enjoy a long and independent life free from aches and pains,″ advises Putnam. A strong core can prevent detrimental back problems, improve posture, and reduce or eliminate the need for back surgery, adds Lagree. ″Your core equals longevity, which equals a higher quality of living in your later years." And that's something that resonates—straight to the core.

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