The days of fitness gurus touting 100 crunches and sit-ups a day are long gone, but for some reason people are still doing them. Here’s what experts have to say about that—and what abs exercises you should be doing instead.
Spot Training is Ineffective
The problem with many abs exercises is that they promote the idea of “spot training.” In other words, 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 (Also: Why Ab Cracks Don’t Mean You’re In Better Shape). 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. We like these 11 moves, TBH.
It Doesn’t Matter That You “Feel the Burn”
So what’s the deal with the soreness and burning sensation we feel after doing several sets of crunches? “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.” Meaning your muscles end up burning and feeling tired, but there is no connection between this effect and actually burning fat or building muscle.
Sit-Ups Can Lead to Health 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 and warns, “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. NYC-based HIIT instructor and personal trainer Robert Ramsey also points out that plenty of research has been done on the matter. “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,” he says. “However, exercises where the spine is straight while being loaded is a massive core stimulator. These include squats into overhead press, push-ups, and planks.”
It’s also important to understand that the core is made up of more than just a few muscles. “There are over 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. Try our 30-day ab challenge to hit each muscle and get a stronger core by next month.
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 You Should Definitely Be Doing These 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, so don’t put yourself at risk for injury with moves that don’t work.
And Finally, Forget Worrying About A Six-Pack or Ab Crack
It’s easy to get caught up on the aesthetics of our abs, but it’s more important to focus on how strong our core is as a result of the hard work we 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. Lagree adds that a strong core can prevent detrimental back problems, improve posture, and reduce or eliminate the need for back surgery. “Your core equals longevity, which equals a higher quality of living in your later years.” And that’s something that resonates with us—straight to the core.