If your usual ab routine involves dozens of crunches, we've got good news: You can leave them in the past! Many of the traditional ab exercises you may be doing (and dreading) are probably ineffective — and could even hurt you.
Here, fitness experts share which ab moves are a waste of your time, plus what to do instead for a rock-solid core.
1. Sit-Ups and Crunches
These old-school ab movements aren't too dynamic and, more importantly, they place stress on the spine, which can cause injury, says certified personal trainer James Laurita. Here's why: During a sit-up or crunch, your spine compresses, which can put pressure on the discs between your vertebrae and lead to lower back pain and neck strain.
Plus, they aren't very functional. "At no time in our lives does a singular abdominal muscle fire without demanding the recruitment of the rest of the system, so why would we approach training it in that way?" says Joanie Johnson, certified personal trainer and postnatal corrective exercise specialist. The most effective ab exercises address your entire core from the diaphragm to the pelvic floor, Johnson says.
2. Ab Machines
"Everyone's body proportions and movement patterns are different, so when you place yourself within the parameters of a machine, you're forcing your body into a repetitive pattern that may not be ideal for your shape, size or strength," Johnson says. The result? You run the risk of injury.
To make matters worse, people tend to overload machines with heavy weights, Laurita says. But the core is unlike other muscles in that it doesn't respond well to a combination of high weight with low reps for strength training. In other words, when you heap on the weight, you're likely to hurt yourself.
If you insist on adding machines to your ab workouts, Laurita recommends using very light weights in an AMRAP (or as many reps as possible) format for a quick burnout at the end of your sweat session.
3. Side Bends
When it comes to targeting your obliques, side bends can be effective. The thing is, just like with ab machines, zealous gym-goers gunning for washboard abs often overload with heavy weights and increase their risk of injury, Laurita says.
And as with any exercise, when it comes to side leans, you must consider whether the movement works for your body. "You should factor in muscular imbalances, injuries, the physical demands of your job, your everyday life and contraindications specific to your body in order to perform them correctly," Johnson says.
For example, a pregnant woman may not want to do side bends since they can place extra strain on the linea alba (a fibrous structure that runs down the middle of your abdomen which keeps your ab muscles close to each other).
What You Should Do Instead
Rather than concentrating on ab-specific movements, doing multi-joint, free-weight exercises like squats and deadlifts is a more effective way to train your abs, according to research in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. And unlike traditional ab isolation exercises, free-weight exercises offer the added health benefits of improved strength, bone density and cardiovascular health.
Plus, multi-joint body exercises and compound movements are more practical when it comes to preparing your muscles for the physical demands of everyday life. "Traditional ab exercises aren't going to be useful when you need your entire body to work in balance as you run for the bus, carry four bags of groceries or pick up a toddler 50 times a day," Johnson says.
"Compound movements will address those whole-body movement patterns in order to strengthen your core in a way that's going to be specific to the activity in your lifestyle."
If you want to keep some ab exercises in your workout routine, prioritize moves that will engage your core properly. Try these four exercises, courtesy of Samuel Chan, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
- Lie face down on the floor, with your forearms on the ground, elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
- Extend your legs straight behind you, toes tucked.
- With your core braced, press into your toes and forearms and raise your body up off the ground.
- Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line from head to hips to heels.
2. Dead Bug
- Begin lying on your back facing the ceiling.
- Flatten your lower back against the ground with your legs up, knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Raise your arms straight up toward the ceiling in line with your shoulders. This is your starting position.
- Engage your core and extend your left leg straight out away from your. Hover it just above the ground.
- At the same time, lower your right arm straight overhead until it's a few inches off the ground.
- Pause here for a moment, then return to the starting position.
- Repeat with your right leg and left arm. Continue alternating sides.
The key here is to keep your lower back flat against the floor. Avoid flaring your rib cage during the movement, too, Chan says.
3. Side Plank
- Start laying on your left side with your hips and legs stacked.
- Place your left elbow on the ground in line with your left shoulder.
- Balancing on your left elbow and the outside of your left foot, raise your hips up off the ground.
- Keep your core tight and avoid letting your hips sag.
- Hold here, then perform on the other side.
4. Scissor Kick
- Begin lying on the ground with your arms at your sides and your legs straight.
- Engage your abs and draw your bellybutton toward the spine.
- Lift both your feet a few inches off the floor, then raise your left leg up toward the ceiling, keeping it as straight as possible.
- Pause here for a moment, then switch legs, bringing the right up to the ceiling and hovering the left above the ground. Continue alternating legs.
Additional reporting by Bojana Galic