Hate to break it to you, but cranking out 100 crunches a day won't get you any closer to your dream of six-pack abs. And the unfortunate truth is, many of the traditional ab exercises you've been doing (probably for years) are ineffective and can potentially result in injury.
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
Not only are these old-school ab movements not very dynamic, but more importantly, all the stress they put on the spine 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," says Johnson. The result? You run the risk of injury.
To make matters worse, people tend to overload machines with heavy weights, says Laurita. 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 an effective movement. 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, says Laurita.
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 her 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 published 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," says Johnson.
"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."