Carving out a six-pack isn't exactly the easiest thing to do. Yet, people everywhere chase after the flat stomachs they see on social media. Regardless of what your aesthetic aspirations are, though, strengthening your midsection is integral to overall health and wellbeing.
That's why it's important to dedicate time to train your core, which includes the muscles of the spine, hips, pelvic floor and abdomen. And it plays a crucial role in providing stability — especially to the back. In fact, a July 2017 study published in the Pakistan Journal of Medical Studies shows that core stabilization exercises can help stave off lower back pain and improve workout endurance.
Alas, your abdominals are just one piece to the core puzzle. If your biggest desire is to sculpt a flat tummy, then there are certain workout faux pas you should definitely avoid. Here, experts dive into the biggest ab workout mistakes that could be hindering your flat-belly goals.
1. You’re Not Spending Enough Time Under Tension
When you're doing ab exercises, you shouldn't have a complete relaxation of the muscles, says Brad Whitley, PT, DPT, of Bespoke Treatments in San Diego. "You should never completely rest at the bottom of the crunch," he says.
Instead, one of the more efficient ways to build strength and endurance is to maximize time under tension, which is the length of time a muscle is contracting against an external resistance, according to the American Council on Exercise.
For example, a typical set of 10 reps may take anywhere from 15 to 25 seconds. Not fully resting in between reps means your abs are under constant tension, as opposed to resetting after each rep. By putting a muscle under tension (or strain) for longer, you can cause muscle breakdown that leads to bigger gains.
“Your goal should be to keep a slight muscle contraction at the end of the rep,” Whitley says. “For the crunch, correct it by not going down all the way.”
2. You're Not Actually Engaging Your Core While You’re Working It
If you're mindlessly going through the motions of a 15-minute ab routine without focusing on the task at hand, you could very well be wasting your time.
"You should really focus on where you are feeling the work being done," says Dan Castillo, New York City-based personal trainer.
“The best cue I give for athletes is pull your belly button into your spine as tightly as you can," Castillo says. If you can do that through the entire range of motion of an exercise, you're likely engaging the abs very well, he says.
3. The Exercises You’re Choosing Aren’t Challenging Enough
While crunches can help improve strength for a beginner, you're going to want a more advanced movement to really see some results, Whitley says. "Progressive overloading must occur as the body adapts or else plateaus will occur."
It's not that body-weight exercises are ineffective, but the added resistance takes your routine to the next level when your strength starts to plateau. Just be careful not to overload too much, too soon, Castillo says.
"The abs are just like any other muscle, they need a challenge," he says. "But you don't want to take on more than you're ready for and end up on the injured list."
In order to amp up the challenge, adding a dumbbell or other weight while completing an exercise or increasing time of the contraction or movement (back to the concept of time under tension) are other factors to consider when an exercise gets too easy.
4. There’s Not Enough Variety in Your Routine
Your abdominals are made up of multiple layers of muscle that essentially form a corset around your internal organs. These layers can be challenged by different movements, weights or resistances and techniques.
"People often get stuck in their routine of similar exercises and don't get enough variation to hit all the layers of the core, thus not getting the results or progress they want," Whitley says.
This means that in addition to those classic crunch-like contraction movements, you need to integrate twisting, bending and extension movements, too, Castillo says. Think: bicycle crunches, woodchops, bird dogs and dead bugs.
“Without this range, you’re not working the abs to their full capacity or capabilities,” he says. “Don't short sell what these bad boy muscles are meant to do for you, and feel free to get creative.”
5. You’re Not Breathing Correctly
Breathing plays a super important role in core control. Your main breathing muscle, your diaphragm, attaches to your lumbar spine and assists in internal stabilization of your core, Whitley says.
"Think of it as your most deep core muscle," he says. "The most common way to make an exercise easier is to hold your breath throughout the exercise."
Coordinate your reps with controlled breathing. In general, you want to exhale on the effort (the upward portion of a crunch or leg lift) and inhale on the easier portion (lowering back down).
Or for exercises where your abs are constantly under tension (like flutter kicks) find and stick with a consistent breathing patter. For example, inhale as the right leg goes up and exhale as the left leg goes up. You’ll quickly notice that the exercise feels harder as you’re intelligently working the abdominal muscles to their fullest potential.
6. You’re Sabotaging a Great Workout Routine With a Poor Diet
Time and time again, you've heard the phrase "you can't out-train a bad diet." It's definitely true, especially if you're focused on your midsection.
"Not focusing on your nutrition will hinder your results from showing," Castillo says. "It's simple math when it comes to your abdominals aesthetically popping: Excess body fat over the abdominals will prevent them from being visible."