The days of fitness experts praising hundreds of abdominal exercises as the key to a super-strong 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 those exercisers don’t know is that, regardless of how many sit-ups or crunches they do, they probably won’t actually see any results.
What’s the reason? Here’s what experts have to say to those diehard fanatics of crunches and sit-ups, plus moves you should be doing instead.
Why Some Abs Workouts Don’t Do Much
The issue with many abs exercises is that they promote the concept of “spot training,” also known as focusing on one body part during exercise in an attempt to change it. No matter how you slice it, spot training your midsection cannot get you visible abs. (To be honest, that’s not what’s most important about having a strong core, anyway.)
“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, a NASM-certified trainer and owner of Chicago-based 360.Mind.Body.Soul. You can also credit genetics for whether it’s easy for you to build defined muscle. Any good trainer is well aware of this, so exercise classes often diversify which abs moves are included for maximum benefit for all body types.
But the soreness and burning sensation you feel after doing several sets of crunches must prove that abs workouts really work, right? Well, 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, the founder of MIRROR and 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,” she notes. Translation: Your muscles end up feeling burnt out, but there is no connection between this effect and actually burning fat or building muscle.
Possible Dangers of Abdominal Crunches
Did you realize that repeatedly folding the body in half can potentially harm your spine and neck? Sebastien Lagree, the proprietor of Lagree Fitness, has excluded crunches from his classes for years for one straightforward reason: “Repeated flexion of the spine can result in lasting damage to the spine,” he explains. Oh no. Furthermore, those exercises alone are inadequate to develop a robust core, which is the primary objective of abdominal training.
A considerable amount of research has also been conducted on the issue, as highlighted by NYC-based HIIT instructor and NASM-certified personal trainer Robert Ramsey. “Dr. Stuart McGill, who is recognized as the expert on the spine that all strength coaches consult for information, has conducted studies that demonstrate that the spine is not designed to bend in half,” he states. “However, exercises in which the spine remains straight while being subjected to load are enormously effective in stimulating the core. These exercises include squats into the overhead press, push-ups, and planks,” adds Ramsey. (These plank variations will ignite your core, guaranteed.)
It is also crucial to comprehend that the core comprises more than just a few muscles in your abdominal region. “There are over 22 distinct muscles that connect, cross, and originate in the core area, and concentrating solely on the abs would be detrimental to your entire (musculoskeletal) system,” clarifies yoga instructor Alexis Novak.
How to Effectively Strengthen Your Abs
“Emphasize full-body exercises that compel you to engage your entire core and burn fat and calories overall,” advises Tanya Becker, co-founder and chief creative officer of Physique 57. Put simply: Any exercise can qualify as a “core” exercise if executed correctly. Yes, that means you can develop more robust abs by activating your core during squats, deadlifts, lunges, or overhead presses (just to mention a few).
The key to effectively working your core is to maintain a neutral spine, or the natural curvature of your back, in every exercise you perform,” explains Putnam. “Simply ensure that you work with an adequate amount of resistance or intensity that elicits a reflexive bracing or squeezing of your core muscles as you move,” he adds. And don’t forget that the core encompasses your entire body because everything is interconnected by fascial tissue, says Ramsey. For instance, “if you stand upright and extend your arms out and to the side, that constitutes a core movement as you utilize it to stabilize those arms,” he says.
However, there are a few abdominal exercises that you can certainly benefit from if you perform them regularly, particularly planks. “Planks with various arm variations — supporting yourself on your forearms, with palms facing up, with one hand raised, etc. — offer a good opportunity to challenge the core muscles and stabilize them in different ranges of motion,” says Novak. While Lagree swears by push-ups, side planks, and the Roman chair to strengthen all areas of your core, Becker’s preferred exercises include the pretzel position (designed to target obliques and side back), the C-curl hold, and lower back extensions (also referred to as supermans).
Alternatively, you can try strengthening your core with exercises that emphasize maintaining a neutral spine, such as planks, roll-outs, bird dogs, and kettlebell carries, as suggested by Putnam. In other words, there are numerous options available these days (including these trainer-approved core moves), so do not expose yourself to the risk of injury with ineffective exercises.
And one more thing: Please disregard the notion of attaining a six-pack. It is easy to become fixated on the aesthetic aspect of your abdominal muscles, but it is more crucial to concentrate on building core strength as a result of your arduous efforts. “Focus on perfecting functional movements that challenge your core, such as squats and deadlifts, so that you can enjoy a lengthy and independent life devoid of discomfort,” advises Putnam. A strong core can prevent debilitating back issues, enhance posture, and potentially eliminate the need for back surgery, adds Lagree. “Your core equates to longevity, which translates to a higher quality of life in your later years,” he says. And that is something that strikes a chord — straight to the core.
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