Are You Doing Too Many Ab Exercises? We Asked The Experts
If you really want washboard abs, you’ve got to put the work in every day. Right? Actually, crushing your ab routine everyday might do more harm than good.
“People have the idea that if they do an hour of ab exercises that that’s going to chisel their abs and burn fat from that area—the old spot-reduction approach,” says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Quincy College in Quincy, MA.
But realistically, Westcott says you should train your core no more than three days a week.
While by now you know that spot-reduction is a myth, when you overtrain your abs at lower intensities, core work becomes an endurance-type activity rather than a strength- and muscle-building activity, Westcott explains.
On top of not providing the intensity or recovery time needed to increase strength, too much training can also increase your risk of overuse and imbalance injuries. “That’s a very vulnerable part of the body,” he says. “When you’re flexing your spine with ab work such as curls, you’re also stretching the lower back, so you can get injuries to the lower back, obliques, and abs.”
Furthermore, the abs aren’t composed of huge muscles, says Jordan Couture, a Tier 3+ trainer at Equinox Dartmouth in Boston, MA. Therefore, they don’t respond well to a lot of load in isolation, or consistent, heavy stimulation.
Here’s a better game plan: “If you’re trying to build muscles and core strength, train relatively hard with something that fatigues those muscles within the anaerobic energy system,” Westcott says.
That means you’re likely going to want to rely on exercises you’d perform for less than 90 seconds a set and repeat those sets. High-intensity, short work with proper recovery time will provide the body more strength-building benefits than 20 minutes of lower intensity work more frequently, he explains.
This kind of core work is hugely important for overall strength, performance, and injury prevention.
“Core training provides stability on heavy strength days, mitigates injury during training, and serves as a conduit to sport performance,” says Couture. “Without dedicated core work, you can bet all these training benefits suffer.”
When your core is strong, your body is able to recruit the right muscles for training.
The injury prevention part is particularly key—especially if you have a desk job, which can contribute to a rounded posture. “Abs are very much involved in protecting the lumbar spine,” says Westcott. And low back issues are a common cause of missed work days. Being strong in your obliques and abs can prevent back injuries, he notes.
Couture suggests keeping exercises unweighted and isometric to start. Performing exercises slowly and remembering good breathing techniques also helps develop true abdominal strength and function, he notes, connecting your breathing muscles, allowing force to transfer throughout the body.
The below exercises are varied, working the back muscles, too—and can help you develop a body that’s capable of resisting force in all directions. They’ll also keep you from overstimulating your core muscles, says Couture.
- Anti-extension: Plank, plank with shoulder tap, plank with ab wheel.
- Anti-lateral flexion: Side plank, bench oblique hold, single-arm farmer’s walk.
- Anti-rotation: Unilateral dead bug, kneeling pallof press, 1/2 kneeling cable chop.
- Rotation: Pallof press with rotation, landmine rotations, medicine ball toss
Westcott particularly favors the Captain’s Chair, a move performed on parallel bars. Rest your arms on the bars and bring bent knees up as high as you can right in front of you or to the left or right. “It’s like a vertical trunk curl against your whole body weight,” he says.
The Bicycle move is another solid option that’s isometric and also involves movement. “You always you get better results if you emphasize a full range of motion,” says Westcott.