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Top 10 Abs Training Mistakes

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
3/27/2013 6:00 AM   :  99 comments   :  289,745 Views

See More: fitness, abs,
Want toned abs and a flatter stomach? If all the DVDs, workout gizmos and "belly-fat-burning" pills, books, and diets out there are any indication, we're obsessed with slimming down our midsections, and for good reason. A flat stomach not only looks great; it's also a boon to your health—especially when compared to abdominal obesity, which is correlated with several health risks).

But are all these abs-training products really getting us any closer to the abs of our dreams? If not, it's probably no fault of your own. So much inaccurate information has been circulating for so many years, that there are few muscles more misunderstood than the abs. I've seen so many mistakes firsthand that I figured it was time to clear up the confusion.

When it comes to training your abs, there is a right way and wrong way to do it. Are you guilty of any of these top abs-training mistakes? Find out!

#1: Over-Crunching
If you think of crunches when you think of working your abs, you're not alone. Crunches are a great way to target the abs, but there are more effective ways to work out! For one, crunches mainly work just one of the muscle groups in your core: the rectus abdominis. And they only work it from one angle. You can train your abs without every doing a single crunch, and if crunches are your go-to abs exercise, it's probably time that you do! Need some crunch-free workout ideas? Check out my 10-minute Crunchless Core Workout and this No-Crunch Workout with a ball, as well as SparkPeople's core exercise demos.

#2: Doing Too Many Reps
There is no need to do 50, 100 or thousands of crunches each day. Many people do more, thinking it will help them spot-reduce (lose fat) from the belly, but that is a myth. In fact, if you are doing your exercises correctly, 8-15 repetitions are all that you need to target those muscles and get results. Here's an easy rule: Train the abs like you would any other muscle, which typically involves 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions per exercise.

#3 Having an Abs Routine in the First Place
Do you have an abs routine? Whether it's a DVD, a piece of equipment, or just a series of exercises, doing the same exercises each time you work your abs will only get you so far. Your abs routine will become, well, routine, and you won't be challenging your muscles anymore. Change up your workouts and mix up your exercises regularly, including a variety of moves to work your abs in different ways (see mistake #7 below).

#4 Not Focusing on Form
If you're doing an abdominal exercise and you're not really feeling it, I'm going to tell you a cold, hard truth: It's probably not because you're super strong and fit. More likely, you're not doing it properly. The key to really working your abs is to focus on your form, by deeply engaging your abs throughout each movement. This is commonly described as "pulling your navel towards your spine," or "scooping" the abs inward and it will help you engage more muscle fibers (especially the transverse abs), making each repetition more effective. And did you know: Mentally focusing on the muscles you're trying to engage during any exercise (abs or otherwise) actually does make a difference in how well you execute the move? Try it next time and you'll notice a difference!

#5 Believing in Belly Fat Burners
Can specific foods, nutrients, diet pills or supplements really target belly fat and help you melt it away? Probably not. There is some research to show that certain nutrients may help people lose more belly fat, but most of this "research" is sketchy at best—poorly controlled, poorly designed, and not well replicated. It'd be nice to think that you could just eat an exotic berry or pepper—or pop a pill that contains them—and melt away the inches from your waist, but don't fall for this hype. The person telling you that any food or product can burn fat from your belly has one goal in mind: selling you something. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

#6 Neglecting the Rest of Your Core
The rectus abdominis (or abs, for short) run down the front of the torso, from the center of the ribcage to the pubic bone. These are the main muscles that work when you do any sort of "crunching" motion (spinal flexion). But your torso also extends, bends and rotates—and all of those motions should be part of your abs training repertoire. Your obliques (which run diagonally across your middle) active during lateral flexion and rotation; the transverse abdominis (a long muscle that runs horizontally beneath the rectus abdominis) acts like a brace during plank-style exercises and is highly targeted during Pilates; and your back (erector spinae muscles along the spine) is the primary mover during spinal extension, which most people don't do enough of. A good rule of thumb is that every time you train your abs, you should also target the obliques and lower back as well (more on that below).

#7 Only Working the Abs from One Angle
I touched on this above. Most people only work their abs by doing flexion (crunching movements), but a solid abs training program should include multiple angles and ranges of motion. Here are some examples to help you understand the many ways to move your core. (This 15-minute routine features all of these movements in one workout!):
  • Spinal flexion (mostly works the rectus abdominis). Examples include all variations of crunches.
  • Spinal rotation (mostly works the obliques). Examples include bicycle crunches (which combine flexion with rotation), seated twists, and standing twists.
  • Spinal extension (mostly works the erector spinae). Examples include back extensions, superman, and swimming.
  • Lateral spinal flexion (works the erector spinae, rectus abdominis and obliques). Examples include side bends with dumbbells, or without equipment.
  • Bracing, balancing, stabilization and isometric exercises (work the entire core to different degrees). These are all different types of exercises, but I'm lumping them into a catch all "other" category here. Examples include plank, bridge-ups, dolphin pose, side plank, and bird dogs (quadruped arm and leg lifts).
#8 Spot Training
You may be surprised to know that most people actually DO have strong, defined abs…they just happen to be covered by a layer of fat. So how do you get rid of that layer of fat? More crunches, right? Wrong. More of the exercises listed above? Also wrong. All the abs-toning exercises in the world won't burn the fat on top of the muscle. To accomplish this, you need a combination of cardio exercise and a healthy diet to create a caloric deficit necessary to lose weight. Get a free weight loss meal plan at SparkPeople.com.

#9 Ignoring Your Abs When Not Exercising
I don't want to give you mixed messages. The exercises listed in #7 are great ways to target your abs and strengthen them. Moves like that should be part of your training. But did you know that your abs also play a role in balance, posture and stabilization during all kinds of everyday movements and exercises—everything from walking to your car to coughing to squatting? It's true. They always engage a little bit during everyday activities, even when you're not thinking about them. But you CAN (and should) think about them more often. Next time you follow one of my workout videos, notice how many times I remind you to "engage your abs"—even when you're working your arms, back or legs. This is going to strengthen your form and control during the exercise at hand, and it gives those transverse abdominals a little extra something to work on, too (which also protects you from injury). Try to think about your abs more during the day. You'll sit taller, help strengthen that deep abdominal muscle, and perform better all around!

#10 Using Abs Training Gizmos
Every year, a new gadget to help you achieve "the abs of your dreams" hits the market and sells millions. Machines that swing, roll, rock, shake, slide, and make abs training look oh so easy! Do some of these machines work your abdominal muscles? Sure. Will using that machine alone help you get washboard abs? Sorry, but no. Think about the mistakes listed above. Using an abs workout machine means you'll be making a lot of the mistakes above: spot training, neglecting other movements, doing the same routine, doing too many reps, etc. Their commercials may seem impressive and realistic, but I'd advise you to save your money. The real secret to getting the kind of results seen in those commercials isn't about the gadget at all. It's about diet, cardio, and proper abs training, which doesn’t require any equipment.

Are you guilty of any of these mistakes? Do you have any others to add to my list? What's your favorite way to work your abs?

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Comments

  • 99
    I agree but I do Love the Book The Total Core Weight by Marcela Pick - she is an Nurse Practitioner OB/GYN and the recommendations that she has in that book for nutrients geared towards your personal health requirements is exceptional. - 11/24/2013   1:35:46 PM
  • STAYTRU2U1
    98
    doing a repetition of moves helps me...but I'm just getting started. :) - 6/5/2013   8:56:03 PM
  • DEBBIERODGERS
    97
    Thanks - very informative and to the point. The 'ten point' format helped keep me focused - and will help me to remember. - 4/12/2013   7:52:11 AM
  • HSKR_GRL
    96
    I tend to forget about my abs when I am sitting at work, but when I do, I have a lot of fun. I like to twist and turn in the swivel chair like I did when I was a kid. I can feel it giving me a workout and it makes me smile.
    - 4/5/2013   4:26:09 PM
  • 95
    Thanks for busting the "spot-reducing" myth associated with these exercises! - 4/2/2013   5:16:39 AM
  • AMBER461
    94
    Thanks for the information, I did not know about the dolphin and the bird dog, these are new to me. - 4/1/2013   8:54:33 PM
  • 93
    My neighbor, many years ago, God rest his soul, use to call me "The Telemarketer Buyer of our neighborhood. I wasted so much money. My husband was ahead of his time and use some of the same comments you did. And this was in the late 80's and 90's. LOL. Now, being disabled, I would not be able to use a lot of those machines. Yesterday, I had a fall off the balance ball and I was unable to get up into a standing position. It took me the length of the video and more and going through neuro-spasms to reach the stairway, to even try to turn my feet onto their soles. My therapist came today and asked why I did not do a certain movement which would have made it easier. I had completely forgotten it. I am one of those victims to "More Is Better". Thanks for the beautiful article. - 3/28/2013   5:40:48 PM
  • 92
    Thank YOU!!! This was some very much needed information. I used to ignore my back although if I worked out with one of your core videos I worked my back. I believe that's when I realized I was supposed to work my back also. Some of the other exercises for core I would do not knowing I was working all the muscles. But not knowing kept me from properly working my core. Thanks again! GREAT blog Coach Nicole!!! Enjoy a Blessed Resurrection Day Easter Weekend! - 3/28/2013   1:11:03 AM
  • JGMARIE80
    91
    Thanks for the information. I have to check out some of these videos. - 3/27/2013   5:04:45 PM
  • 90
    Great article! - 3/27/2013   12:59:45 PM
  • 89
    Great article, abs are not new to me, but dolphin pose and bird dogs are! Thanks for the fresh ideas!

    - 3/27/2013   11:14:24 AM
  • 88
    Very good abs article Nicole. I would add two things that my physical therapist encouraged: engage the pelvic floor with a kegal and hold it as you do each crunch (it adds a couple seconds to your repeat), and thoughtfully engage the abdomin when doing all of your strength training or when walking. The later helps strengthen the mucsle that go up and down the spine. This may ward off that height shrinkage. - 3/27/2013   9:42:07 AM
  • 87
    Great article. What if you mix up your exercise during a week but do similar exercises during the mix ups? Is that varying enough? - 3/27/2013   9:32:57 AM
  • 86
    Those workout equipment gizmos make great coat hangers and living room "art" don't they? Take all of those "magic pills" and dump them all together in a pretty, clear jar (seal them up!) to remind you that you don't get somethin by doin nothin. - 3/27/2013   8:22:08 AM
  • SSROCK
    85
    Great article. The workouts I have been doing do a great job targeting different areas. But once I'm done, I don't think about my abs until the next workout. Think I'm going to make a sign for the kitchen that says "engage the abs". - 2/25/2013   10:14:11 AM
  • 84
    I have lost 36 lbs to date and to reach my goal I still have about 7 or 8 lbs to go but it all seems to be around my lower abs. I've been doing exercises (cardio and strength toning) for over 4 months now and this part doesn't seem to change. My question is this: I'm 67 years old and have lost about 1" or so in my height. Has the reduction in my height caused this 'apron' around the lower abs and if so what do I need to do to help get rid of it. I hate it and it drives me crazy and short of lipo and a tummy tuck what else can I do? - 1/5/2013   7:25:16 PM
  • 83
    Coach Nicole,

    I have been working out with you almost daily since May 1, 2011. From the bootcamps to your cardio and strength DVDs, you have been a game changer for me. I have easily sustained a 30 pound weight loss since February because of your exercise routines combined with strict use of the Nutrition Tracker. From the bottom of my heart (which is surrounded by my solid core!), thank you.

    Spark On! - 10/7/2012   12:29:19 PM
  • 82
    Great article! - 10/5/2012   9:17:15 AM
  • BARBARASCH
    81
    Oh Nicole, you just destroyed my dreams to get toned and firm abs in no time without doing something.. ;)) I really really hate working out my abs and that's why I focus on them when I have my personal coach sessions. I just need some buttkicking .. - 7/5/2012   9:22:40 AM
  • THEMOTIVATOR1
    80
    Pressed for time I came up with the following exercises that work many muscle groups. Place a bench perpendicular to a lower pulley.While lying on the bench Using a short bar place palms facing downward. pull the bar upwards while raising your knees and tightening your abs. 3 sets 8-10 reps. Next set do the same except place your palms upward. 3 sets 8-10 reps. Next place the bar upwards just so it is within your reach. Palms facing downward pull the bar down ; 3 sets 8-10 reps. Next grab the bar keeping your arms straight pull the bar down towards your waist while keeping your legs straight and angled upwards. When I am done doing these exercises the solid body feeling is incredable. - 4/13/2012   10:09:49 AM
  • 79
    Great article Nicole, and it makes a lot of sense! I've lost 65 pds now over the past 9.5 months while on Sparkpeople, and i have incorporated your videos off and on. Like another person who commented, my biggest problem seems to be the breathing. Does it really matter when you exhale, inhale, as long as you breathe?

    And for all those who wonder if weight loss, STing plus cardio will really do the trick, let me say that as I approach goal weight i have a flat tummy, after three pregnancies where I gained 50+ pounds and have been overweight by an average of 40 pounds most of my adult life. so it can be done! I'm over 50, so the hormones aren't responsible for my curvy shape. Yes, for those who wonder, there's a little smily fold that I hope over time will be absorbed. Yesterday, I was knocked over when i saw in the mirror something I hadn't seen before, an actual outline of my abdominal muscles. Wow! i'm not gloating here, but just attesting to the fact that if I can do this, so can everyone else! :) - 3/4/2012   6:14:34 PM
  • 78
    Thanks for the great info! Confirming! - 2/13/2012   6:32:33 PM
  • SWAYZINE27612
    77
    Informative - 1/7/2012   2:30:19 PM
  • 76
    Thanks for a good article, and it's nice to know there are other exercises to work the abs that don't involve spinal flexion. Osteopenia or osteporosis (low bone density) is not uncommon in women over 50, and people that have this condition in their spine should not do spinal flexion exercises (it puts a lot of strain on the verterbrae and can contribute to/cause a fracture depending on their bone mass). Spinal extension and other types of abs exercises are the way to go for those of us that need strengthening without stress in this area. - 12/31/2011   4:01:59 PM
  • 75
    I used to focus on the crunches. Now I am doing the 10 minute crunchless core workout. I do either 2 or 3 sets and I feel like I workout everywhere in my torso. - 9/13/2011   2:30:35 PM
  • KAROYEP
    74
    great information! - 9/13/2011   6:09:11 AM
  • 73
    Thanks, Coach Nicole, for putting it all so succinctly. I totally agree about gizmos, gadgets, and supplement promises. I'd rather spend my money on a new workout outfit! - 3/1/2011   4:28:34 PM
  • 72
    In 2006 I got the bright idea to do 1000 crunches in one day. I felt a little pop in my lower stomach. Then other problems showed up in the days following. Come to find out after a visit to my doctor, I had a prolapsed bladder and uterus. These were not caused by the crunches alone. The doctor said that after women have babies, the stomach muscles become weakened and the crunches with the birth of my daughter combined to cause my problems. Alot of a good thing is not so good. - 2/27/2011   1:08:01 PM
  • PAMELALANDIS
    71
    I have goofed at a number of these points! That's probably why I have so much "ab" to work with now. I do enjoy doing Coach Nicole's videos. If you haven't tried them, give it a shot. Thanks, Coach. Blessings to everyone. Pam - 2/25/2011   10:14:55 AM
  • 70
    I too appreciate the topic and the suggestions. I've lost 28lbs and I look and feel great. 25 or so more lbs to go and I'm sure its hanging around my mid section. I will continue to eat well and do cardio and be patient but I will also try belly dancing and be more mindful of my posture. - 2/24/2011   12:05:44 PM
  • 69
    Belly dancing is the best abs workout! There are several great DVDs (And many more bad ones) and most fitness centers have classes available these days. I took classes for several years. Then I went back to school, and dropped the bellydance for a little over a year. When I went back., just ONE HOUR per week of belly dance class took 5 inches off my waist in one month! That's four hours over 28 days, once a week. Excellent results. Now when I need to kick up it a notch for the abs, I dance dance dance! - 2/24/2011   5:07:07 AM
  • 68
    I haven't seen abdominal muscles in more years than I care to count, but I was encouraged to know they're capable of being worked--even under the layers of fat! - 2/23/2011   9:16:20 PM
  • LILREDHEAD121
    67
    Really great stuff! I learned a lot of new things! :D - 2/23/2011   3:52:53 PM
  • 66
    I actually bought a ab gizmo (i.e. Slendertone Flex Pro). Only used it a few weeks with no results...Dang those late night infomercials. - 2/23/2011   11:02:18 AM
  • 65
    Really liked your article. I had a csection with both of my babies and have now lost a bunch of weight and am working on tightening up my stomach, which I have been exercising for the last three years. I am finding that no matter how hard I try, the skin will not tighten on my tummy. I have started doing several different exercises to engage all sides of my abs and find the plank to be very useful. It hurts my back and you said that it is supposed to strengthen your back and tummy so I would assume that means it's working! Thank you for clearing up some misconceptions, too. Great job! - 2/22/2011   4:59:20 PM
  • 64
    Oh thank you! I HATE crunches, and I never feel like I am doing them right. I will check out the video of ab/core work on the ball today! - 2/22/2011   4:24:08 PM
  • 63
    People in my water classes like to do crunches floating on their backs. Most of them mistake big for effective, and do a big bend in the middle, which uses hip flexors more than the rectus abdominus. To avoid that, I have them float their bent knees on a noodle or buoys. - 2/22/2011   3:40:38 PM
  • KATE1311
    62
    This information is very helpful and practical. Learned a few things and will definately share this info with others. Thanks for the tips Nicole. BTW, my fave workouts are jogging, walking, swimming, hip hop abs, and pushups. Not a big fan of sit ups and now I know why...been doing them wrong ;-) Nice to know that I don't have - 2/22/2011   3:02:03 PM
  • 61
    My favourite way to work out my abs, is doing yoga exercises. I also love cardio, swimming, & biking. - 2/22/2011   1:11:35 PM
  • 60
    Very good article. But if you don't eat right, none of it works. - 2/22/2011   12:49:08 PM
  • 59
    @FRANKD67 Ha! I consistently make that error. Thanks for pointing out; fixed! - 2/22/2011   11:30:45 AM
  • FRANKD67
    58
    Great info, thank you. But fyi, you pull your "navel" toward your spine; anything "naval" is more likely to get pulled out to sea!
    - 2/22/2011   9:42:13 AM
  • 57
    Great article - 2/22/2011   9:26:41 AM
  • PICKANYNAME
    56
    Excellent article! THANK YOU!!!!! - 2/22/2011   9:14:05 AM
  • SISSEELOU
    55
    With all the bad info/false advertising out there no wonder we're confused! Great article, well written and very informative. Thank you, I've marked this as a "favorite" to read over and over again! - 2/22/2011   9:11:12 AM
  • 54
    This coach tells it how it is! very informative - 2/22/2011   8:59:17 AM
  • 53
    WOW! I have always felt guilty for not doing 1,000 crunches every day. I usually shoot for 4 sets of 25. Now I see that I have been right all along! HIGH FIVE! - 2/22/2011   8:35:07 AM
  • 52
    Excellent article thanks - very informative to learn about all the muscles associated with the 'abs' - 2/22/2011   8:19:54 AM
  • 51
    Valuable information! Thanks Coach Nicole! - 2/22/2011   8:10:15 AM
  • FITWISETRAINER
    50
    I teach college biomechanics and exercise physiology. Just a couple of points. Doing crunches does not "just" train the rectus abdominis. The internal obliques and external obliques are very active during spinal flexion as is the transverse abdominis. The crunchless video seems to tout the idea that we can work our "abs" without spinal flexion. What that does is isometrically works the rectus abdominis and strengthens it in that one position only. Most of the motion is coming from your hip flexors including your quads. If you want to train your spinal flexors (rectus abdominis and obliques), do spinal flexion and yes, do it from varying angles. - 2/22/2011   7:55:49 AM

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