Why Your Ab Workouts Don’t Work
Abs might be made in the kitchen, but that only tells half the story of why so many people perform endless abs exercises and still don’t see the results they want.
Just because you focus time and effort on a particular body part—more planks and crunches, anyone?— doesn’t mean your body will respond the way you want. While genetics will always play a factor in how you look, your biggest problem is not your DNA; it’s the exercises you select and how you activate your muscles while performing them.
Developing the strongest core possible involves all of your muscles, not just the ones you think of when you look in the mirror.
Unlike other exercises where it might be hard to tell if you’re doing an exercise correctly, it’s easy to “feel” most core movements. And, that makes it easy to think that what you’re doing is working.
But, what you don’t realize is that how you perform the exercises you choose — no matter how much they burn — make a big difference in the results you see.
Consider these the rules of effective ab workouts. Follow them, and it’ll ensure that the exercises you do will help prevent injuries like lower back pain and bring out the best in your body.
Core Rule #1: Create Tension in Your Abs
When people think of bracing their abs, usually it just involves the rectus abdominus, AKA your 6-pack muscle, which runs down the front of your body. This is great if you’re getting ready to be punched in the gut, but it usually also involves some level of spinal flexion (think rounding your back) and decreased involvement of other spinal supporting muscles.
Developing the strongest core possible involves using all of your muscles, not just the ones you think of when you look in the mirror.
If you’re standing up holding a lot of weight during a deadlift, you need a lot more than your six-pack to protect your spine and prevent injury.
How to Build Ab Tension
Try this: sit up nice and tall wherever you are and put your hands on your lower back, one hand on either side of the spine and flat to the muscles beside it.
Flex your abs and see what you feel under your hands.
If you felt nothing, you’re likely only flexing your spine and not engaging everything around your spine. Try to flex again, but this time try to bring every muscle around your waist into the mix. Here’s what you want to experience:
- Feel your ribs pull into your center.
- Force your shoulders to pull back slightly.
- Feel contraction under your hands in your lower back, all while feeling incredibly strong and powerful.
This feeling is the one you want to try to replicate with your exercises. Now comes the tricky part. Inhale and exhale without losing that tension. (Also known as bracing.)
It’s tricky because bracing very hard will restrict your breathing, but without breathing you would likely not fare as well in longer duration exercise. Not to mention, passing out in the gym is generally something you want to avoid unless you’re looking to star in the next viral YouTube video.
How to Make Bracing Easier
The Farmer’s walk teaches you how to brace and keep tension while breathing. Grab two dumbbells or kettlebells, stand tall, grip the handles hard, and take them for a walk for as far as your grip will allow. That’s it, but make sure you practice the bracing and breathing.
Core Rule #2: Activate Your Glutes During Core Exercises
If you want a burn in your abs like never before, flex your glutes when you perform core exercises. While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive to use a muscle group on the other side of your body, your glutes have specific functions that directly impact the action of your abs.
Your glutes not only cause hip extension but also cause your pelvis to go through a “posterior tilt.” Think of this movement as trying to roll your hips so that your tailbone comes closer to your knees. This posterior tilt involves a lot of ab activation.
How to Activate your Glutes
Do a plank, but try to squeeze your glutes as hard as possible and see what happens with your abs. If you want even more tension and ridiculous amounts of suffering (and benefits), squeeze your armpits too by pressing your forearms into the floor.
Core Tip #3: Improve Your Mobility
Holding a static stretch for a few seconds or even a minute or more might feel great, but it isn’t likely to increase your mobility. And before you say, “who cares about your mobility,” the answer is your abs care.
More mobility leads to better stability. Better stability leads to more muscle activation. More muscle activation is a key component of better abs, more strength, and fewer injuries.
One very effective method involves short bursts where you maximize tension during core stability exercises. A core stability exercise is anything like a plank, side plank, or half-kneeling hold.
Here’s an example of the process in action.
This concept can be used effectively as part of a warm-up for a workout, or in between challenging sets of more traditional weight training exercises. An example of this would be as follows:
Perform 3 “reps” of 10-holds of each of the following:
- Standard plank
- Side plank (3 reps on each side)
- ½ kneeling hold with elastic pulling you to the side, each side
- Glute bridge, max contractions
Repeat for 2 sets each.
In-between sets version
- Exercise A (any move you’re doing in your workout)
- Front plank, 3 x 10 seconds
Complete this series as a superset before resting.
- Exercise B
- Rotational planks, 8 reps each side
Complete this series as a superset before resting.
Glute bridge leg swings, 8 each (Complete this series as a superset before rest)
Core Tip #4: Add Speed to Basic Movements
Using speed doesn’t simply mean trying to set the record for how quickly you can blast through an entire set of an exercise. This is about the time taken to complete a single rep, all while maintaining tension in your muscles.
When working on speed, the goal is to make the movement as fast as possible, then recover enough to allow for a similar or faster speed to occur. Think of this as an intensity continuum: you want to push yourself to create maximum intensity on each set and rep.
Consider the difference between doing a seated military press (usually a slower speed movement) and an Olympic weightlifter doing a jerk press. The movement is exactly the same with respect to the involvement of the upper body, but the jerk press is faster in execution and requires a lot more timing and technique to execute properly.
How to Add Speed
Try doing a basic exercise like a bird dog. You could do a “neuropulse,” where you try to make your arm and leg movements as fast as possible and recover back to the starting position without falling over.
You could do something similar with a stomping motion to increase drive velocity through your hips, knees, and ankles.
This would be an incredible way to prepare for exercises such as squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifting, or sprinting.
Core Tip #5: Master Your Breathing
How you breathe during a max-weight squat, sprint, sparring session, or a yoga class should be very different. And learning how to tailor your breathing to specific activities won’t only make you better at what you’re doing, but it’ll also have a surprising core and abs benefit.
Here are a few things you should consider based on the activity you perform.
How to Breathe During Max Lifts
If you’re looking to lift a max weight, you would likely benefit from taking a massive inhale prior to starting the rep and then holding your breath. You want to squeeze your breath as hard as possible to help increase spinal stability and core pressure to prevent losing control of the weight.
How to Breathe When Sprinting
If sprinting is more up your alley, breathing in a pulsed manner when your foot hits the ground would give you an instantaneous burst of stability and core activity that would help propel you down.
This is preferred over long, slow breathing or holding your breath. This is similar to sparring, where timing your exhales to your punches would help you generate more power and last longer before you run out of steam.
How to Breathe For Yoga
For mobility or activities like yoga, longer and deeper inhales and exhales are ideal. It can be a little tricky to understand, so let’s break it down.
Try this: Sitting up nice and tall, put your hands on your stomach and take a deep long inhale, trying to fill your belly. If done correctly, you should feel your stomach press out into your hands.
Exhale nice and slowly and see how your abdominal muscles feel. They’re likely soft and supple.
Now try to take a big inhale, then close your mouth and squeeze your abs hard, like squeezing a balloon without letting the air out. Your abs will likely feel solid and like you’re not going anywhere. Then, breathe out hard and try to flex the abs as hard as possible while doing it.
Lastly, keeping your hands on your stomach, take a fast hard sniff in through your nose. Feel what your abs did, and then exhale in a sharp, short, and hard breath like a martial artist throwing a jab or punch.
Your abs probably had more of a twitch-type contraction where they saw a massive shapeshift, became rock hard for an instant, and then went back to their resting state. This quick on-off cycle is one of the keys to athleticism and speed development.
These quick and simple tips will not only help you see the difference in better-defined and stronger abs, but you’ll feel the difference when it comes to moving weights, running, and being more athletic.
Better Abs, Better Core, Better Body
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[Editor’s note: Born Fitness receives no compensation for the recommendation or purchases of Advanced Core Training. As part of our editorial integrity, compensation is not involved in any content recommendation, unless otherwise mentioned.]
Dean Somerset is an exercise physiologist in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. Between writing articles for publishers like Men’s Health, T-Nation, and Bodybuilding.com, Dean trains a variety of clients, from medical rehabilitation through to world and Olympic champion athletes of various sports, and even paralympic athletes. He also enjoys squats and cookies, not necessarily in that order.