Top 10 Abs Training Mistakes


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  109 comments   :  581,985 Views

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

#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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  • 59
    Very good article. But if you don't eat right, none of it works. - 2/22/2011   12:49:08 PM
  • 58
    @FRANKD67 Ha! I consistently make that error. Thanks for pointing out; fixed! - 2/22/2011   11:30:45 AM
  • FRANKD67
    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
  • 56
    Great article - 2/22/2011   9:26:41 AM
    Excellent article! THANK YOU!!!!! - 2/22/2011   9:14:05 AM
    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
  • 53
    This coach tells it how it is! very informative - 2/22/2011   8:59:17 AM
  • 52
    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
  • 51
    Excellent article thanks - very informative to learn about all the muscles associated with the 'abs' - 2/22/2011   8:19:54 AM
  • 50
    Valuable information! Thanks Coach Nicole! - 2/22/2011   8:10:15 AM
    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
    Finally an article hat incorporates everthing about how important your core is. Veerryy helpful! - 2/22/2011   7:47:00 AM
    I NEED HELP!! I train several times per week (pilates, yoga, aerobics and weights) and I eat well. I am 5ft tall (155cm) and 55kg (121pounds) so healthy weight. I have had 3 babies and the first was over 11 pound! (5kg). The separation in the muscles is still really bad and it seems the more I exercise the worse it gets. My dr has said my only option from here is surgery to reattach the muscle but was wandering if anyone has any other ideas? - 2/22/2011   7:14:35 AM
    Nicole. Loved this article for its honesty. Lots of great information in this article. - 2/22/2011   5:43:37 AM
  • 45
    Wonderful article Coach Nicole thanks agian. One of my main goals is to get a flatter tummy. - 2/20/2011   1:43:42 PM
  • 44
    this is by far the best abd exercise info I've read. Been working on abds for a long time! No wonder I haven't seen any results. Thanks for this valuable info
    - 2/18/2011   9:48:56 PM
  • 43
    How about #11: not including cardio? You can't *see* the abs if you don't get your heart rate up and burn the fat. I love kickboxing, and my core definitely feels the burn after even just a few minutes. - 2/18/2011   11:32:42 AM
  • 42
    I really appreciate this how many you accomplish is proven not to be the most effective way to get results. THANKS! - 2/18/2011   10:43:33 AM
  • 41
    I have made some of these mistakes. I now work out mainly with dvds and my favorites are Hip Hop Abs and Rockin' Body cos Shaun does standing up routines. I'm not a fan of crunches! I also love RevAbs becos Brett works the abs from 6 angles and teaches you how to breathe properly. - 2/18/2011   9:25:33 AM
  • 40
    Thanks for such a good summary of a very important topic. I have just begun to recognize the importance of exercising the entire body. I use your workouts and DVD's often. They provide a doable length, and good instruction. I am guilty of poor form and working hard to figure out where my body is located in space. It will take some time, but I do see some difference. Thanks again. - 2/17/2011   5:13:43 PM
  • 39
    #9 is really key. I've seen many people (including me) get up from exercising the abs and return to allowing the pelvis to tilt forward and the butt to stick out, i.e. not using the abs to align and support the back. 15 minutes of using the abs, then 16+ hours of not using the abs. - 2/17/2011   3:01:57 PM
  • 38
    I'm always preaching good form. So many people have poor form that they are hurting their back or legs. Exercise in good form and a proper diet and you will see results. - 2/17/2011   1:20:55 PM
  • 37
    I always notice other people's posture, but seem unconscience of my own. What a great way to improve my abs and my overall appearance at the same time. - 2/17/2011   11:10:11 AM
  • 36
    This was a terrific article! I learned a whole new way to think about my abs and how to use exercise properly. Thanks Nicole! - 2/17/2011   10:47:44 AM
  • 35
    Thank you, Coach Nicole! I always have to bite my tongue to keep from commenting when I see people making these mistakes, especially #1 and #2. I've decided to assume they're going for a feeling of accomplishment, rather than toned abs. - 2/17/2011   10:39:00 AM
  • 34
    I follow one of Coach Nicole's videos at least 5 days a week and she is correct in her statement that she repeats several times throughout the video to "engage those abs". My problem is that when I focus on engaging my abs I hold my breath. This is somthing that I am trying to work through. - 2/17/2011   10:05:12 AM
  • 33
    Wow thanks for the info - 2/17/2011   10:00:03 AM
  • 32
    very good information maybe I can get rid of my muffin top now thanks so much Coach Nicole - 2/17/2011   9:59:52 AM
  • 31
    Great info. Thanks, Coach Nicole. - 2/17/2011   9:24:47 AM
  • 30
    I own the Ab Lounge. I actually can see results quickly when I use it-but that is the key-you have to actully USE it, lol. It also makes a great sweater drier.
    Great article, lots of info. Thanks.
    Martha - 2/17/2011   9:21:40 AM
  • 29
    Been looking for some good abs exercises I can do without straining my old bod. Gonna try these as soon as I get a mat to cushion my knees. Thanks for this! - 2/17/2011   9:13:39 AM
  • -NALA-
    I've been doing the 15-minute routine (along with cardio and strength training), and am already starting to see results after only 7 days! I only do the 15min routine every other day to give my core a rest. - 2/17/2011   8:23:20 AM
  • 27
    Very imformative. - 2/17/2011   8:22:34 AM
    Great blog! I've become aware of some of these mistakes and am working on them. Now I'll be even more aware, and great ideas for different exercises! - 2/17/2011   7:59:20 AM
  • 25
    My #1 no-no - terrible posture when not working out! Thanks for this list - my ab work will be more mindful for it! - 2/17/2011   5:07:37 AM
  • 24
    Coach Nicole rocks! ....just sayin' - 2/17/2011   2:07:14 AM
  • 23
    Impressive article! Thank you! - 2/17/2011   12:02:59 AM
  • 22
    Great article! I do 4-6 ab exercises twice a week (I pick a plank, one for the obliques, one for the back, at least one kind of crunch and then 1 or 2 others). If I'm doing the same exercises each session I add time or repititions pretty frequently and I always change out at least one of my exercises each time.

    Thanks for the suggested exercises! I was trying to think of new ones for the lower back other than classic extensions. I'm going to try out the bird dog one (mostly because I like the name). - 2/17/2011   12:02:34 AM
  • 21
    I'm going to check these exersizes out. So far I've been concentrating on just eating right and fitting in exercise, but I think I'm going to try to fit in ab training too now~ty for the tips! - 2/16/2011   10:05:12 PM
    I can feel my tight abs, but they are hidden under my post-pregnancy belly. LOL! If only it were easier to fix that... - 2/16/2011   8:48:47 PM
  • 19
    Few people get perfect abs. - 2/16/2011   8:43:31 PM
  • 18
    Thanks for the blog, saved to favorites too! Abs are something I want to tone but always forget or omit for some reason during workouts. Going to try the Crunchless 10 min workout today! - 2/16/2011   8:14:46 PM
  • 17
    Great blog!! One of the things I most appreciate about your workout videos is that you are always reminding us to engage our abs which is something that I have come to think about as I go through the rest of my day! Thanks!! - 2/16/2011   5:43:01 PM
  • MDGIRL1021
    Great article! I try really hard to suck my belly button into my spine while I'm doing any ab exercise--you feel the burn more and keep proper form. Another tip (this one is from Jillian Michaels in her No More Trouble Zones): breathe properly while you're working abs, don't hold your breath! - 2/16/2011   4:11:55 PM
  • 15
    This is just the message I needed. I must admit I am guilty of buying the machines. I just bought one; however, I do mix it up a little. I do the machine, but I take Zumba classes and I have turbo jam too. I agree with Blinkygirl2, but it wasn't this hard putting on the weight, so I want that quick feeling for getting it off. LOL :-) - 2/16/2011   2:35:11 PM
  • 14
    Thank you so much ... I never knew there was that much information about the abs. Very informative - 2/16/2011   2:28:42 PM
  • 13
    Great article about abs. I have a fused spine, so doing crunches is a no-no. I am always looking for other moves that help with all the muscles in both the front (stomach/abs) and lower back that I can perform safely. :) - 2/16/2011   1:53:08 PM
    Of course we all want a quick fix but the belly fat didn't come over night. be patient, do the exercises and especially watch what your eating. - 2/16/2011   1:47:09 PM
  • 11
    My husband and I take a core training class, cleverly called "Absolution" at our gym twice a week. I am thrilled that our instructor "mixes it up" and leads us through many of the different exercises described in the blog. It's like he is using this article as a handbook for the class! - 2/16/2011   1:25:35 PM
  • 10
    I'm horrible at fitting strength training in my day. Cardio just feels so good to me that I always would rather spend my time doing that. So I guess my biggest problem of mine is neglecting them all together! - 2/16/2011   12:32:31 PM

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