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Top 10 Abs Training Mistakes

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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RYCGIRL 6/1/2021
thx Report
BONNIE1552 5/7/2021
Thanks. Report
ARNETTELEE 2/25/2021
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JUNETTA2002 1/2/2021
Great article. Thanks for the info Report
_CYNDY55_ 10/21/2020
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NEPTUNE1939 7/11/2020
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CECTARR 7/11/2020
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NANASUEH 7/11/2020
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Good article, thank you! Report
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Good info to know...Thx! Report
great info Report
Great to know. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
great article Report
Very informative. Report
Great article Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Nice to know what not to do. Report
Good info! Report
Good information on that. Report
This is a very good article. Coach Nicole did it again. I have several of her videos in my workouts and I try to mix them up. I have lost alot of weight and now am fighting of the "flab". It's really weird when you can take a handful of skin. Report
I really learn a lot from Coach Nicole and have been enjoying her videos. What a treasure. Report
I actually stopped doing core exercises on their own, I do full-body workouts with functional exercises, but I limit my ab work because it makes my stomach puff out like crazy and then I look pregnant (the fact my stomach gets very hard doesn't help, I've had people compliment me on going to the gym while pregnant...which would feel nice if my son wasn't almost 5). I've been focusing on losing the belly fat first but it's taking a really long time. Only one of these I'm guilty of is #5 (belly fat burners) and had some success but didn't like the side effects. Report
Using these tips will change any body type. I workout with one of the Beach Body workouts that utilizes ALL the above tips and am still amazed, after 3yrs, how much it has changed my body. I'm 47 and continue to be in the best shape of my life. This info is spot on. Report
I am definitely guilty of several such as overcrunching and not focusing on form. It helps to be reminded and jot down key points in journal. Planks are one of my favorites, they are very challenging and effective. It's always great to see even a few more seconds than the last record. Great article Report
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. Report
doing a repetition of moves helps me...but I'm just getting started. :) Report
Thanks - very informative and to the point. The 'ten point' format helped keep me focused - and will help me to remember. Report
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.
Thanks for busting the "spot-reducing" myth associated with these exercises! Report
Thanks for the information, I did not know about the dolphin and the bird dog, these are new to me. Report
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. Report
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! Report
Thanks for the information. I have to check out some of these videos. Report
Great article! Report
Great article, abs are not new to me, but dolphin pose and bird dogs are! Thanks for the fresh ideas!

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. Report
Great article. What if you mix up your exercise during a week but do similar exercises during the mix ups? Is that varying enough? Report
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. Report
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". Report
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? Report
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! Report
Great article! Report
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 .. Report
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. Report