Working out your abs can build core strength, develop visible muscle around your stomach, and improve your balance, posture, and circulation. But there's a lot of inaccurate information out there about how to actually work these muscles.
But, do you think you can’t eat carbs and have a flat tum? Or that just doing sit-ups will give you a six pack? Not necessarily true.
To help you in your quest for a tight, toned tum, we bust the belly myths and reveal what really helps you get a firmer core...
Abs workout myth #1: You have to do hundreds of stomach crunches to get rock-hard abs
Knocking out 50 crunches a week to get your abs in shape? You may be doing more harm than good. They’re notorious for bad technique – jutting your neck out as you curl up can create enormous strain.
‘People often bash out a set with little thought given to form or time under tension,’ explains Amy Tarr (opens in new tab), founder of personal training company Giant Leap Training (opens in new tab). ‘This can lead to your hip flexors taking over, making them short and tight.’
So if you’re going to do them, make sure you do them right (see our how to do a crunch guide for detailed instructions) and do them slowly. But if you’re looking for a longer, leaner silhouette, try these oblique (side) exercises…
Side Plank Dips
Lie on your side with legs fully extended and weight supported by your forearm and palm resting on floor. Place one foot on top of the other and lift your body off the floor. Dip your hips down towards the floor, before lifting back up. Aim for 3 sets of 8.
Cross-Body Mountain Climbers
Begin in push-up position, with weight evenly distributed between your arms and heels. Engage core and draw your left knee as close to your right elbow as possible. Return to start and switch sides. Aim for 4 sets of 12.
Lie on your back and spread your arms at a 90° angle with your body. Raise your legs off the floor. Keep them together and rotate to the left, lowering towards, but not quite touching, the floor. Return to centre and repeat on the right. Aim for 4 sets of 12.
For more core workout inspiration, check out the moves in our 30 day abs challenge.
Abs workout myth #2: Training my abs continuously will eventually give me a six-pack
If you're wondering how to get a six pack, know this: there’s no point powering through planks if you still have a layer of fat surrounding your core. ‘If your body fat is over 12%, your abs will stay hidden, no matter how developed your rectus abdominis muscle is,’ explains Chris Richardson, co- founder of Zero Gravity Pilates (opens in new tab).
To shed this layer, you need to create a calorie deficit. Cut back on sugar, alcohol and refined carbs, eat a range of grains, fruit, vegetables and lean protein, and do at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise four times a week, including running, swimming, cycling or HIIT.
But remember to give your body a break, too. ‘If you train your abs intensely, they need rest to recover and regenerate,’ says Chris. This will help them become stronger for your next session.
Abs workout myth #3: You can’t eat carbs and have a tight, flat tummy
‘There’s no one size fits all. Some people will react better to carbs than others,’ says fitness writer and Fit at 40 campaigner James Crossley (opens in new tab). James suggests recording a food diary for three days. ‘Most people will have a very high carb diet, so it might be time to limit your intake of calories and carbs, especially if you’re trying to lose body fat.’
But James believes any dietary changes need to be small and sustainable if you want to avoid piling the weight back on. ‘Switch your pasta and white rice for brown rice and sweet potato or ditch sugary cereal for a couple of poached eggs and salmon.’
Abs workout myth #4: Slower reps are better for toning your abs
Doing ab exercises at a slow, controlled pace is great, especially when doing sit-ups, but it’s even better if you can mix up your rep speeds.
‘Slow reps help you focus on the target muscle. However, fast reps use more muscle fibres, especially the external obliques (the ones that define your waist),’ explains Chris. ‘Start with slow, controlled reps, then finish off with faster pulses to get maximum activation and exhaust the muscle.
Abs workout myth #5: It will take years to get my stomach in shape
We all have abs, we just need to find them. Trainer Scott Laidler (opens in new tab) recommends taking up a full-body training regime – so that means mixing in cardio workouts as well as core-strength training, too – and you should notice visual changes after about four weeks.
He’s also a big fan of Pilates. ‘You’ll experience a different relationship with your abdominal muscles than you’ve ever had before,’ says Scott. ‘Once you’ve established a connection with your ab muscles, you’ll be more in control of your core and your stomach will appear flatter.’
Scott’s top tummy toner? The Corkscrew: a great move for all your core muscles, particularly your obliques. Lie on your back, arms by your side, palms down and extend legs to the ceiling.
Keeping legs together, lower them to the right, then circle down towards the floor as far as you can go, without straining your back. Then lift round to the left and back to the start. Repeat in the other direction.
Natalia is a health and fitness journalist who has written for the likes of Woman & Home and Marie Claire, and likes to practice what she preaches when it comes to staying fit and well. She loves the outdoors and would happily swap the treadmill for the trail at any opportunity. As such, in her free time you'll likely find her up a mountain somewhere. She has hiked eight of the major mountain ranges across four continents, including the Appalachians, the Smokies, the Sierra Nevadas (where she hiked to the top of Half Dome during her honeymoon) and the Atlas Mountains, as well hitting the summits of Snowdon and Pen-Y-Fan (Brecon Beacons), Table Mountain in South Africa and the Blue Mountains in Australia. She was also a fencer for 13 years, wielding an epée for Team GB during her teenage years. Having recently welcomed a baby, Natalia is currently getting back into her fitness routine, and has her sights set on completing a triathlon, something she and her husband started out on before their bundle of joy arrived.
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