5 Facts You Should Know About Working Your Abs

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Your abdominal muscles play a crucial role in providing stability for your spine and helping you move your body. Increasing your core strength and stability is a worthwhile goal, but many people may confuse ab workouts with those that can burn fat.

Exercises that can build muscle and improve function in your abdominals are not the same ones that might reduce the size of your midsection. While waist circumference is an indicator of disease risk, it is only a small part of a larger picture when it comes to overall health.

Learn more about your abdominal muscles and how to work them, as well as the limitations of ab workouts.

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The Facts About Your Abs

Much of the frustration surrounding the abs is due to misinformation and unrealistic expectations. Despite the hard work of trainers everywhere, people still cling to outdated ideas on the proper way to work their abs and get the much-desired "six-pack."

Also, remember that having a strong core can help you with almost any sport or physical activity—but your abs are only part of your core. The core also includes your obliques (the muscles at the sides of your abdomen) and other muscles in your back, and even your glutes (butt).

Examining the facts surrounding your abs is the first step toward setting reasonable goals for yourself.

Doing Ab Exercises Doesn't Get Rid of Abdominal Fat

Unfortunately, spot reduction doesn't work, for the abs or any other body part. The fallacy of spot reduction assumes that, if you have fat over your abs, then exercising the ab muscles will make that fat go away.

While exercising the muscle may increase endurance or strength, it won't burn off the fat in that area. The reason for this is because the body draws energy from the entire body when exercising, not just from the part you're working on.

The only way to burn fat from your belly is to reduce overall body fat by creating a calorie deficit. The healthiest way to do that is with a consistent exercise—cardio, weight training, and flexibility—and a healthy, low-calorie diet.

Keep in mind that doing all of that is no guarantee you'll lose belly fat. That's up to your genetics, age, and hormones, among other factors not always in our control.

Ab Muscles Aren't Different From Other Muscles of the Body

Your abdominal muscles are like other muscles of the body and grow and become stronger in the same way, using resistance training that progressively gets more challenging as you continue to train consistently.

For this reason, you should train them the same way you would train your biceps or your chest, for instance. That means strength training 2 to 3 times a week with rest in between and a variety of exercises to target different areas of the abs.

Try dynamic moves that focus on core strength and involve your stabilizer muscles, the muscles you use all day long to hold your body in place. One of these is the plank. To do this move, get into a push-up position and hold it for as long as you can, keeping your belly tight and your body straight. You can do this move on your elbows, which is more challenging, or on your toes.

Vertical Crunch

The vertical crunch is another great ab move that fires all of your abdominal muscle fibers:

  1. Lie on the floor with your legs up (straight or slightly bent) and aim the soles of your feet at the ceiling.
  2. Imagine that you're holding something fragile on your feet, like a tray of glasses filled with water.
  3. Lift the 'tray' straight up toward the ceiling until your hips are off the floor. This is a very small, but very intense movement.
  4. Do it slowly and complete 1 to 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps.

Strength training is important to keep your core strong. Incorporating ab exercises into a complete routine is an effective strategy.

Ab Exercises Are About Quality Not Quantity

In the old days of fitness classes and videos, most of us probably did hundreds (or more) crunches and other ab exercises, thinking that was the best way to work them. As mentioned already, your abs are like other muscles of your body. You wouldn't do 100 biceps curls, nor should you do 100 crunches. The real key to strong abs is about quality, not quantity.

To make strength gains with your abs, follow the same principles that apply everywhere else. This means you have to overload your muscles. If you have to do 50 or more crunches before you feel fatigued, slow down and concentrate on your technique and on having good form.

And don't forget that doing the same exercise repeatedly isn't always the best way to make progress. Therefore, your body gets used to exercises and becomes more efficient at them. In fact, you don't have to do a single crunch to get a great ab workout.

Do various exercises to target your rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. Don't just think of your abs as a way to look great—that their purpose is to support your spine and help you have good posture. If you need more challenging exercises, consider getting an exercise ball or try advanced ab exercises.

Genetic Factors Can Influence Body Shape

For many people, it's not physiologically possible to achieve a flat stomach. Nor should this necessarily be a goal, and it certainly does not determine whether or not you are healthy. While keeping your waist circumference within a certain range may improve your general health, this measure is only part of what makes up a person's health status.

There are many factors that determine body shape, including age, genetics, sex, hormones, body type, lifestyle, eating habits, stress management, and sleep habits. Striving for an unrealistic body shape can damage your mental health and self-esteem.

Yes, you can exercise and reduce your body fat, but you can't choose where you lose fat. To get six-pack abs, you may have to drop your body fat to a level that is either a struggle to maintain or downright unhealthy. Many of us have the goal to get six-pack abs but most will find it difficult to reach that goal.

If this is true for you, trying to reach an impossible goal is only going to frustrate you. Set reachable goals for yourself and aim to find peace with your body shape. Challenge yourself by taking care of your body and learning how to accept it as it is.

You Don't Need Special Equipment to Work Your Abs

There's almost nothing more fascinating than those ab gadget infomercials. By using some kind of chair or wheel or vibrating belt, the belly fat will just melt away, right? The models in those commercials certainly look the part, but they definitely didn't get those flat abs by using a machine.

The first rule of these infomercials and ab gadgets is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The second rule is that the people selling this equipment likely don't care if you get flat abs. They just want your money.

Most importantly, you don't need any special equipment to work on your abs. You can do a wide variety of ab exercises with just your bodyweight or with an exercise ball, which is often much cheaper than the gadgets you see on infomercials.

Tip

You're better off buying equipment that has multiple uses. Ab machines only work the abs, but things like dumbbells, an exercise ball, and resistance bands can be used to train your entire body.

A Word From Verywell

Striving to improve your strength, stability, and daily functioning will improve your life immeasurably. Our bodies function as a whole, both as we exercise and as we lose or gain body fat and muscle. Body shape is unique and often out of our control. Work on the things you can control, like your diet, exercise, stress levels, and sleep management.

If weight loss is a goal for you, speak to a health care provider about what the best steps may be. Recognize that weight loss doesn't always lead to better health, depending on your methods. As well, waist size is a small part of the bigger picture when it comes to overall wellness and quality of life.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Karastergiou K, Smith S, Greenberg A, Fried S. Sex differences in human adipose tissues – the biology of pear shape. Biol Sex Differ. 2012;9(28). doi:10.1186/2042-6410-3-13

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By Paige Waehner
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."