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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Secrets to great abs (hint - it's not sit-ups)

Just about everyone I see at the gym spends at least some of their workout doing some type of sit-up or crunch. Now I've been going to this gym for five months, and I see the same people regularly. What I can tell you is that the same people I see doing sit-ups every week still have the same flabby midsections they had five months ago. Maybe you've experienced the same thing - sit-up after sit-up, crunch after crunch, and still you don't have a toned midsection.

Well, I'll tell you two things I've learned about great abs. The first, and this is an important one:

Abs are made in the kitchen.

In short, visible and toned abs only emerge when your overall body fat is low. Your nutrition is a huge part of this. It doesn't matter how many hours you spend in the gym or how many sit-ups you do. If you don't eat a healthy diet at an appropriate calorie level for your body, you will not have visible abs.

Now the second one is actually my favorite:

You can (and should) get strong abs without doing a single sit-up or crunch.

Yep, although it surprised me to find it out, this is actually true. And your back will thank you for realizing it! Here are a list of exercises to avoid:

Sit-ups, especially those where the feet are "locked" works the hip flexors more than the abs, plus they put strain on the back. Forget them!

"Ab Rocker" and other machines used to support the head actually weaken your neck muscles exposing you to greater risk of injury AND none have been proven more effective than exercises done without equipment.

Weight lifting machines designed to target ab muscles isolate the movements and do not provide you with a true functional exercise. As a result, they can cause injury and create muscle imbalances.

Crunches, although not a bad exercises, are terribly overused. Especially when done with your back flat on the floor, they shorten your abdominal wall, and are less effective than many other ab exercises.

So then I've likely just taken away most of the ways you know to work your abs, let me tell share my favorite ab exercises with you:

Plank - It's my favorite, and a classic -- just as effective as a crunch without the strain on the back. If you can't hold a plank for at least 20 seconds, you should focus on being able to do that before moving on to any other ab exercise. You can increase difficulty by putting your forearms on a swiss/stability ball. You can also do side planks to work the obliques.

Stability ball jackknife - This one takes some practice, but I've found it extremely effective. A more advanced move is the stability ball pike, and I suggest you practice it at home, as attempting it in a busy gym for the first time can be a bit intimidating.

Hanging knee raise or knee raise on captain's chair - This is the hardest of the exercises I've listed, at least in my opinion. If you have access to a captain's chair, you can also keep your legs straight and raise them up to your waist as a variation.

If you want something even more challenging, there is a great workout used by the UNC Tar Heels. I recommended it to a colleague with a bad back, and he says it has changed his life! The workout does have some crunches, so I generally substitute those with planks with my hands on the medicine ball.

So if you, like me, hate sit-ups and crunches, I hope you can celebrate your freedom from them. If you want great abs, clean up your nutrition, work off that body fat, and incorporate some of the core training exercises I've listed above.

Let me know how they work out for you!


  1. Hello Liz...found your blog from Abby's ("I Not Neurotic")...just wanted to say a couple of things: First, congratulations on your success getting to where you are today...I've read most of your blog and it's very motivating.

    Second, I love the three core exercises you posted...all great ab exercises! I'm glad you gave the 'ab machines' a thumbs down...couldn't agree more that they're a "waist of time" ( pun and typo intended).

    Thanks for the post!


  2. Hi Fred! Thanks so much for stopping by! It's great to have a new reader. I love Abby's blog - talk about motivating! I used to do a ton of crunches on my stability ball and my abs are so much firmer now than they were then. Amazing what a little knowledge can get you, is it not?


  3. Wow! Our three favorite ab exercises are the same! We must be geniuses!

    I'll second what you say bout planks; if you can't hold one for 20 seconds, then don't dare do a sit up! There are a lot of coaches who won't allow their athletes to lift any weights until they can hold a front plank for 120 seconds.

  4. Grandsweepers, when I saw your post on Gyminee, I had a good laugh for the very same reason! Congrats on being a genius! ;)

    Not lifting any weights until you can hold a front plank for 2 minutes? I don't know if I'd be that extreme, but it sounds like a good way to ensure you team knows you aren't joking about the importance of core strength!