As long as you have some floor space—okay, and maybe a mat—you have all you need to start working your abs. And that’s important, since training your core, which includes the muscles around your spine, lower back, and hips, as well as your abdominal muscles, plays a huge role in improving your strength and mobility both during your workouts and in everyday life.
“Every movement you do—whether it’s walking, getting up, lying down, or whether you are in the gym or carrying your child—whatever it is, there is so much core involvement,” Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder and CEO of TS Fitness in New York City, tells SELF. “So having a strong core and a functional core is really important just for quality of life.” Not only will core strength help you perform those movements more easily, but it’ll also help guard against pain in your back, hips, and knees, he says.
You don’t need to spend hours at the gym doing exercise after exercise to start seeing results either. In fact that can actually stall your progress (which is good news for anyone hoping to squeeze in a couple of episodes of Schitt’s Creek after the gym but before bed beckons).
Adding a few abs exercises into your routine can get the process going, but to really make the most of your abs workout, you have to train smarter—not necessarily longer or harder. Follow these tips below to make your abs workout work for you.
1. If crunches are your go-to abs exercise, consider these instead.
Think of an abs exercise, any abs exercise. Did your mind automatically go to the crunch? If it did, you’re not alone—many people believe crunches, and other exercises based off similar movement patterns, like the sit-up and the bicycle crunch, are the only way to train abs, Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., founder of CORE in Brookline, Massachusetts, tells SELF.
The crunch is a spinal flexion exercise, meaning you are bending forward and extending backward, Tamir explains. Sure, that’ll train your rectus abdominus (the muscles that run along the front of your abdomen, which you probably consider your “abs muscles”), but it neglects the rest of your core.
“It’s just not a very functional way of training your core—we don’t just bend forward and backward. There are a lot of other motions we do in everyday life,” Gentilcore says. “If you do the same pattern over and over again, you open yourself up to overuse injuries and set yourself up for joint discomfort down the road.”
Your core can do more than crunch up, so train those muscles in a whole host of movement patterns. The movement patterns to add in? Ones that really work on improving your core’s stability. Think about anti-extension, where you resist arching your lower spine (like with planks); anti-rotation, where you prevent rotation at your hips and lower back (like with the Pallof press or bird-dog); and anti-lateral flexion, where you resist sideways bending of your spine (like with a single-arm farmer’s carry), says Tamir.
Once you’ve mastered those patterns, you can look to adding in other planes of motion, like rotational moves such as wood chops. You can sprinkle in some spinal flexion exercises like crunches, says Gentilcore—just make sure they are supplementing the exercises that work the other core movements and are not taking over your routine.
2. More is not better, so please, please stop training your abs every day.
You can get a good abs workout anywhere—you don’t need any special equipment, and the exercises are pretty user-friendly, even for beginners. And that’s just one reason people are tempted to work their abs way too much, says Gentilcore.
“A lot of people tend to overtrain,” says Tamir. “They try to do core every day, and they end up with things like a hernia or with lower back issues.”
Instead, think of your core like any other muscle. You wouldn’t schedule daily squat sessions, right? (Our quads hurt even thinking about it.)
To give your core muscles time to recover—which is necessary if your goal is to get stronger. Train with core-specific exercises no more than two to three times per week, says Tamir. Shoot for 9 to 12 sets per session.
If it seems like that’s not enough time to spend on those ever-important muscles, consider this: Abs exercises are definitely not the only moves that work your core. You’re challenging your core with the rest of your strength-training program. (Think of how hard your abs work stabilizing you when you’re coming back up from a squat or pressing weights over your head.)
“I always tell people, ‘If you are doing exercises and focusing on strength training and compound movements, your abdominals are definitely getting work,’ ” Gentilcore says. “You don’t need to isolate them every day.”
3. Avoid arching your back to get your core muscles in the best position to turn on.
Lots of people default into an excessive anterior pelvic tilt when they do abs exercises, says Tamir. Think of when your hips rotate forward, giving you a more pronounced arch in your lower back and making your butt stick out more. (Everyone has some natural curve in their lower backs, but it’s when it becomes excessive that it can start to become a problem and strain your lower back, says Gentilcore.)
If you work your abs while in an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, you won’t be able to isolate your core effectively, says Tamir.
“You’re not putting your core and rib cage in a good position to engage itself and protect the lower back,” he says. “You are not getting the most out of the muscles.” What’s more, you can end up recruiting other muscles to work instead, which is why it can end up straining your lower back and hip flexors.
Tight hip flexors can play a big role in creating that anterior pelvic tilt, so you should focus on releasing them before you start your abs work, like through foam rolling, Tamir says. Sitting for too long can tighten them too, so before you even get to the gym, make sure you take a few walk breaks throughout the day to loosen them up.
Then, once you’re ready to lift, think of bringing your belt buckle to your chin, he says. This will help your pelvis tilt to a more posterior position, allowing your rib cage to stack above your hips and your glutes to tuck in, putting you in a better (and safer) position to engage your core.
4. Breathe deeply to get your core muscles to really fire.
Mastering a deep exhale will also help you get your core in the best possible position to really help it fire when you’re performing abs exercises.
“A full exhale is going to be important to turn your abs on a little better,” says Gentilcore. “That breathing component is a very underrated component of abdominal training for sure. It takes practice.”
So how can you tell you’re breathing out a hard enough exhale? Try this test. Lie down on a mat, placing your hands just below your ribcage. Inhale, purse your lips, and forcefully exhale for five to 10 seconds—your breath should be sputtering by the end, and you should be able to feel your abdominals forcefully contract underneath your hands, Gentilcore says.
This is the “brace” you will use when you begin your core exercises, and it’ll help get you get out of that excessive anterior pelvic tilt and cue the safer, posterior pelvic tilt positioning, he says.
Then, once you start your exercises, make sure you continue to breathe (definitely do not hold your breath) while you maintain that brace. You’ll exhale during the part of the move that requires the greatest exertion, and inhale at the least, says Tamir.
5. Don’t burn yourself out by starting your workout with all the core stuff.
While you should definitely do some moves to activate your abs during your warm-up—think planking motions, dead bugs, or balance exercises—front-loading your core work to the beginning of your workout can burn you out for the rest of it, says Tamir.
“I wouldn’t advise toasting up your core before a workout—you’re going to need it for everything else,” he says. Remember, your abs are working hard during compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses to help stabilize you.
Save your core exercises for the middle or the end of your strength-training workout, Tamir says. If you are doing a circuit workout, though, you can sprinkle it in among your exercises.
6. Change up your exercises for a better balance.
If you have a go-to abs exercise—and you focus on that to the exclusion of other movement patterns—you might be on your way to a strength imbalance, since you’ll only be working certain muscles, says Tamir.
“Your gains from the exercise will be pretty limited, just because your body adapts,” Tamir says “You want to keep it different, give your body different stimuli so it can get stronger and grow. Otherwise, it will just adjust and you won’t see the benefits of it.”
So create a core program that includes all the movement variations in it, and then stick to it for four to six weeks to make sure you’ve mastered the movements and are getting stronger (if that’s your goal). But you can shake it up a little during that time frame so you don’t get bored. One way of doing that is incorporating variations of the same exercise that still work the same muscles every other week or so, Tamir says. So, for instance, if you start with the plank, you might switch it up with plank variations like the forearm plank rock or the plank jack.