10 Ab Exercises You’re Doing Completely Wrong
If you’re clocking hours at the gym or consistently in a fitness class to finally achieve that six pack, you’re certainly not alone. While movie stars may have us believing otherwise, toned, sculpted abs are no easy feat. They take specific and calculated movements that require a great deal of focus to do successfully. To make sure you’re not wasting your precious time crunching in the fetal position or stuck in a plank, we asked top fitness trainers to reveal the most common ab exercises they see performed poorly. Let’s take a look.
1. Flutter kicks
This movement, which involves lying on your back with your legs straight up in the air and arms extended out to your sides, is a great way to work your lower abs and obliques. A big perk is that it doesn’t even require any equipment — just a mat (or rug) for comfort.
“The common mistake I see when people try out this move is not pointing their toes out,” Chris Ryan, C.S.C.S and founder of Chris Ryan Fitness, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Pointing your toes engages your hip flexors and lower abdominal muscles.” Another mistake: Not pulling your ribs into your abs for a flat back position. “Any arch in your lower back means your abs aren’t fully engaged,” Ryan said.
2. Front-plank reaches
This is one of those moves that forces you to keep your core stable while simultaneously moving other parts of your body. While it might sound challenging, most of us do some form of this movement in our day-to-day activities (i.e., any time you reach to grab something).
“The problem I see with this move is when people sway their hips side to side when reaching their arms out or sagging their hips too low when holding the plank,” Ben Boudro, C.S.C.S. and owner of Xceleration Fitness in Auburn Hills, Michigan, told us. “To strengthen your core and allow yourself to hold the position with more of a foundation, squeeze your glute muscles while you do the plank and pull in your stomach as if you were about to take a kick.”
3. Hanging knee raises
Like its name suggests, the hanging knee raise involves hanging from a chin-up bar, raising your knees to hip level and then squeezing your core. “The problem I often see is people swinging around on the bar like a fish out of water,” Ryan said. “To maximize abdominal tension, you’ll need to engage every core muscle on both the front and back sides of your body, as well as the glutes and shoulders.” This will help neutralize any momentum or swinging effect that will take away from the effectiveness of the overall workout.
4. Mountain climbers
If you’re looking to burn excess fat while simultaneously getting your heart rate high, mountain climbers were made for you. If you can do them right, that is. “A common mistake I see is kicking your butt instead of bringing your knees high to your chest or having your butt too high in the air,” Boudro said.
To fix this, set some kind of marker directly under your chest and use that as an indicator for how far your knees should travel up. It could be a magazine, phone, or even a piece of tape. Boudro’s advice: “Notice how far your knee is coming up, should come up to about the middle of your chest, and drive that knee to your indicator every time!”
5. Side planks
If you’re looking for that sexy hip crease, side planks should definitely be a staple in your workout. Just be careful not to sag or turn your hips inward while you’re planking, as this will cause you to disengage the target muscles. “You want to think about a clean line from your ear through your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle,” said Ryan.
How to: Lie on your left side, resting your left forearm on the floor for support. Raise your hips up so your body forms a straight line and brace your abs — your weight should be on your left forearm and the edge of your left foot. Hold the position with abs braced. Repeat on the right side for the same time duration.
6. Russian twists
If you’re not focusing on one particular region of your abdomen, Russian twists are a great exercise. They strengthen both the internal and external obliques, as well as the rectus abdominis, or center abdomen. “A common mistake I see is sitting too high, which causes you to avoid placing tension on your abs, as well as not fully rotating side to side,” Boudro explained. “To fix, move your upper torso up and down until you find that sweet spot where you’re instantly feeling the burn in your stomach.”
To help ensure you’re fully rotating side to side, use the helpful cue of making eye contact with one side of the room and then the other. “Don’t just rotate with your hands, rotate with your head, too,” Boudro added.
This full-body move works your legs, core, and back all while enhancing your overall flexibility. You start by laying completely flat on your back with your arms and legs extended. Next, you engage your hip flexor and ab muscles to contract upwards into a “V” position. “The goal is not to touch your toes, but rather maximize the tension in your abdomen,” Ryan explained. But that’s the common mistake he sees most people make. “When you touch your toes and bring your arms past your ears while at full extension, you actually disengage the key core muscles you’re trying to work,” he added.
8. Reverse crunches
This versatile move is one that can be done almost anywhere. It basically involves laying flat on your back, with your legs out and your arms held under your buttocks or back, and then slowly crunching your legs into your waist without moving the upper portion of your body. But Boudro says most people bring their knees too high. “You don’t want to bring your knees past your waist because this gives your abs an unneeded break and removes the tension.”
Instead, use a broomstick, dowel, or anything else you can use to block your knees each time they come up. Start by bringing your knees just high enough to where they “kiss” the object you’re using. After you get comfortable to take off the training wheels, go to town!
9. Half-kneeling chops
Here’s an exercise you can do with bands or cables to increase tension across your ab region while simultaneously working on mobility in your hip and groin areas. Unfortunately, most people shortchange themselves by using their arms too much. “It’s an easy movement to cheat to do more reps or increased weight and tension, but remember you want stronger abs here; not stronger forearms,” Ryan said. He recommends using your arms merely as fulcrums and squeezing the max tension you can get out of each rep. This will significantly help you achieve that amazing midsection you’re working so hard for.
10. Weighted sit-ups
Sit-ups are great, but weighted sit-ups are even better. “The added tension of increased resistance further up your core region causes the overall movement to increase the tension for ripped abs and your strongest core yet,” Ryan explained.
To get started, lie on the floor holding a weight plate at your chest. Bend your knees 90 degrees with your feet on the floor and tuck your chin to your chest and sit up just past the halfway point. Just make sure to hold the weight high enough. “You want the weight to be on the upper part of your chest so you can maximize the resistance of each repetition,” Ryan said. Remember, the lower you hold the weight, the easier and less effective each repetition will become.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 2017.]