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Why Your Ab Workout Doesn't Work and 4 Ways to Fix It

"Everyone is wasting their time at the gym doing all these stupid things." That's exactly what my friend and colleague Dr. Nate Weber (a master of exercise physiology, and sports rehab chiropractor) told me. He explained why everyone's ab workouts were not, well, working out. Luckily, he also gave some advice to keep your six-pack quest going in the right direction... but it had a lot of curse words so I rephrased it to make sure you weren't offended. Word on the street -- if you buy him a beer, you could hear the entire R-rated rant about washboard abs. Here's what the expert says:

Why your ab workout doesn't work:

You might have been trying to mix up your ab workout with super fast crunches, fancy side to side twisting, and just as many sit-ups as you can possibly handle. BUT, there's a chance that whoever made up those exercises doesn't quite understand the function of your "core" (your abdominal core, that is). 

Your abs are not meant to "sit" you up. Their function is actually to stabilize your spine while you move everything else in your body. Not very exciting, right? Wrong! This stabilization is what prevents your lower spine from being injured even when you do simple things like tie your shoes, or pick up your dropped Iphone (if the screen cracks one more time, I swear...). This is often why people "slip a disk" or have "their back go out" doing simple tasks, rather than a vicious wrestling match. 

But I get it. You sometimes wish your abs functioned as a "wow-I-look-so-hot-in-a-swimsuit-machine." We all have our vain moments, and we're not about shaming anyone here, so why don't we shoot for good form AND function (stabilizing our spines!) at the same time. 

You can crunch all day and night, but you won't lose body fat around your belly as a result of that alone. This idea (spot reduction) that you could exercise only one part of your body to lose fat from that specific area is a myth.

That one stung when Dr. Weber told me too, ouch ouch ouch... whyyyyy!?!? Come on, science!

How to get defined abs (and a strong core!)

Get your nutrition under control

  • It's ok to ask for help. A doctor, coach, or nutritionist can help tackle your problems. Portion control, food allergies and sensitivities, diet soda addictions, etc. could all be culprits of stubborn weight and inflammation.
  • If you're lacking the energy to work out in the first place, you might need to boost your B vitamins. If you already exercise, you'll need a multivitamin that keeps you going all day long.

Do cardio the right way

  • Long runs, walks, and elliptical sessions are not good at stimulating fat burning. It's not that those are bad exercises, it's just that they aren't efficient. Instead, look for high intensity interval training. Short bursts that use a lot of energy. This makes sense, because anything I can do while I watch Netflix is probably not burning a whole lot of fat (again, come on, science!).

    Lift something heavy

    • Weight lifting (arms, legs, back, etc) helps build muscle mass, and uses your core for stabilization - it's actual job!
    • Squats, deadlifts, and kettlebell swings done the right way (don't feel bad about asking a trainer!) will cook your core.

      Do short-range core exercises

      • Your ab muscles are very short, so big long movements are often wasted on them. Full body sit ups, V-ups, and Russian Twists are NOT helping (actually they're probably hurting your back. I hope you have a nice chiropractor).
      • Instead, stick with the curl-up, dead-bug, bird dog, and the good ol' plank. I've made a little something to help you figure out what exactly a "dead bug" and a "bird dog" look like. If you're doing these right, they will be hard! You can always add hand weights if needed. These 4 exercises are recommended by Dr. Nate because they've been backed by research and worked wonders in clinics all over the world.

        Flailing about with fasts twists and crunches can damage your back, not brace it. 
        We want you to move well, and protect yourself from injury... the 6 pack is just a bonus!
        So there you have it. Another good reason to NEVER do sit ups. Cha-ching! Are you practicing your "dead bug" skills today? Take a pic and tag us on instagram @well_labs. Go ahead, help us make *HEALTHY* contagious!


        (p.s. make sure to ask your doctor if it's ok for you to start a new exercise regimen)


        Hannah Anderson
        Hannah Anderson