Why Your Ab Workouts Don’t Work

Want better ab workouts? It’s time to stop trying all the best core workouts and start thinking of your abs like, “The Five Love Languages.

In Love Languages, a doctor shows how love isn’t enough to make a relationship work; you need the right type of love for your partner. The same can be said for all of your workout struggles. Just because you focus time and effort on a particular body part—more planks and crunches, anyone?—doesn’t mean it’ll respond the way you want.

While genetics will always play a factor in how you look, your biggest problem is not your DNA; it’s your abs workout.

Developing the strongest core possible involves all of your muscles, not just the ones you think of when you look in the mirror.

The hardest thing about core workouts is most exercises feel right. When you perform 3 sets of 50 side lying crunches, someone might as well have stuffed a steel rod in your ribs. You know your abs are working, but what you don’t realize is how much harder (and better) you could be challenging those muscles and seeing more results for your efforts.

Just think: sprinting, jumping as high as possible, and throwing heavy objects can tear up your abs, and these exercises develop more strength, explosive power, and even carve your abs in ways that make them pop.

So why are you doing those side crunches?

When following an ab workout, what you do and how you do it has become lost in translation. You might perform the popular exercises or feel your abs work, but there’s a reason you’re not seeing the changes you want—and it’s not just a matter of diet. Figuring out those mistakes and providing solutions are the foundation of Advanced Core Training

Let’s fix the most common problems and help you speak the language of core training. Consider these the 5 Core Languages. Become fluent in these tips and you’ll always be performing the best ab workouts, preventing injuries like lower back pain, and doing what’s best for your body.

Core Rule #1: Learn to Create Tension

When people think of bracing their abs, usually it just involves the rectus abdominus, or your 6-pack muscle that runs down the front of your body. This is great if you’re getting ready to be punched in the gut, but it usually also involves some level of spinal flexion (think rounding your back), and decreased involvement of other spinal supporting muscles.

Developing the strongest core possible involves using all of your muscles, not just the ones you think of when you look in the mirror.

If you’re standing up holding a lot weight during a deadlift, you want to make sure your spine is protected as much as possible by all your muscles. Learning how to create tension throughout your entire core is vitally important not only to how much you lift, but also preventing injuries to your lower back.

How to Build More Tension

Try this: sit up nice and tall wherever you are and put your hands on your lower back, one hand on either side of the spine and flat to the muscles beside it.

Flex your abs and see what you feel under your hands.

If you felt nothing, you’re likely only flexing your spine and not engaging everything around your spine. Try to flex again, but this time try to bring every muscle around your waist into the mix. Here’s what you want to experience:

  1. Feel your ribs pull in to your center.
  2. Force your shoulders to pull back slightly.
  3. Feel contraction under your hands in your lower back, all while feeling incredibly strong and powerful.

This feeling is the one you want to try to replicate with your exercises. Now comes the tricky part. Inhale and exhale without losing that tension. (Also known as bracing.)

It’s tricky because bracing very hard will your restrict breathing, but without breathing you would likely not fare as well in longer duration exercise. [Not to mention, passing out in the gym is generally something you want to avoid, unless you’re looking to star in the next viral YouTube video.]

How to Make Bracing Easier:

The Farmer’s walk teaches you both bracing and tension while breathing. Grab two dumbbells or kettlebells, stand tall, grip the handles hard, and take them for a walk for as far as your grip will allow. That’s it, but make sure you practice the bracing and breathing.

Core Rule #2: Use Your Glutes with Your Core Exercises

If you want a burn in your abs like never before, flex your glutes with your core exercises. While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive to use a muscle group on the other side of your body, your glutes have specific functions that directly impact the action of your abs.

Your glutes not only cause hip extension, but also cause your pelvis to go through a “posterior tilt.” Think of this movement as trying to roll your hips so that your tailbone comes closer to your knees. This posterior tilt involves a lot of ab activation.

Case in point: the rectus and oblique abdominals are also activated. When they work together the sum of the parts is greater than the individual contributions, and you trigger an incredible amount of muscle activity.

How to Activate your Glutes

Do a plank, but try to squeeze your glutes as hard as possible and see what happens with your abs. If you want even more tension and ridiculous amounts of suffering (and benefits), squeeze your armpits too by pressing your forearms into the floor.

Core Tip #3: More Mobility, Less Stretching

Holding a static stretch for a few seconds or even a minute or more might feel great, but it isn’t likely to increase your mobility. And before you say, “who cares about your mobility,” the answer is your abs. More mobility leads to better stability. Better stability leads to more muscle activation. More muscle activation is just one key component of better abs, more strength, and fewer injuries.

One very effective method involves short bursts of core stability exercises to improve your range of motion through your hips and upper and middle back (thoracic spine). These burst holds would be short 10- or 15-second planks, side planks, half-kneeling holds, or other core focused exercises where tension is the goal.

Here’s an example of the process in action.

This concept can be used effectively as part of a warm up for a workout, or in between challenging sets of more traditional weight training exercises. An example of this would be as follows:

Warm up version

  1. 3 “reps” of 10 seconds each, front plank
  2. Side plank, each side
  3. ½ kneeling hold with elastic pulling you to the side, each side
  4. Glute bridge, max contractions

Repeat for 2 sets each.

In-between sets version

  1. Exercise A
  2. Front plank, 3 x 10 seconds

Complete this series as a super set before rest

  1. Exercise B
  2. Rotational planks, 8 each

Complete this series as a superset before rest

Exercise C

Glute bridge leg swings, 8 each (Complete this series as a superset before rest)

Core Tip #4: Add Speed to Basic Movements

Using speed doesn’t simply mean trying to set the record for how quickly you can blast through an entire set of an exercise. This is about the specific time taken to complete a single rep, all while maintaining tension in your muscles.

When working on speed, the goal is to make the movement as fast as possible, then recover enough to allow for a similar or faster speed to occur. Think of this as an intensity continuum: you want to push yourself to create maximum intensity on each set and rep.

Consider it the difference between doing a seated military press (usually a slower speed movement) and an Olympic weightlifter doing a jerk press. The movement is exactly the same with respect to the involvement of the upper body, but the jerk press is faster in execution and requires a lot more timing and technique to execute properly.

How to Add Speed to Exercises

Try doing a basic exercise like a bird dog. You could do a neuropulse where you try to make your arm and leg move as fast as possible and recover back to the starting position without falling over.

You could do something similar with a stomping motion to increase drive velocity through your hips, knees and ankles.

This would be an incredible way to prepare for exercises such as squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifting or sprinting.

Core Tip #5: Master the New Rules of Breathing

How you breathe during a max weight squat, sprint, sparring session, or a yoga class should be very different. And learning how to tailor your breathing to specific activities won’t only make you better at what you’re doing, but it’ll also have a surprising core and abs benefit.

Here are a few things you should consider based on the activity you perform.

Using Heavy Weights on Exercises

If you’re looking to lift a max weight, you would likely benefit from taking a massive inhale prior to starting the rep, and then holding your breath. You want want to squeeze your breath as hard as possible to help increase spinal stability and core pressure to prevent losing control of the weight.

For Sprinting or Sparring
If sprinting is more up your alley, breathing in a pulsed manner when your foot hits the ground would give you an instantaneous burst of stability and core activity that would help propel you down.

This is preferred over long, slow breathing or holding your breath. This is similar to sparring, where timing your exhales to your punches would help you generate more power and last longer before you run out of steam.

For Yoga

For mobility or activities like yoga, longer and deeper inhales and exhales have to be used to decrease sympathetic drive to your muscles that would resist the ranges of motion and to allow you to sink into them more effectively. Sound a little complex? Good, I’m confused too. So let’s simplify what it means into simple movements.

Try this: Sitting up nice and tall, put your hands on your stomach and take a deep long inhale, trying to fill your belly. If done correctly, you should feel your stomach press out into your hands.

Exhale nice and slowly and see how your abdominal muscles feel. They’re likely soft and supple.

Now try to take a big inhale, then close your mouth and squeeze your abs hard, like squeezing a balloon without letting the air out. Your abs will likely feel solid and like you’re not going anywhere. Then breathe out hard and try to flex the abs as hard as possible while doing it.

Lastly, keeping your hands on your stomach, take a fast hard sniff in through your nose. Feel what your abs did, and then exhale in a sharp, short and hard breath like a martial artist throwing a jab or punch.

Your abs probably had more of a twitch-type contraction where they saw a massive shape shift, became rock hard for an instant, and then went back to their resting state. This quick on-off cycle is one of the keys to athleticism and speed development.

These quick and simple tips will not only help you see the difference in better defined and stronger abs, but you’ll feel the difference when it comes to moving weights, running, and being more athletic.

Better Abs, Better Core, Better Body

Want to upgrade your core training? Then check out “Advanced Core Training.” This #BornApproved product has been tested and vetted by Born Fitness coaches. You won’t find anything better on the market.

[Editor’s note: Born Fitness receives no compensation for the recommendation or purchases of Advanced Core Training. As part of our editorial integrity, compensation is not involved in any content recommendation, unless otherwise mentioned.]


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Dean Somerset is an exercise physiologist in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. Between writing articles for publishers like Men’s Health, T-Nation, and Bodybuilding.com, Dean trains a variety of clients, from medical rehabilitation through to world and olympic champion athletes of various sports, and even paralympic athletes. He also enjoys squats and cookies, not necessarily in that order.

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