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The Five Biggest Ab Workout Mistakes You Might Be Making

A group of people do crunches as an ab workout in a gym.

Everyone has different goals for their bodies. It’s not uncommon to exercise your core to not only prepare for a beach trip but also to improve your health and strength overall. That’s why ab workouts are so popular.

Little do most people know that we actually have four layers of abdominal tissue, outside of the stereotypical “six pack” layer, and they are all important to target during your fitness routine and even daily living. But during these workouts could you be making mistakes?

Lifesavvy spoke with Coach Rokas Navickas with Antepes, and Dr. Haley Perlas, Ph.D. in Sports and Performance Psychology, about the biggest ab workout mistakes you might be unintentionally committing.

Insufficiently Challenging the Entire Core

The core is made up of four layers. From the deepest to the most superficial layer, each of us has a transversus abdominus, an internal oblique layer, an external oblique layer, and a rectus abdominus (your six-pack layer).

Each of them has a unique role in supporting the body. While the transversus abdominus has a protective role in stabilizing your pelvic floor and low back, your obliques are important for rotation and side bending of the spine. Finally, your rectus abdominus is responsible for folding your rib cage towards your pelvis. This function is the root of where traditional “crunches” come from.

Coach Navickas was quick to share that it is necessary to treat abs like other groups of muscles you prioritize.

“Your core needs to be sufficiently stimulated to promote growth,” said Navickas.

Stimulating the entire core is a result of high-quality exercise. Perlas noted that it’s common to focus on repetitions of one exercise instead of “how well you are doing them.”

You can improve your ability to target your entire core by selecting a few high-quality core exercises to dig into not only your rectus abdominus but also your obliques, with your transversus abdominus in mind (this particular muscle turns on naturally with your breath).

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Neglecting Nutrition

Glass bowls are prepped food are set out on a countertop.
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Abs are actually made in the kitchen! Navickas explained that having visible abs requires a low body fat percentage. This means, you generally have to burn more calories than you consume.

“Exercise alone is not effective if you are not eating a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated throughout the day,” said Perlas.

Protein is a game changer in creating abs in the kitchen. Navickas explained that if you want your abs to “grow,” consuming enough protein for muscle recovery and growth is essential. It’s never too late to make improvements to your diet. It’s very possible to have a healthy set of abs and have a reasonable diet filled with fiber, protein, and healthy fats that you enjoy eating.

If calorie tracking is difficult for you, Navickas recommended finding a calorie tracking app to help you achieve a calorie deficit, if that is a healthy choice for your body. However, it’s always best to consult with a nutritionist or your doctor before making any huge leaps in your diet.

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Meal prep could be a great way to meet nutritional goals.

Lack of Exercise Variety

Perlas and Navickas both shared that doing the same exercises to challenge core strength over and over isn’t effective and is partially responsible for insufficiently challenging the entire core.

Navickas explained that our bodies can adapt to repetitive exercises, making them less effective.

To remedy this issue, Navickas and Perlas recommended visiting tutorials on social media and YouTube to get new ideas on how to challenge all layers of your core. Of course, you can always work one-on-one with a personal trainer as well.

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Improper Form

A woman does a plank on a mat in a gym.
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Poor form is a huge common mistake in ab workouts. Perlas shared that it’s important to catch these mistakes right off the bat to reduce the risk of potential injury and muscle strain.

A few common form flaws for ab exercises include:

  • Protruding the head and neck too far forward during an abdominal crunch which leads to stress on the head and neck rather than work into the rectus abdominus.
  • Not lifting your shoulder blades off the floor during bicycles or any other form of abdominal crunching tends to overwork the head and neck rather than target the obliques and rectus core.
  • Dropping the pelvis towards the floor during a plank instead of holding a neutral spine, with the shoulders in line with the pelvis.
  • Winging the shoulder blades together instead of pressing them apart during any kind of quadruped exercise or plank type of exercise.

Navickas reemphasized that performing exercises with poor form makes it challenging for the correct muscles to contract, and therefore delays your core strength progression.

To rectify this issue, booking a class with a local instructor in person is a great idea. Pilates in particular is a leader in demonstrating full dimensional core strength and the deep mechanics of form for all four layers.

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Prioritizing Your Core Workout Correctly

Navickas and Perlas both said they either notice people training their abs too little or too much.

While not focusing on your abs alone enough could lead to a plateau in your abdominal strength, it is also possible to over-emphasize core work by over-training at a high intensity each day. This training error can lead to imbalance and possibly an aesthetic that you don’t desire, depending on your body image goals.

Navickas recommended training your abs with a focused 20-30 minute routine 2-3 times per week while switching up the type of abdominal training every so often. This will help you prioritize your abs without burning them out.

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Of course, abs are just one part of a fitness routine, and Perlas emphasized focusing on your entire body when planning for goals. Doing so will make for a well-balanced body and quicker progress. Yes, work those abs and avoid these workout mistakes, but don’t forget everything else.

Jenn Vigh Jenn Vigh
Jenn is a pilates and yoga instructor, an aerialist, and a travel blogger with 5 years of experience in nonprofit communications, and over 10 years of experience writing, teaching, training, performing and collaborating with creatives across the globe. For the last 6 years, her American home-base has been Austin, TX, where she’s worked with the aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, and enjoyed the sunshine with her world-traveling yorkipoo, Sheila. Read Full Bio »
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