December 13, 2021 at 12:31pm PM EST
When it comes to working out your whole body, abdominals are an area that a lot of people want to tackle. Though tons of magazines promise easy tricks to “flat” or “toned” abs (which prompts me to remind you: your body is not a problem to fix and shrinking it isn’t the fix-all you might believe it is), there’s a science to targeting different areas of your body, including your core — and it’s important to work out correctly to keep everything moving healthily and happily.
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Reframe and consider what you want from your workouts for your body — don’t get caught up in ideas about “flatter” body parts or any other diet culture nonsense. Your body holds a lot of different organs and obsessing over the appearance different areas isn’t going to serve you. Doing crunches will help develop strength in your core, but you need cardio and a diverse variety of workouts to see changes to how your body looks and feels.
You know the drill: Giving your muscles time to rest between workouts not only allows you to work out more effectively and with better results, but it also helps in gaining strength and endurance. This doesn’t mean you should skip the gym, of course. Just focus on different muscle groups on consecutive days.
Many people think that placing their hands behind their heads offers optimal support while doing crunches or sit-ups, but this could actually lead to neck injuries, because you might end up pulling on your neck while training. Instead, place your hands at your ears or crossed over your chest. If you must have your hands behind your head, envision an orange under your chin so that your head doesn’t bend forward with each set.
Be sure to keep your spine supported during ab training. While developing your core strength is important for preventing back pain and back injury, be sure to do the exercises at a pace that will comfortably allow you to stay in control of your back movements. For example, repeating crunches or sit-ups too quickly increases the risk of back strain. Always tighten your ab muscles to protect your spine during any exercise you do.
Don’t expect to get a six-pack with exercise alone, but don’t go on an extreme all-protein or no-carbohydrates diet. Find a way to eat healthily and to stay satisfied that you’re comfortable with. This could mean lowering your intake of processed foods and sugars and increasing your proteins and healthy carbohydrates. Find a balance that works for you.
If you find your crunches aren’t challenging enough lately, change it up. Add a yoga ball behind your lower back, and try doing crunches that way. Work on your core strength by doing planks. Try a Pilates or yoga class in the middle of the week to change up your routine. This way, your muscles get used to and adapt to the same workouts and can strengthen more efficiently.
Going to the gym or a fitness class once a week isn’t likely to get you the results you want. Instead, hit the gym at least three to four times a week. And remember that including both cardio and strength training each week will be the most efficient for ab training.
Because your abs support core strength, which helps prevent injury during workouts, leave this portion of your workout for the end. If you ab-train at the beginning or middle of your workout routine, chances are your ab muscles will be too fatigued to protect your back from injury while training your other muscle groups.
A version of this story was published February 2013.
Before you go, check out our favorite workout recovery essentials for some post-sweat sesh self-care: