The hype around strong, pronounced abs is news to exactly no one. Flaunted by the likes of Kayla Itsines, Cristiano Ronaldo, and even Gigi Hadid, a cut core is arguably one of the most sought-after results in the realm of fitness. And while, yes, those defining lines are a show of all the hard work you put in, they aren’t the only thing you gain by crunching, raising, and planking your way to a trim midsection. With beach season fast approaching and a whole new crop of ab workouts on Aaptiv, we spoke with physical therapist Karena Wu about the things working your abs will and won’t do for you that you might not fully expect.
Owner and Clinical Director of ActiveCare Physical Therapy, Wu has been in physical therapy for 16 years, gaining certification as an Orthopedic Therapist, Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Kinesiology Tape Practitioner, and Pilates Instructor. She’s been praised by the likes of CBS, NBC, Fox News, and now, us. With her help, we’re here to set the record straight on the least talked about results of all your ab efforts.
Ab Workouts WILL…
Support and strengthen your spine
You may know that ab workouts can simultaneously strengthen the muscles in your back, but were you aware that it goes even further to benefit your spine?
“Strengthening your abs will help support the lumbar or low back spine.” Wu points out. “The core is the entire midsection, from the pelvic floor to the diaphragm (bottom to top) and the abdominals to the low back (front to back). Working the abs— especially the deepest abdominal muscle, the Transversus Abdominis— will help stabilize the low back spine. Keeping this muscle strong will keep the core balanced. It will help maintain stability and help to decompress the spinal column.”
For those of us unaware, the Transversus Abdominus lies beneath those six-pack (or washboard, or whatever!) abs, serving to protect the spine. So, in simple speak, by strengthening your abs (and, therefore, these muscles) you’re also stabilizing the spine—which can also better your balance. If you want to want to activate these muscles before a workout, the PTDC suggests lying on a flat surface and pulling your bellybutton in towards your spine.
Improve posture and self-esteem
It turns out there’s a full-circle connection between a strong core, improved posture, and a little something extra. “Working the core and the abdominal musculature can also help with your posture and your self-esteem.” Making the leap from balance to posture isn’t too hard, but what inclines us here is self-esteem and how that can have a positive impact back.
“When you put time into your abdominal workouts, you will feel more support and ‘stiffness’ (in a good way) of your midsection. That ‘stiffness’ is the underlying muscle tone which helps support the region. Feeling that support, as well as seeing the visible benefits, helps with confidence. In turn, you start carrying yourself better. You stand taller, which reinforces good posture. This upright posture lends you a confident look (whether you feel it or not) and increases blood and air flow (circulation) which further adds to that ‘feel good’ vibe.”
In case you feel in need of a flow chart, think about it like this: You strengthen your abs. You feel confident about it. With more confidence, you stand taller. In carrying yourself correctly, you reinforce good posture. This posture boosts circulation and those positive feelings. Those positive feeling push you to continue getting stronger. Much like how positive thoughts reinforce positive actions, the confidence you gain from working your midsection can influence working towards more progress.
Aid in digestion
Twisting into specific yoga poses isn’t the only active way to help your colon do its thing. “Abdominal exercises involve a lot of shoulder to pelvis motion or the reverse, otherwise known as the crunch and reverse crunch. You do it working the superficial six-pack (rectus abdominis), as well as the sides (external and internal obliques). This particular motion helps with motility in the colon. The ascending and descending colons will get an added ‘push’ when working out the abdominal muscles, thereby aiding movement of their contents. This will keep you regular with your bowel movements. In fact, I just had a patient state that he needed to keep his ab workouts in to help with his constipation!” While your bowels are already directly affected by what you eat and how often you exercise, this is one possible way of “targeting” digestive movement.
Working your abs WON’T…
Give you a six-pack
That’s right, all of those Get a Six-Pack in Six Moves! Pinterest charts can’t go at it alone. A thousand crunches a day won’t do the trick, either. In fact, there are a factors that could be preventing these muscles from making an appearance. Too much subcutaneous fat (the type that’s directly under your skin), for one. As tired as the much recited saying may be, it’s no lie that abs are made in the kitchen. You can’t out-do a bad diet. If you’re consistently training and still not seeing any change, chances are you need to lower your body fat percentage. That means cleaning up your food choices and adding cardio into your gym time.
Another reason you might not be seeing progress is because your workouts aren’t diverse enough. Remember how I said endless crunches weren’t enough? That’s because, as Wu explained, your core consists of several muscles, including the transverse abdominal, internal and external obliques, multifidus muscles (fleshy muscles that stabilize joints), rectus abdominis, spinal erectors, longissimus, pelvic floor, and thoratic diaphragm. Phew. The point being, if you don’t vary your routines to hit each of these, you won’t see improvement in your core overall.
Eliminate a “muffin top”
If you haven’t heard it before, take note of it now: You cannot lose the weight around your midsection by targeting your abs. This has been labeled as spot reduction. For those unfamiliar, spot reduction is the false idea that you can lose fat from specific parts of the body by focusing on them. And, as with any other area of the body, it is pure fallacy. Various studies have shown that, while working out consistently can reduce overall body fat, it won’t reduce the fat in any one area. We have no control over which part of the body loses weight first, since it’s a gradual, total body process.
Work your full range of motion
That is to say, most traditional ab workouts won’t (ahem, crunches). A full range of motion is accomplished when you move a body part as far as possible during a workout. Reaching a full range of motion is important if you want to see a change since, as mentioned earlier, you have to work every muscle involved if you want to see improvement. If you’re doing ab workouts on the floor or a bench, you’re actually doing less than half of that full range. Like with most things, though, there are modifications that can help. Crunches performed on an exercise ball, for example, will have you reaching your core’s full ROM.
Have more questions about strength training? Check out this Q&A with Aaptiv trainer, Sultan.