When it comes to exercising our midsection, most of us reference our abs. But there’s a reason that most exercise professionals refer to it as “the core.” It, of course, gets its name from its location in your body’s core. But it’s also a fitting term because it’s the core muscle group from which all others are built, says Caleb Backe, certified personal trainer and health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “It helps with balance, athleticism, strength, breathing, and almost every element of physical prowess,” he explains. In other words, strengthening your abs will ultimately help strengthen the rest of your body. The issue, however, is that few of us truly know how to exercise our abs correctly. Here, experts reveal the ab exercise mistakes that most people make during their workout.
Though one of the most basic moves in the book, fitness pros see most ab exercise mistakes when it comes to crunches. “The incorrectly performed technique is to yank down on your head and drop your chin to your chest,” warns Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., Houston-based dietitian and founder of eatrightfitness.com. This, he explains, can ultimately lead to neck pain. Another classic crunch mistake that he often sees is people raising their hips off the floor as they bring their torso up. “This greatly reduces the recruitment of your abdominal muscles. So it’s best to keep your buttocks pressed firmly into the floor during the movement. And keep your feet flat on the floor,” he adds.
To do a basic crunch correctly, Dr. Adams recommends to start by lying down with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, about hip-width distance apart. Lace your fingers behind your head or cross your arms across your chest. “While breathing out, slowly raise your head, shoulders, and middle of your torso, while keeping your hips down, in contact with the floor,” he says. “As you come up towards your knees, you should slowly breathe out through pursed lips.”
This popular core move involves getting into push-up position and maintaining that position for extended periods of time. You can do this on your forearms or with your hands on the ground in a standard push-up position. However simple this move may seem, it’s actually quite difficult, according to Backe, since it incorporates the entire core. “For many, a plank engages a lot of dormant muscles that haven’t been seriously engaged in some time (if ever). When you first perform the plank you might feel lower back pain, which is due to compensating for a weak core with the lower back,” he says. “To prevent this, try focusing on your core as much as you can.” Additionally, it’s advised not to shrug your shoulders. Instead, keep them as broadened as possible to relieve weight on the upper body.
Hanging Leg Raises
This is a more advanced ab exercise. However, even the more experienced individuals who attempt it still fall into the trap of making ab exercise mistakes and performing it incorrectly. The hanging leg raise is an excellent move for developing your lower abdominals and the v-taper (the ideal-shaped torso that looks like the letter “V”). But, when performed incorrectly, it can easily leave you with an aching back, says Dr. Adams.
“I see too many people swinging their legs, hyperextending their low back, and using momentum to do this exercise,” he says. “The important thing is to have total control. You can do [this] by using hanging straps that support your arms. Or grasping a pull-up bar that allows your body to hang without touching the ground.” He recommends keeping your abs tight, raising your legs, bending your knees slightly to your torso, and raising your hips at the end of the movement. “The key is the downward motion—don’t just drop your legs down,” he warns. “If your low back arches and you start to swing, you’ve lost the focus on your ab. Now it’s a quad and hip flexor exercise.” Instead, slowly lower your legs back to starting position, while preventing any swinging and arching in your low back.
“A lot of times, I see people jarring their hips up to the sky, bulking the abdominals and straining their neck and shoulders when performing a reverse crunch,” says Fitness Instructor and Creator of TFIGNITE PROGRAM and Taylored Fitness, Brooke Taylor. Instead, she says that the focus should be on peeling the lower back off the floor one vertebrae at a time. “Think of drawing in your abdomen and scooping your navel into your spine,” she adds. “Relax your head, neck, and shoulders on the floor throughout and start small. Work your way up.” One thing she tries to get her clients to do when performing this exercise is to extend their arms up towards the sky with their palms facing in towards one another. This prevents them from being able to use their hands to cheat and relaxes their neck and shoulders throughout.
This ab exercise works the entire core section, which is why it’s so popular. However, it’s also an easy move to make plenty of ab exercise mistakes in and perform incorrectly. It’s difficult to maintain proper form during this move. “Many people fail to bring their hands and feet fully together because it’s too painful or strenuous,” explains Backe. “However, in the long run, that’s the way to truly engage your core.” Your core is best served when you bring your feet and hands together. Even if you can’t do many V-ups this way, he recommends ensuring that you’re doing them correctly. To perform a V-up, start lying face-up with your arms and legs extended. Keeping your core engaged, lift your hands and feet to meet over your torso.
Kneeling Cable Crunches
This ab move is great for developing the upper abdominal area, according to Dr. Adams. It also helps define the upper part of your six-pack. “Done correctly, you can really feel the abs work. But done with momentum and using poor technique, prevents you from feeling any real momentum in your abs at all,” he says. The easiest way to tell if you’re doing this move wrong is if your arms are getting fatigued.
To do kneeling cable crunches correctly, Dr. Adams suggests placing a rope on an adjustable pulley and kneeling in front of the weight stack, facing it. “The moment should be so that you are trying to touch your forearms to the floor in front of you. Not curling into a ball,” he adds. Whatever you do, don’t try to touch your elbows to your knees. This causes too much flexion in the spine and takes the onus off the abs. Instead, your hands (on the rope) should travel straight down and then you slightly curl your torso, bringing your forearms to the ground in front of you—not curling into your knees, he says. “This one must be done strictly since you will likely need quite a bit of weight to really shred those strong upper abdominals.”
Now that you know the most common ab exercise mistakes, be mindful of your form as you perform these moves. Pay attention to which muscles feel engaged and, as always, be sure not to hold your breath.