Do a quick Google search and you can find a million and one ab routines. Some are okay, some are good, some are downright ridiculous and dangerous. In a world of information overload, how do you know what the right routine is, and whether or not it's actually effective in the way you want it to be?
First, let's define what an "effective ab routine" is. Since we know that doing tons of ab exercises doesn't get us leaner (losing body fat does,) I think it's safe to say the following:
> Helps us decrease the risk of injury. A stable core is a healthy core that helps us lift heavy things pain-free and do our daily activities without the risk of popping a disc across the room (kidding, but you know what I mean).
> Improves our posture. The majority of us are pretty terrible at fighting gravity. Efficient core training should give us the strength and stability to conquer that.
> Improves our performance. Without a strong foundation, how we can expect to move, lift, carry, play, run, and do all of the other amazing things our body is capable of doing safely? The core is that foundation, and it's a fundamental element to being overall stronger and healthier.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's see the top three reasons why your ab routine might not be adhering to the above:
1. You're not breathing well.
I have been thoroughly convinced that poor breathing mechanics is the root of all evil. Okay - not really, but pretty close. You might have heard that we take anywhere from 17,000-30,000 breaths per day. You also might have noticed that the majority of us sit stooped over a desk, steering wheel, or screen for most of the day which compresses our rib cage and subsequently our lungs. In addition, we live in a society that favors the "go, go, go" mentality which leaves us frazzled and stressed, leading to a choppy and shallow breathing pattern.
But this is an article about core stability. So why all this fuss about breathing?
Did you know the diaphragm actually helps stabilize the core? When most of us think of the diaphragm, we usually think of this passive structure that assists in breathing. Rather, the diaphragm has dual roles: respiration and stabilization. And since most of us are stressed-out chest breathers with collapsed rib cages, I think it's safe to say the bulk of us are not using our diaphragms like we should.
So how do we learn how to activate the diaphragm and breathe better? Lay on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, hands on your lower rib cage. Flatten your back against the floor by engaging your core, as if you were coughing. Maintain that position, but continue to breathe. As you take a breath in, imagine you're expanding your rib cage out in all directions. When most of us breathe, we fill our chest cavity first, as if the breath is flowing in towards our head. Instead, imagine breathing 360 degrees into your entire torso.
This is a really simplified version of the whole sha-bang, but "un-learning" how to be a chest breather and re-learning how to be a good diaphragmatic breather will really amp up your core stability (and help you not breathe into your shoulders and upper traps 24/7).
If you want to geek out about breathing mechanics, there is more than enough literature out there on the role of the diaphragm and core stability. But for brevity purposes, just know that learning how to breathe low and deep in the diaphragm is an underrated element of core stability.
2. You're just bending the spine, not stabilizing.
The core has two main roles: to generate force, and to stabilize. Doing 100 sit-ups applies to neither of these, since you're simply bending (flexing) your spine. While this may be warranted in some cases, for the majority of people who already live in flexion, this isn't gonna cut it.
Let's look at another exercise that (typically) doesn't help us stabilize well: the beloved mountain climber. When most people perform a mountain climber, they're wildly thrusting their knees to their arm pits, hips waddling all over the place, spine all loosy goosy.
A good mountain climber doesn't contort our body in all directions just for the sake of getting some "cardio abz" in. Here's a pretty mountain climber, trunk stable, no rounding at the low back and no wobble bobble hips:
This isn't to say that a faster-paced mountain climber (or a faster-paced any core exercise) is inherently bad, but you'll need to build up the stability at a slower speed before you start making things more explosive.
3. You're just chasing the burn.
When most people do ab exercises, they're "chasing the burn". But, is that really our goal? And what does that even mean?
When you feel "the burn", on a physiological level you are creating "metabolic stress" to the tissue by increasing acid in the muscle. If your goal is to get beefier abs, this is one way to do it as it can lead to an increase in muscle growth. But if your goal is to be stronger, more stable, and reduce your risk of injury, these two things don't always go hand-in-hand.
Remember, the core encompasses a lot of muscles, so just trying to isolate the more superficial muscles (like the "six pack" muscle,) by doing a ton of sit-ups isn't going to really give you a strong, stable and healthy trunk like you might think.
Stop chasing the burn, and start chasing function. Are you able to keep your spine stable in a variety of positions, from squats, to deadlifts, to presses, to everything in-between? Your ab routine should carry over functionally to your other exercises as well. If not, it's time to re-group.
Want a (free) ab routine that actually works, and in less time?
We only have a limited amount of time to spare for our workouts, right? So we might as well make sure we're getting the best bang for our buck. If you're ready to stop spinning your wheels with the same old ab routine that hasn't helped you in the way it should, I challenge you to a 5-day (free) core stability challenge you can do at home, in about 3 minutes per day. These movements are going to be surprisingly challenging, despite how simple they look. (Plus, you get all sorts of extra goodies to help you maximize your results). I've used these exercises on my physical therapy patients and fitness coaching clients countless amounts of times to help them get the strength and stamina back in their bellies. Are you ready to be next?