While there is no absolute 'right' way to get six pack abs or a lean, sexy stomach, there are many myths floating around about the subject, and there are some methods that are simply more efficient and effective than others.
Whether you have been working consistently on your core for months or even years, or you are just getting started with implementing core work into your routine, you have probably heard many things about how you should go about getting a lean, shredded, or just more defined mid section. Trying to nit pick the myths from the facts can be tricky and time consuming, so here are some of the most common mistakes many people make when designing their core routines, and how you can avoid making those mistakes to ensure faster, more effective, and more functional results.
Reason 1: You don't think about the movements.
Many people go through their core routine with the simple goal of getting it done and getting it over with. Aside from lazy form causing potential injury, when you just move through the movements without really engaging the mind in what you are asking your muscles to do, your muscles will in turn not work as efficiently, limiting your results.
How to fix it: Every time you work the core, think about using the muscles in the core to move you through the movement. For example, if you're doing crunches, dont just lazily crunch the head in the generally upward direction and flop the shoulders back down to complete one rep. Really think about using the abdominal muscles to draw your chest up toward the ceiling, and keep the control in the muscles as you lower down. By engaging the mind along with the muscle, you enforce the muscle to work not only harder, but also more efficiently to help create functional strength and stability in the core.
Reason 2: You leave the planks to the pirates.
While there are many great exercises for the abs, many people feel that planks don't 'burn out' the abs as much as many other common exercises, so they opt to skip them all together. It's common to fall into the 'if it don't hurt, it don't work' frame of mind when working the abs, but the truth is that without the common stabilizing moves (such as planks) you won't beable to shape youre core as effectively, or build as much stability in the core with your strength moves.
How to fix it: While strength moves such as crunches, leg raises, bicycles, etc. are great for the abs, it's important to include planks and plank variations in your core routine as well. Planks will help create stability in the core as well as prevent the muscles in the core from giving you that 'puffy' or bloated look. When you're working with any plank variation, it's important to think about using the muscles in the core to pull the belly button in toward the spine, rather than pushing the muscles out.
Reason 3: You push the core muscles outward.
This is by far one of the most common mistakes that people looking for a smaller waistline will do in their core routine. It's natural for the body to want to push the muscles of the abdominals out while contracting them. This happens in nearly every abdominal exercise, from the crunch to the plank to leg raises and russian twists. The problem with this is that while you will still develop strength and definition in the core, the muscles will naturally begin to take the shape that they are in while they are contracted, causing the stomach to look bloated or pushed out despite the appearance of muscular definition.
How to fix it: During all of your core exercises, think about pulling the stomach in with your muscles. Now, be careful here, using the muscles to draw the stomach in is very different than sucking in or holding your breath. You want to be breathing throughout every exercise, while thinking about drawing the navel in toward the spine. Try it in your next core routine, I guarantee it will make the workout much harder (and more effective!).
Reason 4: Heavy oblique work.
Many times, the goal with an ab routine is to create at least the illusion of a smaller waist. In an effort to get rid of excess fat and inches on the sides of the waist (also known as love handles) many people turn to side crunches, side bends, and heavily weighted oblique work. While this may be building strength and muscle in the obliques, this is not a very effective way to shrink the size of the waist, creating the ever so saught after 'hourglass' shape.
How to fix it: When working the obliques with heavy weights, or in the lateral range of motion (such as with side bends and oblique crunches), you are building strength and definition in the muscles, but chances are you're also increasing the size of the muscles in the obliques, therefor contradicting the goal of a smaller waist. A better way to work the obliques may be with twisting movements, such as russian twists or lightly weighted cable rotations. Keep the weight light, and focus on drawing the abdominals in.
Reason 5: You're relying too heavily on your core work.
While core work is great for giving definition to your abdominals, obliques, and low back muscles, relying solely on ab routines to give you six pack abs is a fast track to frustration. Once you have an effective ab routine in play, the abdominals really only need to be worked 2-4 times a week in order to see results. If you're not seeing results with working the abs 2-4 times a week, there may be other underlying problems. In order to show off the muscles that you work so hard to define in your core routine, you must make sure that your body fat levels are low enough so that the muscles aren't covered by a layer of fat.
How to fix it: Start focusing on your diet. It's not necessary to eat 100% clean and healthy foods all the time, everyday to get lean abs, but it is important to consider moderation. In addition to getting nutrient dense foods, it's important to make sure you're eating the right amount of food. Excess food of any kind, whether it be pizza or lean meats and green salads, will cause the body to put on extra weight. If your diet and ab routine are on point and you're still not seeing many changes, try adding in some extra cardio. You don't have to go crazy here, but cardio can help burn the extra calories that you may not be able to functionally cut through your diet and training routine.
Reason 6: You want overnight abs.
I would only hope at this point that it's common knowledge that one day of working out won't make you fit, just like missing a workout one day or eating a burger and some ice cream once in a while won't make you fat and unhealthy. Even though people know this in the back of their minds, they will still fall into the trap of wanting results as soon as they start doing the work. Getting a lean, defined stomach is no different than any other aspect of health and fitness, and seeing results will take time and consistency.
How to fix it: Find a way to implement all of the above tips to getting a lean stomach into your weekly routine. Train consistently, eat well (almost) everyday, and give yourself time. It's going to take longer than a day, a week, or often even a month to get lean, defined abs. Work hard, be patient, and with the proper training and diet, results WILL come.
If you're still not seeing results, or are unsure of where to even start, it may be helpful to look to an active friend, family member, or seek the help of a personal trainer to help find the motivation or results you're seeking. Never be afraid to reach out, and try something new. As the saying goes, if you want something you've never had, you've got to do something you've never done.
Good luck, and happy training everyone!