Four Mistakes You’re Probably Making While “Doing Abs” (And What to Do Instead!)

The abs. When working with clients, it’s one of the most frequently referenced places that people want to lose fat. Reminder: spot reducing is a myth and if you want to lose body fat on your stomach, it takes time, proper nutrition, and loss of body fat everywhere else as well! But I digress… Back to the point. While abs and a strong core are two of the most frequent goals expressed, they’re rarely trained optimally. Here are three mistakes you’re probably making when training abs.

Mistake #1: You’re only thinking about the core as your “abs”.

I’ve written about it before, but our core is complex to say the least. While we often only think about our “six-pack” it’s so much more. It includes our abdominals, intercostal muscles between our ribs, pelvic floor, diaphragm, obliques, lower back, glutes, and a host of other muscles! Simply put, it includes all muscles of the trunk that stabilize the spine and hips.

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 2.18.50 PM.png
The muscles of the core (highlighted in red) include so much more than just our abs that everyone things about first.

Once we reframe our thinking to include all of these unique muscles, training the core takes a different turn than we may expect. Exercises such as a goblet squat or single-leg RDL become ones with a core emphasis. More of our training may take place standing, or at the very least not laying on our backs!

Mistake #2: You’re using momentum, not your core.

Perhaps the most common mistake I see is using momentum during exercises in which you’re moving. While throwing your arms during V-ups or bouncing a medicine ball side-to-side during Russian twists may help you move faster and you’ll feel a burn, it’s not doing much for your core in terms of both strength and, more importantly, safety.

While training, safety should be a top priority. Of course, we want movements that are effective, but if we’re always hurting ourselves, there’s no way we’re going to be able to make progress regardless of how effective our program might be.

A perfect example of this are the oh-so-popular Russian twists. As we rotate side to side, our spine twists from the lumbar region. Bringing our feet off the ground to make the exercise more difficult, decreases what little stability we may find during the exercise. This section of the spine is meant for stability, not mobility. It’s the same section of our spine that is often tight and sore; the cause of the equally common “low back pain”. As a result, Russian twists aren’t my favorite for training obliques, but they’re almost sure to contribute to some low back pain, especially as we speed up to “feel the burn”!

At the end of the day, when training the core, there are very few times where faster is better. Slowing down movement, adding in isometric holds at challenging end ranges, and using exercises that resist movement instead of create movement are three ways to get more bang for your buck while you train the core.

Mistake #3: You’re performing only exercises that cause movement, instead of resist movement.

One of the main functions of the core is to protect the spine despite the outside disturbances that attempt to throw us off balance. We don’t often need to create movement in our core, rather transfer movement energy from the lower to upper body or vice versa.

I would bet money you’re including a host of “movement causing” abs exercises: Russian twists, side bends, crunches and reverse crunches, windshield wipers, all sit up variations, the list is endless. While some of these may hold a place, we want to ensure we’re also choosing those anti-movement exercises as well. A few of my favorites are planks, dead bugs, bird dogs, chops/lifts, and anti-rotation presses.

Next time you’re looking to train your core, make sure you’re adding in some of these movement resisting exercises as well!

Mistake #4: You’re not training all planes of movement of the core.

Once we’ve found a healthy balance of movement causing and movement resisting exercises, we have to make sure we’re training in all planes of motion. As we touched on earlier, it’s not just “the abs” we have to think about. It’s the abs, obliques, hips, glutes, even up into the shoulders!

There are four main movements that the core either creates or, more likely, resists. These include: flexion, lateral flexion, extension, and rotation.

Movement Description Life Scenario
Flexion Bending forward If you’re carrying a heavy platter of food into a holiday gathering, you have to avoid flexion so you don’t dump the food all over the floor!
Lateral Flexion Bending to the side When you’re carrying groceries into the house, you have to anti-lateral flex your core so you don’t slump over to the side.
Extension Arching your back Carrying a heavy backpack on your walk to work requires you to avoid extension so you don’t end up on your back like a turtle!
Rotation Turning from side to side If you’ve experienced winter in the Midwest, you know that the sidewalks leave much to be desired at times. Preventing falls and catching yourself without falling (and without injuring yourself!) is a perfect life example of using anti-rotation of the core.

When we’re training the core, we want to include exercises that build strength in these planes of motion, either by resisting movement or causing it. We want to have a balance of each, while choosing exercises that are safe and appropriate for where we’re at in our individual journey! Below is a chart with the movement and associated exercises you can use for each.

Movement Movement “Creating” Exercise Movement “Resisting” Exercise
Flexion Crunches, Sit Ups Plank, Tall Kneeling Press Out
Lateral Flexion Side Bends, Heel Touches Heavy Carry Variations, Side Plank
Extension Back Extension Superman Isometric Hold
Rotation Russian Twists, Bicycle Crunches Anti-Rotation Press, Bird Dogs


The core is a complex part of the body; it’s not just the abs everyone thinks about. I challenge each of you to reframe your thinking and change your exercise selection next time you’re looking to increase core strength and stability.

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