If you’ve ever hit the crunches and core work hard in an effort to get a flat stomach, but instead your belly somehow seems to grow, you’re not alone. Many people report this counter-intuitive and frustrating phenomenon. Take it as a sign from your body to rethink your core game, experts say.
“For the most part, crunches are not the most effective way to train your core,” says exercise physiologist Amy Dixon, director of group fitness programming for Equinox. “You are on the ground and moving in a very small range of motion.”
Sure, doing 100 crunches may lead to a burn, but this isn’t how the core is designed to function. Instead, for a strong, stable core that helps you move optimally, you have to think beyond the rectus abdominis (six-pack) and include the hips, glutes, chest and back as part of your core training.
STAY ON YOUR FEET
Get off your butt. “To sit down on the ground will work one muscle, but not all your muscles together. The smartest core training is on your feet, because the core muscles are designed to be most effective when standing,” explains personal trainer Pete McCall, author of “Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple.”
GET OFF BALANCE
He suggests using a TRX with either your hands or feet in the straps or trying exercises with a weight in only one hand. So do single-arm overhead presses, single-arm unsupported bent-over rows, single-arm kettlebell swings and reverse lunges while holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand. These movements require your muscles to stabilize the spine and work the shoulders, hips and pelvis simultaneously, making them more effective and efficient for working the core than crunches.
Anything anti-rotation is also great, says Dixon, who designed Equinox’s Master of One class around using a single weight to challenge the core and work more muscles at once. Planks of all variations — renegade rows, on your forearms shifting front to back, holding one arm out to the side or a simple high plank while you push your hands into the ground and squeeze your butt — are excellent.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You don’t have to give up crunches entirely, but focus more on incorporating core work into what you do every week. “I don’t think, ‘I’m going to train my core today,’” Dixon says. “I do total-body work and that will train my core more than doing crunches.”
But what about a flat stomach?
“If you want a six-pack, talk to your parents about your genetics or spend extra time in kitchen,” McCall says. “Abs are made in the kitchen, and you can’t out-train genetics.”
Dixon agrees. “If your waistline is bigger [after doing more core work], you need to look at something else,” she says. You may not be training at the right intensity, be neglecting cardio exercise and/or are eating a less-optimal diet. Most people need to work hard — really hard — to sculpt and maintain a six-pack.
Lastly, you don’t need washboard abs to have a strong core. “Your muscles don’t know what they look like, they just generate force,” McCall says. Can you carry your kid or multiple bags of groceries up flights of stairs without feeling winded or in pain? If so, your core is functionally strong, no matter what it looks like. That’s what matters most.