13/10/2015 13:17 BST | Updated 13/10/2016 06:12 BST

Why You Should Ditch the Sit-ups and Crunches in Your Quest for Six-pack Abs

For both males and females, by far the most coveted set of muscles are the abdominals. When we see rippling 6 packs on the front of fitness magazines and all over social media, we want a piece of the action too. And who can blame us? Not only are they aesthetically pleasing; abs are also a sign of low body fat, core strength and optimal nutrition. In other words, a washboard stomach is a sure fire sign that your body is functioning at a very high capacity.

Many people think the answer to abs lies in endless sit ups and crunches - but at JHHF, we know that's far from the truth. As it happens, focusing too much on these exercises could actually be doing you more harm than good. Here's why you should ditch the crunches, and what you should be doing instead.

Sit ups and crunches - what's the problem?

The main problem with sit ups and crunches is that they are very rarely executed properly. Poor form with sit ups and crunches puts unnecessary pressure on the lower back, neck and shoulders. The spinal flexion involved is exactly the same as a poorly executed deadlift with the tension coming from your back rather than your hamstrings and glutes - in other words, a shortcut to poor posture and back pain.

Sit ups and crunches also only work the rectus abdominis (the outer abdominals), and not the transverse abdominis, the inner abdominals that are so important for core strength and stability. Isolating the rectus abdominis without sufficient attention to the transverse abdominis can cause muscle imbalances, which in many cases can lead to protrusion of the rectus abdominis. We're sure you'll agree, the last thing you want when doing sit ups is your stomach to stick out even more than before!

Five things you should be doing instead

In reality, you could perform thousands of sit ups and crunches and not show any visible improvement in your abdominal definition. Worse still, you're likely to develop poor posture and muscle imbalances as a result. If you really want a set of cover model abs, here are five things you should be doing instead.

  1. Shred body fat: By far the most important thing to do to reveal your abs is to shred away that excess flab. Remember, no matter how strong a core you may have, it will never be visible if you are carrying too much visceral (a.k.a belly) fat. If you are above 15% body fat, forget about doing any more core strengthening exercises until you are lean. Focus on losing excess fat through diet and high intensity training, and your abs will start to emerge naturally.
  2. Reduce water retention and bloating: Even though your body fat may be low, your abs can sometimes still be hiding under bloating and excess water retention, usually as a result of food intolerances or poor digestive function. If this is you, consider eliminating common food allergens such as wheat and dairy, and taking a high quality probiotic to help optimise your digestion. Natural diuretics such as green tea and fennel are a great way to lose excess water retention, and take it easy on the salt, which also promotes water storage.
  3. Build core strength with compound exercises: If anyone ever asks us what our favourite 'core exercises' are, our answer is always the same. Squats, deadlifts, push ups and pull ups. Compound exercises such as these require core stability to execute, and are the perfect way to build significant core strength without isolating the abdominals. Focus on maintaining tension in your abs with every repetition of compound exercises. Not only will it keep you more stable, recruiting the abdominals will also help to improve the overall strength of your lifts.
  4. Improve functional core strength with slow twitch exercises: For a well-developed midsection, you need to recruit the slow twitch muscle fibres in your abdominals with the use of isometric (static) exercises such as planks and bird-dogs, and compliment these with effective slow twitch movements such as hanging leg raises and abdominal ball roll outs.
  5. Be patient! Remember, fitness cover muscles have worked for years on their physique - so don't expect to get the same results in a matter of weeks. Be patient, be committed, and eventually, the results will come. Follow the tips above and you'll be able to say help to your abs soon enough - just ditch the crunches if you want to get there faster!

James Haskell Health & Fitness helps you achieve a healthier and fitter lifestyle

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