Are abdominal exercises a waste of time?

Late night infomercials often advertise the latest and greatest way to lose belly fat is to buy their piece of equipment, because nothing targets the core like such and such. To further entice the consumer there is always some “scientific” study showing how abdominal muscle activity is increased using their product. The theory being that if I want to reduce my abdominal fat I must target that specific area. 

Whether male or female most workout programs tend to have one thing in common, an abundance of core exercises involving lots of lumbar spinal flexion (low back rounding of the spine), i.e crunches, sit-ups, most abdominal machines. People that are trying to lose weight generally attack the core but a lot of the time they don’t see the results they expect.       

In a recent research study,  

The activity group was 7 core exercises including bent knee sit ups, lateral trunk flexion, leg lifts, oblique crunches, stability ball crunches, stability ball twists and abdominal crunches on a mat. The activity group was asked to perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions of all the exercises, 5 days a week for a total of 6 weeks.

The control group was told to go about their daily life as usual and neither group was asked to make any dietary changes. 

At the end of 6 weeks the researchers found that, “there was no significant difference between the activity group and control group for fat as measured by waist circumference and abdominal skinfold measurements.“  Basically everyone’s waist looked the same after 6 weeks despite all the core exercises.

However not all was lost, there was an increase in abdominal strength by the activity group, an increase of abdominal curl up repetitions by an average over 14 over the control group.  Abdominal strength is paramount for general heath, sports performance and to reduce the risk of low back pain.

Although increasing core muscular strength is important, is that the goal of your workout program?  Most people I talk to just want to look better and feel better and move better. The idea that more direct core training will lead to more belly fat burning is flawed. The body will unfortunately lose fat where it wants and we can’t change that.

If direct abdominal exercise isn’t the answer, then what is?  The authors of the study suggest that, “ it is likely necessary to include aerobic exercise along with reducing energy intake to have more favorable changes in body fat percentages “.  Adding more cardio and reducing the total amount of calories one consumes will help, also lifting weights and trying to get quality sleep would be a great idea as well.

So if you have been crunching away and not getting the results you want, try adding more cardiovascular training, or adding strength training and watching the diet.  The infomercials gadgets fun and crunches have their place, but for the best results save your money, time and energy and give something else a try.

Vispute, Sachin S, Smith, John D, LeCheminant, James D, and Hurley, Kimberly S. The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat. J Strength Cond Res 25: 2559-2564.

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