You can spot strengthen. You cannot spot reduce.
Most of us use abdominal exercises for one or both of the following reasons: to lose belly fat or to get stronger, toned abs. Let me start with the first one.
For years, you’ve been brainwashed into believing that doing isolated “old school” abdominal exercises–like sit-ups–actually burn belly fat. Sorry, it's not going to happen. You can spot strengthen, but you cannot spot reduce.
The only way to lose fat from your belly is to lose fat from your entire body. In order to lose fat your body temperature must increase enough to elicit the metabolic effects necessary to burn fat.
Using one small muscle group such as the abdominals is not enough to cause this cascade of events to begin. They are simply too small, which means their metabolic impact is too low.
Instead, you want to use full body exercises (think heavy kettlebell swings, squat presses, etc…) that recruit all of your muscles. When you do this, you immediately feel the challenge, notice your body temperature rise, and even feel out of breath—all good signs that your body is churning through calories.
Abdominal exercises definitely have their place but more so in pursuit of the second objective: getting stronger, toned abs (or building core strength). But even then, you need to start with:
Stability Before Movement
Any good ab training program should begin with stability-based exercises that build the deeper core muscles that support your spine and hips. The reason this is important to you has been well documented by Dr. Stu McGill and other researchers in the fields of biomechanics and exercise physiology.
I’ll spare you the science behind it all but think about stability-based exercises like building a house on a solid foundation.
Sadly, this is very rare in traditional fitness programs. Instead, what most programs subject you to are endless variations of sit-ups that impose further stress on your lower back and do little other than make your abs “burn”.
You should be focusing on “no movement” abdominal exercises that really strengthen those muscles. Some of my favorites are planks, side planks, deadbugs, and birddogs.
My Best Resources on Abdominal Exercises
If you have no idea what these are, then check out the following articles and videos for step-by-step guidance.
The 10 Worst Ab Exercises That Waste Your Time and Kill Your Spine
The 9 Best Stability Ball Exercises for Core Training (Not for the Faint of Heart)
The 14 Best Ab Exercises for a Rock Solid Core
How to Strengthen Your Core Without a Gym
How to Build Core Strength without Moving a Muscle
Core Training: Why Stability Is What Your Abs Actually Need