When it comes to the worst ab exercises, there are so many that you should absolutely avoid. The sad part is that these worst abdominal exercises are the often the very same moves that you see in popular workout programs and on TV infomercials.
Now, before I reveal the 10 worst ab exercises that waste your time and kill your spine, let me quickly tell you 2 big reasons why you should avoid these 10 “old school” exercises.
Reason #1: Forget About Burning Fat…Even If You “Feel the Burn”
If your goal is to lose belly fat, isolated ab exercises like crunches and sit-ups are simply too small a movement to elicit any metabolic fat burning effect. Don’t let that “ab muscle burn” after doing 100 sit-ups fool you. You’re doing nothing to burn fat.
That’s because 8-pack muscles these exercises train – called the rectus abdominis – are too small a muscle group to burn any significant calories.
Don’t believe me?
Try this: I’d like you to flex your right biceps muscle (kind of like a bodybuilder showing off “their guns”).
Keep flexing… see that biceps muscle in your upper arm bulge… feel it harden.
Now let me ask you this: Do you notice your body getting warmer at all? Are you out of breath? Are you sweating?
The answers are likely no, no, and no, right?
And that’s because – just like sit-ups, small isolated movements do nothing to elevate your metabolism (ie. generate heat) and thus do nothing to burn calories.
You can spot strengthen but You cannot spot reduce!
Here’s some more proof if you need it:
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research followed two groups of men and women to see the impact of traditional ab exercises on losing belly fat.
The first group did 7 different ab exercises – 2 sets of 10 reps for each one – five times per week, for six weeks solid. The second group was the control group. They didn’t do any ab exercises. Both groups followed the same diet.
After six weeks, the people in the first group were great at doing crunches yet, they weren’t any closer to having flat, toned abs than the control group, even though they did all those ab exercises.
So, if you’re doing small isolated ab exercises like crunches and sit-ups with the hope of burning fat, then that’s like running east hoping to see a sunset – it’s just not going to happen!
Reason #2: The Worst Ab Exercises Ruin Your Back, Hips, and Posture
Many people still do these ‘old school’ ab exercises because they think that these exercises are going to give them strong, defined abs.
As we’ve seen above, the worst ab exercises may make you feel like you’re accomplishing something, but you’re really not.
First, if you have excess fat covering your ab muscles, you’ll never see them anyways.
Secondly, sit-ups and similar ab exercises are heavily reliant on what’s called “hip flexion”, which poses a big pulling force on your lumbar spine (ie. lower back).
Basically, as these hip flexor muscles activate, they pull your torso and hips closer together, pull your spine, and wedge your intervertebral discs together, which is over time could lead to a herniation.
When you do a sit-up or even leg lifts, your abs are not the primary mover of that exercise.
Studies involving electromyography testing – which looks at muscle activation patterns – shows that the hip flexors, not your abs, are doing most of the work.
What’s worse, because the hip flexors attach at your lumbar vertebrae they pull forcefully on that sensitive area.
As if that’s not bad enough, when you continue doing sit-ups you do nothing more than strengthen that 8-pack muscle I mentioned earlier. What do you think will happen if that’s all you do?
Let me put it this way: what would happen if you only trained one leg?
You would create significant muscular imbalances wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what’s happening when most of your core workouts are centered around sit-ups, some of the very worst ab exercises!
In time, these muscular imbalances lead to postural problems, which can make you look like the hunchback of Notre Dame and create a host of impingement-related pain issues in your neck, shoulders, and lower back.
If you’ve been doing sit-ups and crunches for months or even years because you thought that’s what you were supposed to do to lose belly fat and get toned abs, don’t feel too bad.
It’s really not your fault.
[Related Article: The 14 Best Ab Exercises for a Rock Solid Core]
You’ve simply been misled by countless magazines, TV infomercials, and other sources of information that simply don’t fully understand how the body works.
Now it’s time for the TRUTH – that’s why you’re here after all, right?
Ok, now that you know that worst ab exercises—however popular they may be—do not burn belly fat and that hip flexion, twisting, and bending movements pose greater stress on your spine, let’s look at…
The 10 WORST Ab Exercises (Avoid These)
Ah… the classic ab exercise that started it all. And still to this day is heralded as the exercise for ab training. Yes, it strengthens your abs – but only ONE muscle group – your rectus abdominis (that 8-pack muscle).
Do enough of them and you’re sure to create muscular imbalances and create a hunched-forward posture. Funny thing is this exercise tends to tire the muscles on the front of your neck more than your abs.
Make no mistake, this is one of the very worst ab exercises, if not the worst ab exercise of all.
2. Supine Leg Raises
These are essentially “reverse sit-ups”. Same motion but with the legs moving, instead of your torso. Again, this is all hip flexors, with your abs playing a secondary role.
3. Hanging Leg Lifts
Unless you’re a gymnast preparing for a routine on the horizontal bars, then there’s no need to even attempt this exercise. Don’t worry about showing off in the gym – it’s really not worth it.
The fact that you’re hanging and working that much harder against gravity to raise your legs (yet, another hip flexor-drive movement) creates a huge pull across your hips and your lumbar spine.
4. Incline Sit-Ups
This is the ultimate exercise for potentially ripping your hip flexors from your their attachment points on your upper leg.
Again, do this exercise and your hip flexors will be much more sore than your abs. Doesn’t that tell you anything?
The steeper the incline, the more you work against gravity and the greater the load imposed on your lower back.
If someone’s holding a gun to your head to do this exercise, at least just do it where only your shoulder blades come off the bench – no higher please.
And please NO WEIGHTS (especially when held so far away from the fulcrum point of the rotation, which puts even more stress on your low back) like this maniac…
5. Side Bends
This has got to be the most ridiculous “ab” exercise of all time. Why do so many people rely on it? Because they think they’re actually burning away their “love handles”!
NEWS FLASH: Your love handles will only disappear once you lose body fat.
They’re not there due to a deficiency of side bends. And remember, you cannot spot reduce, only spot strengthen. But what is this exercise even strengthening? How about nothing!
What it does do is create a crushing/wedging force on the lateral side of your vertebrae, kind of like stepping on the side of a jelly donut. Hopefully, your intervertebral discs don’t come flying out.
6. The Ab Roller
I have a confession to make…
In my late teens, my mom bought this off an infomercial and I relied on it like a baby does a blankie. I would do at least 30 minutes of ab roller crunches every day.
Funny thing is that I was able to do those 30 minutes, almost non-stop. Doesn’t that tell you something?
Here’s a hint: It doesn’t do anything, especially when you pull yourself forward using your arms, not your abs (I mean your hip flexors).
I’ll be honest, as a former professional goalie in soccer, I did more than my fair share of this ab exercise.
Not sure why my coaches thought this was a good exercise or that it had anything to do with being a better goalie. This is easily one of the most intense exercises on your HIPS – not your abs – which again leaves your hip flexors feeling tighter, while pulling on your lower back.
8. Russian Twists
I would think that the Russians are a little smarter than to invent this exercise.
After all, they are one of the leaders in physical training that actually works (and backed by years of science and rigorous testing behind closed doors).
Your lumbar spine is NOT anatomically meant to rotate, which means more “grinding” on your lumbar vertebrae, which over time can wear down your facet joints and increase your risk of back pain.
One of the goals of the core is to RESIST rotation, not create it.
9. Twisting Ab Machine
Yet another commonly used ab exercise, especially in big box gyms that are littered with useless ab machines.
This one, like the Russian Twists, is deadly because of the unnatural twisting it forces your torso to create at the lumbar spine, which again is a naturally stable area that is not anatomically meant to twist.
I don’t know who we’ve got to thank for this old school exercise…maybe Rocky or some other boxer from the 80’s.
Sure the twisting action involves your obliques slightly but that pales in comparison to the heavy activation of your hip flexors, which pulls on your low back. Plus, it just makes your hips feel tight.
So there you have it…
The 10 worst ab exercises you should absolutely avoid – if you care about your back and posture. And if you actually want to create the best abs ever, instead of endless frustration with lacklustre results.
Remember, you can spot strengthen but you cannot spot reduce. None of these 10 exercises will burn belly fat and they’ll do little good for your core either.
What You Should Do Instead
If you want noticeable results then you have to train smarter.
Thankfully, I’m here to help you do just that.
To get you started I’ve prepared an in-depth report called the Flat Stomach Secret which will walk you through 7 uncommon ab training techniques to lose stomach and get toned abs.
You can download it here for FREE. If you’ve enjoyed this post and know anyone who’s currently doing these ridiculous ab exercises, then please share this post with them. You’ll be a hero to them for showing them the light.
Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.