So I'm doing a set of overhead dumbbell presses at the gym when I overhear a client complaining to her trainer that she needs to "shrink her stomach" for an upcoming high school reunion.
Now get this, her trainer – a guy I know and normally respect – didn't ask about her diet. Nor did he at least march her 10-years-past-high-school cheeks over to the treadmill. Instead, he leads her through a 15-minute ab routine consisting of incline sit-ups, crunches, and (groan), side bends.
What's annoying about this is that the trainer knows that all the ab exercises in the world aren't going to do a damn thing about a midsection grown soft by a steady diet of wine, gouda cheese, and avocado toast.
But then I started thinking about it. Maybe he doesn't know ab exercises don't result in spot reduction. And if he doesn't know, how many other trainers and regular folk don't know? Maybe it's one of those myths that still persist despite all contrary evidence, like how you're supposed to pee on your leg if you get stung by a jellyfish.
So I was curious to see if there were any studies to either confirm (ha!) or, once and for all, disprove the notion that ab exercises lead to fat reduction around the waist. There aren't many that deal with the subject, but the best one seems to have been published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning a few years ago.
Here's what the researchers did and what they found. Consider it a public service announcement and send it to any trainers, friends, or acquaintances still suffering from Ab Exercise Delusion Syndrome.
What They Did
The researchers recruited 24 participants (14 men and 10 women) and randomly assigned them to either a control group or an exercise group. Anthropometrics, body comp, and abdominal endurance were tested before and after training.
The exercise group performed 7 different ab movements:
- Bent-Knee Sit-Ups
- Lateral Trunk Flexion
- Leg Lifts
- Oblique Crunches
- Stability Ball Crunches
- Stability Ball Twists
- Abdominal Crunches
Each exercise was performed for 2 sets of 10 reps. Subjects trained 5 days a week for 6 weeks.
What They Found
"Abdominal exercise did not result in change in measures of abdominal fat (android fat measured by DXA, waist circumference, abdominal skinfold) compared to the control group."
The exercise group did, of course, build greater abdominal strength and endurance, though.
What This Means to You
No matter how much we want it to be true, ab exercises won't give you a Hymenopteran waist (that's "wasp-like" to you non-entomologists).
Women in particular should take note of this fact because legions of them have fallen victim to doing too much direct ab and oblique work. They've bought into the notion of spot reduction but sadly, it's led to thicker midsections. Why? Because the more you train a muscle, the bigger it gets.
That woman who wanted to "tone up" her stomach for her class reunion that I mentioned in the intro? By working her abs hard and long, she'll likely have even more trouble fitting into that floral bodycon number she picked up at Dress Barn.
And, okay, maybe that slightly thicker waist is okay with her when she's lean, but when she puts on even a little fat, she's going to look even less hour-glass shaped than before.
If you're like most women, you want a flat, tapered waistline. You get that through a combination of diet, metabolic conditioning, and whole-body exercise – not by doing countless ab exercises.
Unless you want your abs to stand out in sharp relief, you should work them briefly, infrequently, and probably without any additional resistance. If, however, you want your abs to pop (like most men), you can add resistance and train them like any other muscle group so that they'll grow and say howdy.
- Vispute, Sachin S; Smith, John D; LeCheminant, James D; Hurley, Kimberly S, "The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat," Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: September 2011 - Volume 25 - Issue 9 - p 2559-2564.