When people find out that you’re a trainer, you become privy to all sorts of information. In fact, one of my personal favorites is to walk into a coffee shop with a trainer polo on, and to have patrons apologize to me for purchasing a pastry. That said, I hear a lot about people’s workouts. Especially their ab workouts. Between my conversations with gym-goers, cafe patrons, and other trainers, here are some of the core mistakes that I see most often.

  1. Unbalanced core training.

Don’t take this the wrong way – I’m not about to preach for wobble boards, bosu balls, and swiss ball-everything. Instead, think of structural balance and integrity. Your core is a box – everything in the torso. It’s time to focus on your weak points to build a 3D core. A core stable in all directions – to the front (anterior stability, anti-extension), side (lateral stability, rotational stability), and to the back (anti-flexion). Think of it this way:  It’s like training your biceps without ever touching your triceps, or training your quads while ignoring the hamstrings.

Exercises: Planks, side planks, bird dogs, chops, lifts, Pallof presses, dead bugs, supermans, wheel rollouts, jackknifes. Bonus – the Turkish Get Up trains all aspects of the core.

2. Excessive spinal and trunk flexion.

Building upon the prior point, many people’s core routines consist of crunches, situps, side bends, and more crunches. Combined with excessive sitting, this routine contributes to a kyphotic (hunched) posture and is strongly correlated with back pain. Not to mention, it creates a highly imbalanced core (see point #1). Dr. Stuart McGill has famously pointed out the dangers of excessive spinal flexion, while illuminating the benefits of spinal stability (Point #1 again). With back pain, many people are actually unstable and unable to resist motion. Training should eliminate weakness, not reinforce it. With all of my back pain clients, my primary focus is building 3D stability with limited flexion. Books have been written on this, but trust me – less crunching & side bending, more planking. (To be fair, the rectus abdominis does need strengthening – just less so when it may be overpowering the rest of the core. This statement is more for people that do literally nothing but crunches)

3. Poor nutrition.

Let’s keep this quick: Six-packs are made in the kitchen. Nevertheless, people striving for a better midsection crunch into oblivion while neglecting their nutrition. At a low enough bodyfat, your abs will be visible. If worked frequently in all planes, they will be strong enough and ‘toned’ enough to look excellent.

4. Poor technique

I see this most frequently with planks, even with trainers coaching their clients. (To be fair, I’ve seen my share of neck-crunches as well.) My favorite trick for this I learned from Mike Robertson, who is lethal with a PVC pipe. When holding a plank, the PVC pipe should rest along the spine – touching the back of the head, between the shoulderblades, and the tailbone simultaneously. No more than palms-width of a hand may fit between the lower back and the pipe. Progress slowly, performing minisets of 10-15s with perfect form until longer times are possible. Poor form robs muscles of their potential. With a plank, remember – the body is stiff as a board. This applies to side planks as well. No bending, twisting, hip-hiking, or head-dropping. With all stability exercises – progress slowly in weight, “own” the position, and focus on perfection.

That said, here are some of my favorite core exercises: Planks, Side Planks, Bridges, Dead Bugs, Curl Ups, Wheel Rollouts, Crawls, Pallof hold/press, Chop, Lift, Turkish Get Up, Hanging Leg Raises, Front / Back Levers, L-sits, Hollow Rocks, and finally – the Dragon Flag.