Let me guess: You want great abs, you do crunches almost every day, but you just can't burn your belly fat and carve the definition you crave. If I had a nickel for every person who's told me that sit-ups aren't doing squat, my riches would trump Trump's! It's time to stop the sit-up madness and learn to properly mold your midsection.

For me, ab training is especially important because I naturally have a square, short waist. There are only three inches between my hipbone and my ribs. I spent nearly every week of my life from age 12 to 22 performing hundreds of crunches. My abdominal muscles were so large that they actually protruded! Not only was my waist obnoxiously short, but those hundreds of ab exercises made it boxy, as well.

I've done everything wrong, and don't want you to make the same mistakes. Here's what to watch out for and how to fix your ab-training errors.

Your Midsection And Muscle

For some reason, many of us think our abs won't respond to consistent training the same away other muscles will. Why would the principles of muscle growth work for certain muscles and not others? The muscles in your abdominal region are just like any other muscle in your body. Train them enough and they will grow.

This wouldn't be a problem if we didn't go overboard. It would be ludicrous to spend an hour on the leg extension machine or devote 20 minutes at the end of each workout to shoulder shrugs. Why, then, do we overwork our abs?

Perhaps one reason is that our "ab obsession" is easy to fuel. Ab exercises can be performed anywhere, and no one ever kicks us out of the ab-training corner after 20 minutes. Abdominal muscles recover quickly, making it possible to train them more frequently. The ease and simplicity make ab training a little too easy. It's like walking into a bear trap. That basket of berries—in this case, that flat belly—is so irresistible we fail to realize our ankle is about to get snagged by a serrated vise buried in the brush by a hunter. See where I'm going here?

We see the pristine bellies on a magazine cover, find the "Killer Abs Routine" article, and think that performing those movements will make us look awesome. Even better, we do all the exercises more often so we see results faster. We've all done this—don't say you haven't!

Ab Math Made Simple

Here's the math of abs. When you exercise, you use stored energy. Fat is one form of stored energy. The more strenuous your workout, the more energy you use. If you use larger muscles to do the work, your body will use more energy. Jumping jacks require more energy than blinking, for example.

Direct ab training may be doing wonders for your muscle development, but it doesn't require a significant amount of energy. Sure, it takes some energy to do crunches, but not enough to melt calories like you want.

Unless you're doing other exercises that work your big muscles and cause you to burn fat, that extra belly-baggage is going to stay.

What you put in your belly is equally important. I believe it was Confucius who first said, "Abs are made in the kitchen." Of course, he didn't leave us a recipe for baking the perfect abs, so we've had to concoct that on our own.

Many experts have jumped all over this wise saying and developed various lists of fat-burning foods. That seems like good news for us, right? Start with oatmeal, add almonds, beef, milk, salmon, sardines, pork, chicken, coffee, green tea—no, wait, green tea extract!—and jalapeño peppers.

Eat this every day and watch in amazement as the fat melts away like butter over a stack of hotcakes. Not.

Although the above foods are whole foods and are semi-close to how they're found in nature, they're not going to instantly trim your waist. Natural foods are great, but they won't torch fat on their own. You can't sit on the couch all day eating steak and avocado hoping to wake up with washboard abs. (Sorry to call you out like that, steak and avocado. I still love you.)

What helps is reducing the amount of food you consume altogether. Yes, the foods found on the belly-fat burning lists are always great to have in your kitchen, but they aren't a cure. Adding them to your daily menu won't do a bit of good if you don't start subtracting the bad food. You can't add a cup of almonds to your double cheeseburger and expect to see results.

You need to start eating less total food. If you continue to eat the same amount of food everyday while you have a considerable amount of fat stored, then that extra fat never gets used. Reduce the amount of food you eat and your body will resort to using fat stores as energy. If you eat fewer calories, less junk food, and more natural food, you'll be on your way to a flatter belly.

Put it Together

A low-calorie diet may seem like the simple solution, but we're not quite done. You still need the right exercises. Rather than targeting your abs specifically, focus on compound movements. Train your entire body to use more stored energy—fat!—and reveal your muscular midsection. You've got some muscle on your stomach, but you need to exercise your entire body to reveal it.

Instead of endless crunches, start hitting your major muscle groups. Train your legs and butt, for example! In addition to burning calories, you'll build muscle and shape your lower body. A shapely bum will make your waist look smaller, I guarantee it. I've made my own naturally square waist look smaller by building a round, perky backside. Start doing hip thrusts and glute bridges!

You should also perform exercises that challenge your body to a greater degree, work multiple muscles at one time, increase your heart rate, and challenge your metabolism. There's no single exercise that will give you everything you need, so your greatest ally will be a well-rounded program that incorporates resistance training and aerobic exercise.

This means you've got options. Try kettlebells, TRX training, running, walking, yoga, swimming, soccer, rugby, or hiking. Really, the list is endless. And with the proper full-body training protocol, you won't neglect your abs at all. Need a workout to put this plan into action? Knock out this full-body core crusher.

No-Crunch Core Workout

No-Crunch Core Workout
Barbell front squat
3 sets, 6-8 reps
+ 5 more exercises


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In addition to a well-rounded exercise program, it's important to note that calorie reduction doesn't mean "crash diet." If you suddenly start eating 500 calories per day, you will certainly lose weight quickly, but your physical shape will not improve. To reshape your physique, you should aim to lose 1-2 pounds of fat per week. Slow and steady will yield long-term results, greater fat loss, better shape, and more muscle tone.

If you want to add direct abdominal training to your workout routine, add those exercises at the end of your session, and only do a few sets. More than that will just be overkill, especially if your workouts are built around deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, push-ups, and kettlebell swings. The big moves yield big results. Couple them with a reduced calorie diet, and reap the rewards.

About the Author

Kellie Davis

Kellie Davis

Kellie Davis is a freelance writer and blogger turned fitness coach living in Northern California.

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