To a fitness newbie, the five-minute abs workouts that saturate YouTube and Instagram seem like a convenient entryway into the world of core workouts. The featured exercises are typically equipment-free and easy to pick up, and being able to check “abs work” off your to-do list in less time than a Taylor Swift song is pretty appealing.
Despite their face-value perks, in some cases, five-minute abs workouts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Here, a strength coach breaks down their benefits and pitfalls, plus what you can do to properly train your core.
Why You Need Abdominal and Core Strength
The “six-pack” abs muscles (technically called the rectus abdominis) that you see on the front of your stomach are just one part of your core, the group of muscles in the trunk of your body that move, support, and stabilize your spine, according to the American Council on Exercise. Your core also consists of the internal and external obliques (which sit at the sides of your waist), the transverse abdominis (which lies deep in your trunk and wraps around your waist like a corset), and the erector spinae (which run vertically along the sides of your spine), among other muscles.
Strengthening the entire muscle group is essential to preventing injury. “The core is what protects the backside of your body,” says Tina Tang, CPT, RKC, SFL, a NCSF-certified personal trainer and strength coach. For example, “with a barbell deadlift, part of the setup is drawing your core in, and that helps protect your lower back as you’re coming up. [Without engaging the core], people might hyperextend their back, so when they pull the weight up, it pulls more into their lower back.” Hello, pain.
Building core strength is also necessary to perform your best in other resistance-based exercises, says Tang. The core muscles work together to stabilize your spine as you lift and transfer force between your upper and lower body, she explains. To keep your back safe as you kettlebell swing or power clean, for instance, you’ll need a strong core. And the same rule applies to everyday movements that require lifting, pushing, or pulling, such as picking up heavy grocery bags or pushing your toddler in a stroller.
Do 5-Minute Abs Workouts Actually Work?
The value of a five-minute abs workout largely comes down to the types of exercises you’re performing. But assuming you’ve chosen high-quality movements, is a quick, dedicated core circuit actually worth the effort? Actually, yes. These exercise snacks can be an effective core-building supplement when integrated into a full-body strength-training routine, Tang says.
Doing simple, five-minute ab workouts can be especially beneficial for beginners who haven’t ever trained their core or are coming back after a period of no training, says Tang. Along with building up a baseline level of strength, these workouts can help you learn to “engage your core” — i.e. physically feel and understand what it’s like to activate your core musculature. This skill comes into play during lots training and in real life. “When you do a sit-up or when you’re holding a plank properly, you actually feel that part of your body working,” she explains. It teaches you the sensation of activating those muscles so you can tap into that when doing, say, a squat or deadlift.
Beyond that, there are some caveats. While five-minute abs workouts are beneficial, they shouldn’t make up the bulk of your core or overall strength-training work. And don’t expect them to “give you abs” without additional training.
Really, the effectiveness of a five-minute abs workout comes down to two elements: the quality of the exercises and your form while performing them, says Tang. An abs workout featuring countless crunches isn’t going to strengthen your abdominals — not to mention the other muscles in your core — as well as a routine that includes a variety of movements (think: side planks, dead bugs, bird dogs, lateral wall slams).
Plus, concentrating all of your efforts on the front abdominals and neglecting to train the core muscles on the backside of your body can put you at risk of a muscle imbalance, which can lead to injury, according to ACE Fitness. And if you’re following along with an online abs workout created by a person without any fitness credentials, you may pick up an improper technique, which can further up your odds of injury.
To continue progressing your strength, you’ll also need to incorporate full-body, compound movements that can gradually increase in intensity, such as by using additional weight, says Tang. “Those abs circuits strengthen, but they’re not going to strengthen the same way as someone who can lift heavy weights because they have to use the core to support and carry that weight,” she explains.
How to Train Your Core Effectively
Although the five-minute abs workouts found online aren’t a fast fix for “getting abs” or a strong core, it’s also true that you don’t need to spend half an hour focusing solely on core work. As the cliché goes, quality is more important than quantity.
If you want to do ab work, Tang recommends incorporating these key exercises into your routine:
- Planks to activate the entire core (not just the rectus abdominis) and help you establish the foundational strength required for a push-up.
- Side planks for the obliques.
- Dead bugs for the transverse abdominis.
- Paloff press holds to improve core stability and anti-rotation.
- Marches: “Doing a march, whether it be holding weights down by your sides suitcase-style, right by your shoulders, or just one overhead, that’s using your core in the most compound way,” she adds. “All of your core muscles are helping you lift your leg and find balance.”
Consider performing your favorite core-strengthening exercises as a mini circuit at the beginning of your strength workout, which can prepare your body for the upcoming compound exercises, says Tang. The kettlebell swing, for instance, puts your body into a similar position as a plank — with your arms extended in front of your chest, your glutes tight, and your core engaged, she adds. “It’s a nice way to have movement prep and remind your body how to use the core in that exercise.”
On that note: Prioritize compound movements that can be progressively loaded — even if they’re not true “core” exercises (think: barbell squats, deadlifts, and kettlebell swings). These exercises will still call on the muscle group for stability and to transfer force, Tang says. “If you have to carry, for example, a 50-pound weight and you do that regularly, you will simply have a stronger core than someone who can only hold a 20-pound weight,” she adds.
The Takeaway on 5-Minute Ab Workouts
When it comes to exercise, anything is usually better than nothing. So if all you can muster on a busy day is a five-minute ab workout on your living room floor, that’s still a great place to start.
In general, five-minute ab workouts can be useful, so long as they include a variety of movements that target the entire core and are performed with good form — and they’re especially beneficial when used as a core activation at the beginning of a workout. But in order to continue progressing past that baseline level of strength, you’ll need to increase the load and practice compound movements that secretly target your core muscles. Regardless of where you are in your fitness journey, though, core exercises aren’t enough on their own, and should just be one part of a full-body strength routine, Tang says.