Great Abs are a focus for many (okay, ALL) of my clients. Genetics will play a role in whether or not you store fat around your midsection as will diet and lifestyle factors. The bottom line is; if you want great abs, you will need to work on your overall body fat so a strength training regime coupled with HIIT is the best overall plan of attack for defined abs. However, building core strength is extremely beneficial for multiple reasons; it improves posture, strength, stability and power in your whole body.
The problem for many is discomfort in other parts of the body (their neck, hips, back etc) when doing ab workouts.
If you are doing it right, the only discomfort you should feel is the burn of isolated muscles being targeted. If you are feeling discomfort in other areas, then it is probably a good idea to review your posture and technique. The most common mistake I see people make when practising ab focused exercises, is that they move into an anterior pelvic tilt (or tilting their hips forward). The reason this can cause pain is that not only is it possible your hip flexors will become uncomfortable from being inadvertently overworked (we engage these constantly just simply sitting upright), you may also get neck discomfort because you are not appropriately engaging your core muscles (which is the whole point!).
Here are some examples of when this might happen:
Problem: Letting your hips drop forward will not only prevent your abs from properly engaging, it will also curve your back which can cause pain and even do damage. On the flip side, lifting your hips too high will also prevent your abs from engaging.
Fix it: Aim to keep your legs, hips, back and neck aligned. When practising the plank, engage through your navel, drawing it upwards. This will ensure you are properly engaging your core.
The Sit Up
Problem: If your hips are tilted forward during this movement you will notice that you engage your hip flexors to do the majority of the exercise (the sitting up part!). Not only does this take the focus away from your abs, it will risk over using and straining your hip flexors.
Fix it: Less is more. It is not so much about getting up into the full sit up as working those core muscles. In many cases, you are better off doing a simple crunch. Not only will this reduce the likelihood of you using your hip flexors, it will also give you a nice abdominal workout!
Problem: It is very tempting to arch your back during the movement of this exercise, however not only will this reduce the effectiveness of the exercise, it will also put your back at risk of damage.
Fix it: Engage through your navel and keep your lower back tucked into the floor. Remember to only raise to the point in which your lower back remains on the floor. If you need some extra support, try tucking your palms either face up or down along side each of your hips.