Even if you’re not looking to get a six-pack—and believe us, it’s really not worth it—you’ve probably done some sort of abs exercises. You’ve heard a strong core has lots benefits, from improving your posture to preventing injuries, and if you’re being honest, you also want that elusive flat stomach. So you add crunches to your workout.

But studies suggest the path to a flatter stomach has just as much to do with cardio and diet as it does with working that midsection.Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Abdominal Fat, Thigh Muscle Mass and Muscle Strength in Type 2 Diabetic Subject. Kwon H, Min K, et al. Korean Diabetes Journal. 2010 Feb; 34(1): 23–31.
Increased Consumption of Dairy Foods and Protein during Diet- and Exercise-Induced Weight Loss Promotes Fat Mass Loss and Lean Mass Gain in Overweight and Obese Premenopausal Women. Josse A, Atkinson S, et al. The Journal of Nutrition. 2011 Sep; 141(9): 1626–1634.
(This is one of those revelations that makes you question if your whole life is a lie.) Crunches alone won’t get rid of the layer of fat most of us carry around just above our waist and replace it with rock-hard muscle.

For starters, “spot reduction” (a.k.a. targeting a specific area of body fat) is a gym-floor myth. A bull’s-eye focus on abs exercises isn’t the way to get rid of belly fat. That’s because fat is broken down and transported into the bloodstream, and when it’s used as fuel, it can come from anywhere in the body. So although a dozen crunches can make your abs feel like they’re on fire, fat may be burning elsewhere. (Sneaky, huh?!)

Your Action Plan

If you’re looking to strengthen your abdominal muscles, crunches are just one of the exercises you should be doing. Crunches target the superficial surface muscles—the ones that give us a six-pack. But for a truly strong core, you need to also target your side, back, psoas, and gluteal muscles. That means you should add things like planks, Russian twists, and flutter kicks to your routine. (Check out the graphic below for a 12-minute complete core workout.)

And if you’re dead set on having your abs on display for the whole world to see, you’re going to need to think about your diet too. Most nutritionists recommend cutting down on carbs and eating more lean protein, like turkey or chicken.

Originally published December 2011. Updated March 2017.