It’s true that it’s never too late to start when it comes to getting on the road to a fitter, healthier you, but unfortunately, the clock is ticking when it comes to getting those washboard abs Opens a New Window. in time for beach weather. Don’t panic though—if you get started with these tips today, you’ll be set for a (mostly) shirtless summer. But even if you’re not preparing for summer or a beach vacation, six-pack abs. are more than a great beach accessory—a strong core Opens a New Window. is essential for a foundation of overall health. Your back pain will diminish, your lifts will get stronger, and your posture will greatly improve.

The adage that “abs are made in the kitchen” is totally right, but almost as important is making sure you’re using proper form when you’re working toward better definition and strength in your core. These guidelines ensure you’re not wasting your time, or worse, setting yourself up for injury.

1. Hold the peak contraction.

By consciously squeezing and momentarily holding the peak contraction at the top of each rep, you’ll work your abdominals harder and be less inclined to race through your repetitions.

2. Move at a smooth, deliberate pace.

Use a slow, strict motion that increases the intensity of the contraction and minimizes momentum. Momentum is created using fast, explosive motions, which reduce the quality of your workout and invite injury.

3. Exhale at the top of the move.

Hold your breath until you’ve reached the peak-contracted position for a stronger, more intense contraction. Exhaling early reduces intra-abdominal pressure, so you won’t be able to contract your abs as strongly.

4. Keep your head in line with your torso.

When grasping your head to support it, don’t interlock your fingers, which increases the likelihood you’ll pull on your head and disrupt spinal alignment. Lightly cup your fingers behind your head to support it—don’t pull on it.

5. Make sure the action is restricted to your waist.

During most upper and lower abdominal moves, your spine flexes (your lower back rounds), so don’t keep your lower back arched during the movement. Keep other joints stabilized.

6. Keep the range of motion fairly small.

Bringing your shoulder blades off the floor in the basic crunch, for example, works the abs through a full range of motion. Don’t rise as high as you would in a full situp—such motion doesn’t further contract or stimulate the abs and may increase hip flexor involvement when your feet are planted, such as in decline-bench crunches.