Forget Crunches! Strengthen Your Core the Right Way

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Woman doing plank

Your core muscles, AKA your rectus abdominus, are important for just about every movement you make, in life and in the gym! Your rectus abdominus makes up all the parts of your abs that you usually think about: upper, lower and obliques. A strong core supports the rest of your muscles when you’re performing movements like squats, lunges, pull-ups and more. That means that the stronger your abdominal muscles are, the stronger your other muscles – like your glutes, quads and biceps – can be. As some of your most important stability muscles, they help with balance, too.

However, while most of us know the importance of a strong core, we don’t always know the best way to get there. There’s plenty of video workouts, information and home gym equipment out there, like ab benches, Roman chairs and the Core Max, but the videos often don’t have coaching, the information can be conflicting and the price tags on equipment can be expensive!

Pricey ab workout machines like the Core Max all claim to be the best ab machine around. But the best ab workout machine for one gym goer might not be the best for another. Furthermore, we think the best ab workout machine around is you, your motivation and your floor! Many ab workout moves can be performed with just bodyweight or a set of light weights and minimal equipment. Unlike machines like the Roman chair or ab benches, these exercises are familiar, unintimidating, and can help work your lower body and upper body, in addition to just your core. They also don’t come with a price tag! We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: your own body is the best ab machine for your workout. You’ve already built your home gym!

Another issue to keep in mind with many ab workout machines is that they put a ton of focus on crunches. Crunches and sit-ups are the main exercise we’re told to do: in sports, in the gym and in general! But as our head coach will tell you, every time you do a sit-up (spinal flexion), it’s like someone parking a motorcycle on your body. Fact: It actually creates up to 750 pounds of compression force on the spine. Sound like a problem? Think of a steel bar that supports a building. It’s meant to stand straight and bear load. Based on its shape, you would never expect it to bend, twist, and still carry load; but that’s exactly what our spines do! They bend, twist, allow our lungs to fill with air, dance, jump, run, play—but we still have to protect them. Your spinal “support beam” is incredibly important, and there are plenty of rectus abdominis exercises that still protect it.

The Benefits of Rotation & Anti-Rotation

One of the world’s leading spinal information experts, Dr. McGill, has spent three decades studying the facts of spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and he is on a crusade to end sit-ups and crunches. His three favorite core exercises for people to perform are side-plank, bird-dog, and stir-the-pot on an exercise ball. McGill preaches that the best way to train your core is with your spine in neutral, using various forms of planking or movements that use rotation or resist rotation (called “anti-rotation”) to build strength.

Planks are so great because they recruit the most amount of ab muscles at the same time. And that’s just how life works. In addition to workouts and sports, most natural, everyday activities require our muscles to work together and fire simultaneously. Plus, if you’re doing ab workouts because there’s a little extra padding on your waist or hips that you’d like to get rid of, exercises that recruit the most muscle are a great way to burn fat. And of course, once you’ve built that muscle, it burns up more fat even when at rest. So, one of the best things people can do to prepare for life and prevent back injuries is to stop crunching and start planking. You can also try planks with leg lifts, suspended rollouts, or tucks. All three require spinal stabilization, strength, and endurance. Another way to make planks more challenging is by using a Bosu ball. Because of their shape and inflation, Bosu balls require extra strength and stability. You can place your palms or forearms on the ball, or change it up and try placing your feet on the ball for an extra challenge!

In addition to stabilization practices, you can challenge your core by focusing on rotation or resisting rotation. Check out the movements below – we included a handful of our favorites. The plank pull-through is the best of both stabilization and anti-rotation. Keeping your body still, resist moving anything but your arm while you drag the sandbag through. The windmill is a more advanced movement that requires good form and control, and is considered an anti-rotation exercise that you can top load (weight in the upper arm), bottom load (lower arm), or both. The high to low chop works the opposing motion as you rotate your body on the cable machine or with a band. Let’s stop being content with crunches and check these exercises out! There’s no specific order to perform them in, but give these a try, and you’ll start to see progression in no time!

6 Core Moves Better Than Crunches

1. Plank Pull Through

You can perform this exercise with a dumbbell, sandbag or backpack – just about anything but a barbell works, as long as you have something heavy! To perform it, start in a high plank position – being on your hands works better than being on your forearms. Place the dumbbell below your left leg – somewhere between your thigh and knee. Then, with your right hand, reach for the weight and drag it towards your right shoulder, the original starting position for your right hand. Then, drag the weight back toward your right quad- no further down than your right knee – and repeat the rep on your left side. If you let the weight get past your left or right knee on either side, you’re hurting your form! Make sure you’re keeping your hips low, head neutral and heels backward, to protect your back. Perform 8-12 reps on each side.

2. Windmill

Windmills are great for working the obliques, entire midsection, and even glutes! To perform them, you’ll need two dumbbells and a little space! Lighter weight is best to make sure you’re keeping proper form and posture. To start, stand in a straight line and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Raise one arm toward the ceiling and keep the other at your side. Slowly bend your torso, keeping your back, arms and elbows in a straight line, and reach one weight towards your heels. Go as far down as is comfortable, then use your core muscles to pull yourself back up! Repeat for 8-12 reps on each side.

3. TRX Tuck

If you haven’t used TRX equipment before, this exercise that works your entire body is a great way to start! To begin, start with your palms flat on the ground and your feet in the TRX handles. Keep your body in a straight line, then curl your knees and chest inward to bring your feet close to your torso. Try to get your heels to kick your seat. Hold with your knees tucked for a second, then push back out through your toes and return to your starting position. Repeat this one for as many reps as you can, and as you get stronger, start to add more reps! It’s a great way for people to work their lower abs, glutes and hips.

4. Lo-Hi Chop

Like the windmill, your starting position for the lo-hi chop is on your feet. You’ll need a cable pulley for this one. Position it low to the ground, then grab the handle and bring it across the front of your chest and up toward the ceiling. Try to focus on your obliques and abdominal muscles, rather than pulling with your arms and forearms. Make sure you keep your elbows straight. Performed properly, this move works your entire midsection, chest and lower back! Hold it for a second, then return to the starting position near the floor. Perform 8-12 reps, then switch sides.

5. TRX Roll-Out

To perform this unique abdominal move, start by holding the straps in front of your torso with your feet flat on the floor. Then, bring your arms above your chest and push yourself out, almost into a plank position. Try to keep your shoulders close to your ears and your neck in line with your spine. Hold for a few seconds if you can, then use your core strength to pull yourself back to a standing position. Perform this one for as many reps as you can. If you’ve ever done overhead presses with a barbell, this movement might feel slightly similar.

 

If you don’t have TRX straps, you can also perform this movement with an ab roller. For the ab roller variation, start on your knees on the ground and the roller in your hands. Keeping your back straight to protect your lower back, roll out as far on the floor as you can, then use your core muscles to roll yourself back up. Perform as many reps as you can. Even if you can only roll forward a few inches, know that you’re making progress! You’ll be able to roll father within a few weeks. If you don’t have an ab roller, you can use a barbell with small plates that will roll well on the floor!

6. Plank with Leg Lift

Planks are a great, familiar core workout for most people. They require zero equipment, little floor space, and they strengthen your upper body and lower back! They’re also one of the best, easiest core moves to do in your home gym. For this variation, you’re still on the floor, but you lift one leg up at a time. This move requires serious balance, and you’ll really feel your core muscles working, even if you can only lift your feet an inch or two off the ground. If that’s the case, you’re still getting a great workout! We recommend performing 8-12 reps in order with your left leg, then switching to your right. Make sure you’re keeping your legs straight and not bending your left or right knee! And unlike the model in this photo, make sure your head isn’t too lifted above your shoulders. You don’t want to strain your neck! Bonus points: this move also works parts of your legs, hips and glutes.

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