I know people who hate crunches and sit ups, maybe as much as I hate overrated military-style exercises that make me struggle awkwardly (like burpees). The fact that some disciplines use them as a test of fitness certainly doesn’t help their reputation, so let’s look at how useful they really are.
I don’t mind crunches myself. Once I get into a rhythm, staring at the ceiling in a trance, I actually kind of enjoy them. Crunches aren’t necessarily bad for you, unless you have a back issue and have been told to avoid them. But they’re not the most effective exercise – crunches target primarily the rectus abdominis to the exclusion of other core muscles that need attention as well. Sit ups recruit your hips and abdominal muscles but not the rest of your core (glutes, hamstrings, latissimus dorsi).
Sit ups and crunches also require spinal flexion, a movement that is not commonly used in daily movements. Engaging the core when the spine is in a neutral position is more helpful in training for injury prevention and athletic performance than when the spine is in a flexed position.
So I’m writing this post not only for those of you who hate crunches/sit ups, but for anyone wishing to improve their core strength. If you just relied only on crunches you’d miss out on isometric holds and dynamic movements that increase core stability and pillar strength (shoulders, torso, and hips working together). When your deep stabilizer muscles aren’t strong, you’re setting yourself up for injury, as the kinetic forces may be transferred or used improperly.
I’m not promising you’ll love these exercises any more than crunches; when you feel the burn, it can be uncomfortable! But if you never do another crunch, your core will not suffer. So let’s get started.
When selecting core exercises, look for those that target numerous muscles of the core, not just one or two. Also look for exercises that target your pillar – the shoulders, torso, and hips.
A good habit is to draw in your naval. Always, you say? Almost! Do it when you’re exercising, when you’re sitting, when you’re standing, or when you’re lying down. Drawing in your naval activates deep stabilizer muscles that help prevent spinal compression and pelvic instability. It improves your posture and balance as well! So do it.
Hint: Exercises that require you to balance and stabilize yourself (such as lying on a ball or standing on one leg) recruit your core more. Using free weights also recruits your core more than weight machines, which put you in a fixed plane of motion.
Here are a few exercises to give you an idea of what a good core exercise looks like.
- Farmer’s walk. Walk with a dumbbell in each hand for time, speed, or distance. Use any implement you like – dumbbells, a sandbag, bucket of water, suitcases – and carry them by your sides or over your head. Keep your core engaged and slowly walk forward.
- Leg raises on a stability ball. Lie with your head/upper back on the ball and lift one leg at a time.
- Medicine ball chest pass or overhead slam.
- Sea turtle. Lying face down, move your straight, lifted arms and legs in arcs, together, and apart.
- Stability ball rollout.
- Floor bridge. An especially good core exercise for beginners, it also works your hamstrings and glutes. Variations make it much harder: one leg raised, both feet on a ball, one foot on a foam roller, etc.
- Stability ball knee tuck.
- Stability ball pike. An advanced core move.
- Back extension. Try this as a dumbbell row, too.
- Plank. The good ole plank is boring, but effective. To mix it up, see all these ideas or try elbows on a stability ball, plank with leg lifts, feet elevated, clockwise planks on a ball (with elbows on ball, move elbows up, down, right, and left without lifting them).
- Plank with dumbbells: Position your body in the upward phase of a pushup, with your hands directly under your shoulders – one holding a light dumbbell with fingers pointing forward. Look at the floor and slowly swing the arm holding the dumbbell out to the side at shoulder height and then back down. Keep your elbows straight and move nothing except your arm. Repeat on the other side. (Source: Livestrong.com)
Hip roll. Lying on your back, bend your knees to 90 degrees on one side. Using your core, move your bent legs together to the other side. Repeat for reps. Try these also with your bent legs on a stability ball.
- Russian twist. Try this also lying on a stability ball holding a medicine ball.
- Cable wood choppers. Do these side to side, high to low, or low to high.
- Side plank. Try it with a knee tuck (bend knee lower leg towards chest and hold), threading your non-weight-bearing arm through your weight-bearing arm, or raising and lowering your hips. Also try lying perpendicular to a low cable pulley and performing one-arm rows.
- Side bends. Hold dumbbells in each hand, stand on a resistance band, or hold a plate overhead. With a slight bend in your knees, slowly bend to the side, aiming your shoulder towards your hip. Return to the center. Repeat for both sides.