When it comes to training their core muscles, many people default to some form of the crunch or sit-up. They are easily identifiable, look easy to perform, require the use of no equipment, and are firmly entrenched in the public’s imagination as the way to train the abs.
However, there are some glaring issues with them that many think make them either insufficient or outright unacceptable as a core routine.
First, let’s look at insufficiency. Neither sit-ups nor crunches are particularly challenging, at least when you get used to them: plateau is reached very quickly. Without added resistance, which is hard to do safely with either the crunch or the sit-up, your abs just won’t be getting the workload they need to inspire progression.
Added to this is the lack of musculature that they hit. Both will target your lower rectus abdominals quite nicely. However, these only form a small, and arguably not very important, portion of your core. For a well-rounded, fully developed midriff you will also want to target your deeper, transverse abdominal wall and both your internal and external obliques, none of which are hit in any way by sit-ups or crunches.
Secondly, let’s look at safety. Both sit-ups and crunches involved repetitive spinal flexion- exacerbated in those with poor technique. This can cause various issues for your back health, not least of which compression in your spinal disks which will cause them to bulge, pressing on nerves. The fibrous outer walls of these disks can become damaged through repetitive flexion, and various medical complaints may follow.
To many, that’s far too much risk for such a low pay-off as crunches and sit-ups offer.
There are a host of alternative exercises available to you that will both keep you safe as you train and give you far more in terms of abdominal development and progressive overload.
Many fitness professionals are either partially or fully foregoing sit-ups and crunches in favour of some of these better alternatives. People favour variations on the plank, in which isometric tension over time can be used to get deep within the abdominal and oblique muscles. Yoga, Pilates and calisthenics all use a variety of bodyweight poses and movements to work the core from different angles and at different intensities.
A particular trend that many are enjoying and adopting is to use real-world movements to develop core strength that is geared towards movements you will use in your everyday life. Carrying motions like the farmer’s walk, sandbag and keg carries mimic actions we will actually use as they get you to brace and hold loads through movement. Dragging actions fit into this category, with sled pulls, yoke walks and their like working your core in its role as stabiliser under load.
Your Core Routine
It’s always a good idea to look for a trio of things when deciding on your core routine. The first is this real-world applicability: how will it actually help you to move more efficiently, with improved strength? The second is the effect it will have on your heart rate: to build a six-pack, you will need to burn fat, and so any thermogenic bonus is to be welcomed. Finally, you want to look at the risk to reward ratio: what is payoff compared to the potential harm? This is where crunches and sit-ups fall down, as mentioned above, and where others will do wonders.
Collected below are a sample of some of the core exercises you should be making use of in your routines. To a greater or lesser degree, each will hit the above three categories, giving you real-world practicality, great reward at minimal risk, and often challenging your full body so that your heart rate remains elevated throughout.
Arguably the best at hitting our three criteria, front squats will push you hard, focus on stability under load and give you a fantastic core workout with relatively little risk of injuring yourself.
- It’s a lower body exercise that will work all the muscles in your legs, glutes and hips. However, whereas the bar is placed across your back during a regular squat, with the front squat the weight is held out in front of you (how and where depends on the variation).
- Placing the weight in front of your centre of gravity forces your core muscles into a stabilising role, so much so that your abs will often feel the exercise far more than your legs.
Leg raises work similar muscles in similar ways to crunches and sit-ups. However, the strain is more intense, the ability to progressively overload is greater, and the posture is much more safe.
- You will want to start lying down on the floor, with your arms by your sides for stability and your legs out straight.
- With your feet together and your core tight, raise your legs to around a 45 degree angle. Keep your toes pointed and feel the strain as it hits your abdominal wall.
- After this, simply lower them down. Make sure your keep the movement down slow so as to maximise time under tension.
- If you can, stop your feet an inch from the floor. Raise and lower in this way for as many reps as you can manage.
If it’s too hard to stop your feet an inch from the ground at first, feel free to touch them to the ground each time. This will take the pressure out of your deeper abdominal wall
Hanging Leg Raises
This is the next stage up from the grounded leg-raise.
- To do the full, hanging leg raise, hold onto a pull-up bar with a medium grip.
- Hang down with your legs straight and your pelvis tucked slightly back. For a slightly easier version, you can brace yourself into a captain’s chair or power tower, so that your torso is better supported and you don’t have to rely on grip strength.
- Raise your legs up to make a right-angle with your body, keeping your core tight as you do so.
- Hold the contraction for a second and then lower slowly to the start, the same as for the grounded leg raise.
- Once more, repeat for as many reps as feels comfortable.
You can also do knee raises, either hanging or from a captain’s chair brace. This will take some of the strain out of the quads and put it all into the abs. To engage your obliques, simply add a twist, bringing opposite knee towards opposite shoulder, alternating sides.
Ab-wheel roll-outs hit both inner and outer abdominal muscles very hard, with a mixture of isometric stability (using the rectus abdominus and obliques) and hard motion (using the transverse abdominus.) It’s also one of the hardest exercises that you will be able to find.
- Use an ab-wheel, which most commercial gyms will own. Kneel down with your knees about hip-width apart, holding onto the wheel with it just before you on the floor.
- Tuck your tailbone in, tense your glutes and round out your upper back before beginning. Then move your body forwards, rolling the wheel as far forwards as you can, before coming back up to the start position.
For a different, somewhat easier alternative, try using TRX bands for your roll-outs.
- Hold the TRX in front of your hips with both hands, maintaining a neutral gaze and spine. Keep your chest up and your feet in place, hip width apart.
- Lean forwards, allowing your hands to come out in front, your arms straight throughout. Come into a ‘superman’ position with your arms in front of, and above, your body.
- Pause here, contract, and then come back to the start.
A favourite of cross-fitters and circuit-trainers, the kettlebell swing is fast becoming one of the most common sites in commercial gyms around the world. The swing hits your core very hard, mostly putting pressure into your hips, glutes and transverse abdominus, with a lesser yet still significant amount going into your obliques, hamstrings and torso.
- Place your feet hip width apart with the kettlebell held in both hands before you, hanging slack.
- To begin the exercise, take a deep breath, brace your core, and then breathe normally as you ‘swing.’
- With a neutral spine, power through your hips, thrusting the kettlebell up to eye level (Russian kettlebell swings) or above your head (American kettlebell swings). Your core and glutes should contract sharply as the movement peaks.
- Bring the kettlebell back down, between your legs, and repeat.
This is an explosive movement and will bring your heart rate sky high whilst using your core in a very active, workable manner.
These alternatives and many more will help you to achieve the core strength and musculature that you want, without you ever having to perform a single crunch or sit up. They have more benefits, will give you more by way of progressive overload, and are all far safer and more effective than crunches and sit ups.