As a certified personal trainer and instructor, I’m most often asked how to improve the appearance of abs. I’m going to let you in on a super exciting secret: crunches won’t help you get there. If you’re questioning everything you ever thought you knew about getting a solid core workout, that’s a good thing! While you will gain some strength from a classic crunch or sit-up, you’re missing out on some important factors that contribute to the appearance of your abs: diet, cardiovascular intensity of the exercise, and exercises that promote posture and balance.
Below, we rounded up the four most common ineffective and/or incorrectly performed ab exercises. Try trading them out for some of the suggested alternatives for a new change of pace on your ab strength journey. The results will start showing as long as you remain committed to your workout routine and healthy meal choices.
The classic sit-up
This one throws everyone for a loop! Sit-ups? It seems counterintuitive, but it’s quite the opposite. If you remember those physical fitness tests from grade school, you might remember how easy it was to cheat with the speed of your repetitions and letting your hip flexors take the lead. Additionally, if they’re not done correctly, sit-ups can also put your lower back at risk. Bending your spine in half repeatedly can cause back pain and lead to permanent damage of the spine.
Trade it for…planks and jump rope
Planks are one of the best ways to work your abs, regardless of what variation you choose. It’s also a full-body move, so you’ll get extra credit with each repetition you crank out. Get a killer core workout from the inside out by holding a solid plank for an extended period of time, then kick up your heart rate a notch to torch some extra calories with a 60-second round blast of jump rope, keeping your core engaged and knees high.
You’d think that the full-range motion of a windmill would be a core-centric exercise, but it’s actually the opposite. Studies have shown that aggressively bending and twisting your spine in a quick manner can put strain on your lower back, as most of us probably aren’t engaging our core enough for it to be effective, leaving your spine to do all the work. Instead, keep your spine straight and core tight and opt for a more full-body movement that will require you to use your core to stabilize and hold your position strong.
Trade it for… squat to overhead press
One of the most effective ways to work your core is through loaded exercises (think farmer’s carries, like above). When you load your upper body, your core is forced to really engage to help support the rest of your body. It helps you practice proper form too, so it’s a double win! Try trading your windmills for a squat to press combination for a killer core workout that won’t put your back at risk.
While you can get a strong core from this exercise, it’s extremely easy to do incorrectly, putting unnecessary stress on your spine if you start to get tired and let your shoulders lead the way instead of your core. With the added weight in this position, it can cause some strain to your muscles if you’re not supporting your lower back properly for your ability level. Instead, try a standing position, which will keep your back better supported and make the rotational movement more effective.
Trade it for… medicine ball passes
A great substitute for Russian twists are medicine ball passes. You will get the same core engagement without the added strain, and it’s a great way to work out with a partner. Standing back to back, pass the medicine ball to your partner in both directions, or if you’re flying solo, turn it into a wall side toss instead.
The classic crunch
Repeatedly putting your body under spinal flexion can lead to some serious back problems down the road, and also put added strain on your neck and kill your posture. Instead, opt for move that works your core in both directions: flexion and extension. You’ll see better results with a more well rounded core exercise, like the one below.
Trade it for… birddogs
This is a great exercise that helps build balance, tighten the core muscles, and build the foundational core strength you’ll need for more challenging exercises down the road. It’s an easily modifiable move, too, so if you’re just starting out on your balance improvement journey, try this move on your knees first.