No More Crunches? Sit-ups? Russian Twists? Bicycles? Side-Bends? How will I ever train my core and get a six-pack?

First of all, no amount of core training exercises is going to give you a six-pack. If you want to start getting closer to a six-pack, then start laying off the six-packs!

I’m just messing around, but I think it’s common knowledge now that just doing exercises for you core won’t give you a flat stomach or ripped abs. That comes from a combination of eating the right foods at the right times, full-body strength training, proper cardiovascular conditioning, good sleep, proper hydration, and well managed stress levels.

Sound like too much work? Well, yes anything in life worth having does require work, but it’s not as hard as it may sound.

We’ll talk more about all of these factors in future posts, but for now, let’s talk about why training the core is so important, and why you should definitely stop doing crunches, sit-ups and any other movements that create movement through you lower back (lumbar spine).

Most importantly, let’s talk about how to train you core properly, and of course, the best core exercises for beginners.

Let’s get started!

 

Why No Crunches? Learn from you Little Ones!

So why is the most well-known abdominal/core exercise, as well as it’s variations, bad for us to do?

To explain this in the best and most concise way I can, let’s talk about the most precious thing in the world, a baby!

If you have a small developing child at home, grandchild, niece, nephew, or even a friends’ child you could observe exactly what I am about to talk about. When we are born, we come with a preset ‘motor program’ of how we will develop and learn how to move. No instructions are needed, it’s already in the brain, just waiting to come out. Let’s break it down:

  1. Your sweet little child must first learn to control their head by developing stability and strength in their neck muscles. This is the importance of the dreaded ‘tummy time’.
  2. Once you little baby can control their head better, they use it to help them roll-over, not sit-up! Remember this, as they are now starting to use their core muscles as a stabilizer to allow them to roll-over.
  3. Once they can roll-over efficiently, they start to work their way up onto their elbows, then up onto all fours. Their core is now stabilizing them as they start to explore crawling. This is about when they will start to sit independently as well.
  4. From the crawling they begin to explore how to stand, usually by pushing their little bums in the air and walking backwards with their hands. They may try other ways as well, but this is the strategy to take note of.
  5. Once they can stand, now it’s time to walk, and very quickly start running. Why waste any time right?

What’s the point of all this? Did you notice that not once in their development do babies use their cores for ‘crunching’ or ‘sitting-up’ to progress in their motor development. Their core ‘stabilizes’ as they learn to move through their extremities.

If our brain starts off teaching our bodies to use our core as a big stabilizer, then why do we train it as a mobilizer with exercises that force us to try to create movement in that area?

Is it starting to make sense why crunches hurt you neck so much? Or why sit-ups bother you lower back?

These exercises are not natural to our body! I can get into more reasons as to why, but I think that’s a good enough reason alone, and besides, you want to know what to do, so let’s talk about how to train you core as a stabilizer.

One other thing, enjoy watching babies from now on, I hope you are as fascinated by them moving as I am. It’s natures blue-print on how to develop stability!

Don’t Move a Muscle!

That’s exactly right! To train you core properly, you don’t need to a move a muscle. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?

Well the not moving part is true, but that’s exactly where the challenge comes in. You are training your core not to move, and trust me, it’s not easy. So how do you do it? To explain it properly, let’s talk a little anatomy. Just a little I promise, Shelley already warned me!

I want you to picture you spine for a second, and imagine all the ways it can move. It can bend forwards (flexion), bend backwards (extension), bend side to side (lateral flexion), and rotate. So it would only make sense to make sure to strengthen all these movements right? Wrong!

While you spine can move in all directions, it’s not great at producing forces through movement. What it is good at, is stabilizing the center of you body, so that the arms and legs can do their job. Again remember the baby development above.

Still not Making Sense?

If you are still confused, think about a few more examples of movement in real life. Its common knowledge to keep you back straight when you lift. Lifting with a flexed spine can really hurt you back!

So why would you lie down on you back and do this same movement on purpose? Yes I’m talking crunches and sit-ups again.

Also picture a golf swing. If you watch closely the area between the pelvis and ribs does not move. The hips and shoulders rotate as the center stays the same. It stays ‘stable’ so the arms and legs can do their job!

How about a push-up? Producing force with your arms, shoulders and chest while the rest of you body stays rigid. This places emphasis on you core to maintain stability while you press yourself up off the floor.

Ever see someone do a push-up but they have a big arch in their lower back, or they look like they are practicing ‘the worm’ more so than doing a push-up. They lack core stability.

Now Let’s Train it!

To train core stability appropriately, all we have to do is think of the ways in which the spine can move, and then teach it to be able to resist those movements. We can break this down into 3 categories for a beginner:

  1. Resist Extension – Stick you belly and chest out as much as you can, that’s extending you spine. We can teach the body to resist this movement with a Front Plank
  2. Resist Lateral Flexion – Slide you right arm down the side of you body, then do the left arm down the left side. You are bending side to side, or laterally flexing you spine. For a beginner, we teach the core to resist this movement with Weighted Kneeling Holds
  3. Resist Rotation – Keep you feet still and twist left and right, that’s rotation. We teach the body to resist this movement with Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotations

What’s with all the Kneeling?

Good Question! When introducing a beginner to core training, or anyone we work with for that matter, we will always start with kneeling positions whenever possible.

By kneeling you take you lower body out of the equation and place more emphasis on you core doing the work. And that’s the goal of course.

We work with both knee’s down (Tall Kneeling) or one knee down (Half Kneeling), depending on the exercise. For the purpose of this article, both exercises are completed Tall Kneeling.

Now to the exercises.

 

The Plank

Purpose – Train the core to resist the spine from extending

How to do it – As you can see from the picture, you are basically in a perfect push-up position except resting on you forearms. I like to keep cuing as simple as possible:

  • Keep you body in once nice tight line
  • Pull you chin in, like you are trying to give yourself a double chin. This helps keep proper alignment
  • Squeeze you glutes like you are making fists with you bum cheeks. I’m sorry, but that’s the best way to describe it
  • If you find the version from the floor too difficult to hold for at least 20 seconds, regress to using a stool, chair, or even your stairs to elevate your body slightly
  • Aim to hold for 30-60sec
  • Breathe normally throughout the desired duration of the exercise. Don’t hold you breath!

 

Plank

Notice elbows are directly under shoulders, knees are fully extended

Incline Plank

Higher Incline = Easier : Lower Incline = Harder (stairs work really well for this)

The Tall Kneeling Weighted Hold

Purpose – Train the core to resist the spine from laterally flexing. Added bonus of strengthening the grip and increasing postural awareness

How to do it – As you can see from the picture, you are in a tall kneeling position. Notice my feet are in a relaxed position (resting on the balls of the feet may allow help from the legs, we want to minimize this). Again, let’s keep the cuing simple:

  • Get a tall as possible through you spine. Imagine you are a marionette and the string is attached to the crown of you head. This will also help to pull the chin in
  • Start by holding 2 weights at you sides, and pull you shoulders down and back. Another cue I like is ‘put you shoulder blades in you back pockets’
  • Hold for 30-60secs
  • Breathe normally throughout the desired duration of the exercise. Don’t hold you breath!

 

Tall Kneeling Hold Front View

Starting with a weight in each hand helps with coaching proper posture

Tall Kneeling Hold Rear View

Get those shoulders a little more level Coach!

Suitcase Hold

  • After you have held both weights to get the right position, try just 1 weight. We also like to call this a ‘Suitcase Hold’
  • Keep you body/shoulders square as you hold just 1 weight for the desired amount of time, 30-60secs
  • You should feel the weight trying to pull you to the side you are holding it on; fight to keep yourself square as if you were still holding two weights
  • Breathe normally throughout the desired duration of the exercise. Don’t hold you breath!

 

Tall Kneeling Suitcase Hold Rear View

Stay off the balls of your feet to reduce involving your legs

Tall Kneeling Suitcase Hold Side View

Hips, shoulders, and ears should all be in one line

Tall Kneeling Suitcase Hold Front View

Really ensure your shoulders stay level when you progress to one weight

The Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation

Purpose – Train the core to resist the spine from rotating. Also, works on maintaining shoulder stability

How to do it – The set-up for the tall kneeling anti-rotation is almost identical to the tall kneeling hold. The only difference is I am now using a band. You will also want to make sure you are sideways to direction of force. This will ensure proper performance and benefit of the exercise. As always, we want just enough cuing, but not too much:

  • Get a tall as possible through you spine. Imagine you are a marionette and the string is attached to the crown of you head. This will also help to pull the chin in
  • Start by grasping the band with both hands, and hold them to the middle of you chest, or directly against you sternnum
  • Keep you shoulders down and level then proceed to press the band straight out in front of you until you arms are fully extended
  • Hold this position for the desired amount of time (we usually start with 3 sec holds), and then return you arms back to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions (we start with 6-8 and work up to 10-12)
  • Breathe normally throughout the desired duration of the exercise. Don’t hold you breath!

Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Side View Start

Start Position (we use a resistance band around our railing)

Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Side View Finish

Finish Position (if completed in a gym, you would use a cable station)

Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Front View Start

*Take note of my Coach, she is ensuring I stay tall!*

Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Rear View

The Rear View to show level shoulders

 

Staying Still is Hard!

At a glance, these exercises may not appear to do much, but they are very effective, and when progressed appropriately to you core stability level, they are quite challenging.

You will notice that for 2 of the exercises you will require some equipment:

  • Dumbbells of increasing weights or adjustable dumbbells
  • Resistance bands

If you go to a gym, or are going to start going to a gym, these exercises can easily be completed there too. We showed in-home versions because that’s what we do.

These exercises can take some getting used to, so if you decide to give them a shot, feel free to let us know how you find them. Also, we are always here for questions or comments.

Comments (14)

  1. Reply

    I made the 30-day crunch challenge, and I can tell you the sit up challenge wasn’t easy. But when I completed, I saw the difference. I like how you explained why it is terrible for us making abdominal/core exercise. Also, I like the example of a baby. Thank you for sharing with us this information. I think to give them a shot.

    • Reply

      Hi Tina,

      Thank you for the feedback. I am not saying that crunches and sit-ups won’t work your abdominals, it’s just that there is better/safer and more functional options. Feel free to let us know how you find these exercises. In the future we will be posting progressions to these exercises, as well as how they help to reduce the chance of lower back injuries.

      Rodney and Shelley

  2. Reply

    Thank you for this article! I totally agree with you. Our body is designed to move, but each part has its own function. Just because our spine can bend and flex, doesn’t mean you have to do the heavy lifting with it!

    Your examples make sense, and comparison with a baby is excellent!

    • Reply

      Thank you for the feedback. We’re glad you like the comparison with the baby. Watching our daughter develop is amazing. They really can teach us a lot about movement. And you are exactly right. We are born with a very mobile spine, it needs to develop stability.

      Rodney and Shelley

  3. Jeffrey Teo

    Reply

    i tried planking. It was hard initially, and I could only do for less than 30 seconds. But after keep trying, I can go as far as 2 mins. You have given so many other methods, would have to take time to try, just that for now, lack of discipline is my biggest weakness. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.

    • Reply

      Thanks for the feedback. Planks are definitely challenging at first, but as you said, working at it will help you to build your core stability. Lack of discipline is everyones weakness.. lol

      Feel free to let us know how you find the other exercises when you do try them out.

      Rodney and Shelley

  4. Reply

    I have always associated core exercise as something that requires movement. I am going to try these out. Will this produce the same results as all the other moving exercises I have done in the past?

    • Reply

      Hi Colby,

      Yes these exercises will produce the same results as traditional core exercises like sit-ups and crunches. The purpose is to train your core more functionally, and reduce the loads being placed on your lower back. We will be doing another post soon that explains how the traditional core exercises can be harmful to your back. Thanks for the feedback!

      Rodney and Shelley

  5. Jen

    Reply

    This is great. I was a little confused at first, but as I kept reading I see it makes perfect sense. My daughter is always talking about wanting a six pack so she can wear crop tops, lol, I will have to show her this. Maybe she can do these exercises before heading off to college. I may have to take part in this also, not so much for the six pack, but the core training. After having a new baby I need to get those muscles back in tact. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Reply

      Hi Jen,

      Thank you for the feedback. Remember, that as much as these exercises will help strengthen the core, getting a flat stomach or six-pack comes from having all the right factors in place: proper nutrition, hydration, good sleep, managing stress levels, and training the entire body. People don’t like to hear this sometimes but it’s the truth.

      Re-training your core after having a baby is really important. These exercises will definitely help, but there are others you can do to help. Shelley will be doing a post on this in the near future, so keep checking back.

      Rodney and Shelley

  6. Mymoena

    Reply

    Thanks for sharing your workout techniques. Planking has always been my nemesis and I can’t keep it for more than 20 sec. Well, then practice makes perfect!
    I will be trying the high incline technique for sure!
    the resistance band i will definitely be incorporating into my routine next time.
    Thanks

    • Reply

      The incline plank should help if you are stuck at around 20 sec. If you have stairs at your home, they are a great progression because you can move down towards the floor very gradually. Feel free to let us know how you find the tall kneeling anti-rotation. Thanks for the feedback.

      Rodney and Shelley

  7. Reply

    Hi there! Thank you for this article, I’m just wondering, will you do anything explaining more exercises with the use of a resistance band soon? I have one and I don’t really know what to do with it except for like four exercises :D! Thanks!

    • Reply

      Yes we can certainly do a post explaining more exercises you can complete with resistance bands. We have a number of resistance bands we use for different exercises. Investing in a set of adjustable dumbbells would be a great idea. With just those two items, you can put together a very effective program. Thank you for your question.

      Rodney and Shelley

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