Is there anything more depressing than heading into the gym on core workout day? You've got forty-five minutes to an hour of crunches, sit-ups and planks in several variations to look forward to, and you won't even get to look good doing it. (Trust us, nobody looks good in that ridiculous vertical crunch machine, hunched over, red-faced, with your hands grasping those handles over your head.)
And here's the thing. All those bicycle crunches, hanging sit-ups, and time spent in the side lateral machine aren't even all that good for you. (Planks might have some utility, but further down, we'll have an alternative for that too.)
Researchers have determined that it would take about 250,000 crunches to burn one pound of body fat. Crunches also tend to activate limited muscle groups (abs, obliques) while elevating neck and lower back compression and increasing the risk of injury. Those lateral twist machines are also an injury waiting to happen. Sit-ups have lost so much credibility that trainers don't even mention them anymore. Some people hate core day so much, they refuse to even do one. (ProSource's own fitness guru, Darrin Hills comes to mind.)
So. What to do? Well, the good news is, if you're pursuing a well-rounded regimen of weekly weight training that incorporates free weights and compound movements, you're already doing core work. Likewise, any kind of bodyweight bearing exercise or training that requires and improves balance and coordination. Think of it as a stealth core workout hidden within your normal regimen.
Can you get six-pack abs without ever doing a plank again? Maybe that's a stretch, but you can work your abs in plenty of alternative ways. And defined abs actually have more to do with losing excess fat and water-weight anyway. For our purposes here, we're talking about building core strength and flexibility. Let's talk about core exercise alternatives and how you can make them work for you.
Yeah, yeah, we know. We're offering to take away the drudgery of Core Day, and offering you Leg Day. But squats are the gift that keeps giving: a fantastic compound exercise that primarily targets your lower body, including your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. If you're doing them correctly, you're powerfully engaging your core muscles, especially your lower back and abdominal muscles. To maximize the engagement of your core, focus on maintaining a tight and upright posture throughout the movement.
Here again, you were doing core work all along. Deadlifts are another excellent compound exercise that primarily works your posterior chain, including your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. When performing deadlifts correctly, you automatically engage your core muscles to stabilize your spine and maintain proper form. Keep a neutral spine throughout the movement to protect your lower back. Oh, and enjoy that clang and crash of weights hitting the floor, something you'll never enjoy doing crunches.
Here's a great core alternative that also eliminates the need for two of our least favorite machines: the leg curl machine and the leg extension machine. Lunges are great for targeting your lower body, specifically your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. To engage your core during lunges, focus on maintaining your balance and stability by keeping your abdominal muscles tight and your torso upright. You can perform walking lunges or stationary lunges, depending on your preference and space availability.
The Big Daddy of bodyweight-bearing exercises. While push-ups are a classic exercise for targeting chest, shoulders, and triceps, they also nurture your core. Think of them as planks before your grandpa knew what a plank was. While performing push-ups, your core muscles work to stabilize your body, especially your lower back and abdominals. To engage your core effectively, focus on maintaining a straight line from your head to your heels, avoiding sagging or raising your hips. Need more of a challenge? Ramp up balance difficulty by alternating one-arm push-ups. Or try vertical pushups in a doorway.
Or take the push-up to an entirely new level with the renegade row. Renegade rows are a compound exercise that combines elements of both push-ups and rowing. This exercise targets your chest, back, shoulders, and arms while also engaging your core muscles for stability. Start in a push-up position with a dumbbell in each hand, then alternate rowing one dumbbell at a time, keeping your hips and shoulders squared and stable. Balance and bodyweight bearing equals a sturdy core.
It pains us every time we walk into a gym and see a full rack of kettlebells neglected in a far-off corner. Kettlebells are the world's most versatile free weights. You can use them to target specific muscle groups and you can also execute total-body movements that emphasize balance, stability and your core. Kettlebell swings, specifically, are a powerful exercise that targets your posterior chain, including your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. The explosive hip thrust motion in kettlebell swings engages your core muscles to stabilize your spine and maintain control throughout the movement. The better you get at it, the heavier the bell you use.
Standing Bicep Curls
We kid you not. The ultimate gym flex is also good for your core, if you're doing them right. The key is to emphasize proper form over using too-ambitious of a weight. If you're swinging your back even an inch or so, or using momentum to complete the movement, you're cheating yourself. Get a lighter weight and start over. Keep your back straight; execute both the concentric (curl) movement and the eccentric (extension) movement slow and steady. Dumbbells or curl bar -- take your pick and build both arm and core strength.
Time to think outside the box by getting out the box. Step-ups are a simple yet effective exercise that primarily targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. By incorporating a step or box, you can increase the range of motion and engage your core muscles for stability. Step onto the elevated surface with one foot at a time, then step back down. Focus on maintaining proper posture and engaging your core throughout the exercise.
The key here is to not let your body form a tent. If your butt is in the air, you're transitioning your bodyweight stability efforts away from your core and toward your knees and wrists. Not good. Done correctly, mountain climbers are a dynamic exercise that targets multiple muscle groups, including your core, shoulders, and legs. Start in a push-up position and bring one knee toward your chest, then alternate quickly as if you're running in place. Engage your core by keeping your hips stable and maintaining a neutral spine throughout the movement.
Medicine Ball Exercises
Like kettlebells, another piece of old-school gym equipment that is sadly under-used. The medicine ball, typically eight to fifteen pounds, is an incredibly versatile thing. Incorporate it into some of the movements cited above, like mountain climbers or lunges. Do squat jumps by simply holding one in your hands before you, doing a deep knee bend and springing up out of it. Do Russian twists or reclining side-to-side passes. Do pistol squats in which you balance on one leg, dip while flexing your free leg out with the medicine ball held out before you. Or do one of our favorites -- the kneeling medicine ball slam. Get into a lunge position, hold the medicine ball over your head, then SLAM it to the ground on the side of your high leg. Now switch. Enormously satisfying!
If you think yoga is plank exercises with a side order of mysticism, you don't know yoga. Yoga poses are ideal for enhancing balance, flexibility and stability, which are key to strengthening your core. Each movement (or asana) requires the activation and engagement of a range of muscles in the body, including the muscles which make up the core – the abdominals, lower back, hips, and glutes. Holding and transitioning between different asanas will help you enhance core strength while also building a stronger mind-body connection. The argument for yoga is simple: Why endure core training in lonely misery when you can exercise your core in a context of positive mindfulness in the company of others? Get out your yoga mat and join in!
The articles featured herein are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Specific medical advice should only be obtained from a licensed health care professional. No liability is assumed by ProSource for any information herein.