Forget Crunches! Strengthen Your Core the Right Way
Your core muscles, AKA your rectus abdominus, are important for just about every movement you make, in life and in the gym! Your rectus abdominus makes up all the parts of your abs that you usually think about: upper, lower and obliques. A strong core supports the rest of your muscles when you’re performing movements like squats, lunges, pull-ups and more. That means that the stronger your abdominal muscles are, the stronger your other muscles – like your glutes, quads and biceps – can be. As some of your most important stability muscles, they help with balance, too.
However, while most of us know the importance of a strong core, we don’t always know the best way to get there. There’s plenty of video workouts, information and home gym equipment out there, like ab benches, Roman chairs and the Core Max, but the videos often don’t have coaching, the information can be conflicting and the price tags on equipment can be expensive!
Pricey ab workout machines like the Core Max all claim to be the best ab machine around. But the best ab workout machine for one gym goer might not be the best for another. Furthermore, we think the best ab workout machine around is you, your motivation and your floor! Many ab workout moves can be performed with just bodyweight or a set of light weights and minimal equipment. Unlike machines like the Roman chair or ab benches, these exercises are familiar, unintimidating, and can help work your lower body and upper body, in addition to just your core. They also don’t come with a price tag! We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: your own body is the best ab machine for your workout. You’ve already built your home gym!
Another issue to keep in mind with many ab workout machines is that they put a ton of focus on crunches. Crunches and sit-ups are the main exercise we’re told to do: in sports, in the gym and in general! But as our head coach will tell you, every time you do a sit-up (spinal flexion), it’s like someone parking a motorcycle on your body. Fact: It actually creates up to 750 pounds of compression force on the spine. Sound like a problem? Think of a steel bar that supports a building. It’s meant to stand straight and bear load. Based on its shape, you would never expect it to bend, twist, and still carry load; but that’s exactly what our spines do! They bend, twist, allow our lungs to fill with air, dance, jump, run, play—but we still have to protect them. Your spinal “support beam” is incredibly important, and there are plenty of rectus abdominis exercises that still protect it.
The Benefits of Rotation & Anti-Rotation
One of the world’s leading spinal information experts, Dr. McGill, has spent three decades studying the facts of spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and he is on a crusade to end sit-ups and crunches. His three favorite core exercises for people to perform are side-plank, bird-dog, and stir-the-pot on an exercise ball. McGill preaches that the best way to train your core is with your spine in neutral, using various forms of planking or movements that use rotation or resist rotation (called “anti-rotation”) to build strength.
Planks are so great because they recruit the most amount of ab muscles at the same time. And that’s just how life works. In addition to workouts and sports, most natural, everyday activities require our muscles to work together and fire simultaneously. Plus, if you’re doing ab workouts because there’s a little extra padding on your waist or hips that you’d like to get rid of, exercises that recruit the most muscle are a great way to burn fat. And of course, once you’ve built that muscle, it burns up more fat even when at rest. So, one of the best things people can do to prepare for life and prevent back injuries is to stop crunching and start planking. You can also try planks with leg lifts, suspended rollouts, or tucks. All three require spinal stabilization, strength, and endurance. Another way to make planks more challenging is by using a Bosu ball. Because of their shape and inflation, Bosu balls require extra strength and stability. You can place your palms or forearms on the ball, or change it up and try placing your feet on the ball for an extra challenge!
In addition to stabilization practices, you can challenge your core by focusing on rotation or resisting rotation. Check out the movements below – we included a handful of our favorites. The plank pull-through is the best of both stabilization and anti-rotation. Keeping your body still, resist moving anything but your arm while you drag the sandbag through. The windmill is a more advanced movement that requires good form and control, and is considered an anti-rotation exercise that you can top load (weight in the upper arm), bottom load (lower arm), or both. The high to low chop works the opposing motion as you rotate your body on the cable machine or with a band. Let’s stop being content with crunches and check these exercises out! There’s no specific order to perform them in, but give these a try, and you’ll start to see progression in no time!