Sit-ups and crunches have been the longtime go-tos for building core strength. But for many people, these and other moves that involve arching and rounding the spine are uncomfortable, painful, or simply out of reach because of physical limitations.
Despite their popularity, there’s nothing inherently magical about these moves — and in fact, they’re nearly useless if you can’t do them properly, says veteran trainer Tony Gentilcore, CSCS. There are dozens of other ways to train the core, which includes the visible outer layer of muscles we colloquially refer to as “six-pack abs,” as well as the deep-core muscles nestled within our torsos and the muscles in the back, chest, shoulders, hips, and glutes.
The key to crunch-free core training, says Mikey Mueller, NASM-CPT, USAW, Alpha coach at Life Time, is to stop thinking about moves to build core strength and start thinking about “anti”-moves. That’s because the core muscles are unusual in that their primary function is not to power movement but to prevent it. These muscles are built for this braking action — and they often brake without your realizing it. Walk on uneven surfaces and the core keeps your torso from twisting. Carry a heavy suitcase in one hand, and your core holds you upright.
The main work of the core, then, is resistance in one of three major forms:
- Anti-extension moves that help you resist bending backward.
- Anti-rotation moves that keep you from twisting.
- Anti-lateral-flexion moves that prevent side bending.
To build your functional core strength so you can handle these three anti-movement types, Gentilcore and Mueller suggest the following six exercises — plus challenging variations. As you strengthen your core and improve stability, you can add weight or progress to the tougher versions.
Each time you exercise, says Mueller, focus on one of the three core anti-movement categories. If you work out three times a week, you’ll cover all three categories in one week.
Whatever your schedule, perform your movements after your other exercises: “You don’t want to tire out the core before your big lifts,” says Gentilcore.
On all six moves, start with the beginner’s reps or time and sets listed, and work up to the advanced recommendations over three to four weeks.