10 core exercises that are better for your back (and body) than crunches

These exercises protect your back and neck, and target more of your abdominal muscles than crunches alone.
by Brianna Steinhilber /  / Updated 
Image: perfect plank
Planks activate much more of the core: Set a goal to hold for 60 seconds before increasing the difficulty by trying different progressions.Stasique / Shutterstock
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The abdominals are a pain point for many gym goers. We habitually grab a mat, get down on our backs and start crunching away with the goal of finally carving out those elusive six-pack abs. But is this really the most effective way to work towards a toned midsection? The answer is no.

"When most people are doing crunches, they aren't just wanting a stronger midsection, they're looking for fat loss," says Brian Bott, certified functional strength coach, founder of Aspire Fitness and co-author of "Get With the Program." "When we think about core training, we focus on preventing movement rather than creating it. A lot of back injuries can be attributed to repeated flexing and extending of the spine. This is the exact movement you are doing performing a crunch. Yes, you feel them in your abs, but it's not quite the way your core was designed to work and it comes at the expense of your back."

According to Harvard Medical School, crunches are hard on your back, since they "push your curved spine against the floor and work your hip flexors, the muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back." When your hip flexors are too tight, they pull on your lower spine, which can cause lower back pain; plus, poorly performed crunches can also put strain on the neck. In addition to the potential for pain, sit-ups and crunches target just a few isolated muscles, and your core goes far beyond just abdominal muscles, so they aren't the most effective use of your time.

The good news: There are many other exercises that not only protect your back and neck, but work more of the core muscles, getting you more bang for your buck. "These exercises focus on getting your spine into a good position and maintaining that while your extremities are moving," says Bott. "Instead of creating the movement, your muscles are working hard against it. Your abs still get a tremendous workout and there's no worries of overuse."

Work your core: Ab exercises that are better than crunches

Exercises listed in order of difficulty.

  • Dying Bugs: Lie on your back with your arms straight up to the ceiling and your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees. Keeping your rib cage down extend your opposite arm and leg out taking a deep breath out.
  • Leg Lowering: Again while lying on your back lift both legs up so that both feet are facing the ceiling. Then while keeping one leg straight up as if you had a hot cup of coffee on your foot, slowly lower the other leg down, as close to the ground as possible and then return to the top.
  • Front Plank: Set up on your elbows and toes, don’t let the hips sag or pike up. Goal should be about 60 seconds before increasing the difficulty.
  • Long Lever Front Plank: Same set up except we are going to move the elbows further forward.
  • Front Plank (armlift/leg lift/combo of both): These are three quick progressions to make a plank more challenging if you’ve mastered the 60-second hold.
  • Side Plank: Keep the elbow under the shoulder and shoulder away from the ear. This move targets the obliques. Again the goal should be 60 seconds. Once this is achieved we’d want to progress it to...
  • Side Plank with Leg Lift: Maintain the same position and lift the top leg.
  • Side Plank Band Row: Same description as side plank but with top arm perform a row using a band or cable to increase difficulty.
  • 1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press: Set up on one knee with the inside knee down. Move out to a comfortable distance starting with the band pressed to your heart. From there reach your arms straight out keeping the core still and not letting it rotate.
  • Ab Wheel Rollouts (ADVANCED PROGRESSIONS): Starting on your knees slowly roll your arms out maintaining a flat low back position.
  • Hollow Holds (ADVANCED PROGRESSIONS): Starting on your back “sit up” and reach your hands and feet to the ceiling. Slowly start to lower your hands and feet only as far as you can keep the hollowed out position of your spine.

Products that will kick your ab workout into high gear

You don't need a gym membership or expensive equipment to take your abdominal workout to the next level. Bott suggests picking up these small, affordable items to really feel the burn:

Amazon

Ab Wheel: The ab wheel is a portable tool you can have on hand to enable you to progress to a more difficult exercise once you begin to develop your core strength.

Amazon

Ab Dolly: A good alternative or regression to the ab wheel. The dolly allows you to stretch and strengthen all four abdominal muscles while simultaneously training your upper and lower body.

Amazon

Bands: A great way to add resistance to core exercises, and they can also be used to work other muscle groups. Bott uses them in to activate the core in exercise like the 1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press.

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