For decades, sit ups and crunches were considered essential exercises for your core. And planks? Well, those were something that you walked on, right? Fast forward to more recent times and planking, an exercise that requires you to assume a position and hold it, is now the gold standard for core work. What accounts for the shift?
According to Harvard Medical School, sit-ups and crunches are hard on your back – 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 the hip flexors are too tight, they pull on your lower spine which can cause pain in the lumbar area. In addition, poorly performed crunches can also strain your neck. Finally, sit ups and crunches target just a few isolated muscles. The body’s core goes far beyond a small set of abdominal muscles, so these exercises are not a very efficient use of your workout time either.
Think of your core muscles as spine stabilizers. If you didn’t have these muscles, you would flop right over. The key to effective core work is to stop motion through those muscles, not create it as is the case with sit ups. Effective core exercises protect your neck and spine by getting and keeping them aligned and stable while your extremities are moving. Instead of creating the movement, your core should be working against it.
So, what are good alternatives to sit ups and crunches? Number one on the list is the aforementioned plank.
Front Plank: Set up on your elbows and toes (if you aren’t ready for planking on your toes, begin on your knees). Don’t let your hips sag or pike up. Start with 10-15 seconds and then slowly extend the time. As you improve, you can add any of a number of variations such as . . .
Plank with Opposite Reach: lift one arm straight forward while lifting the opposite leg then repeat on opposite side.
Plank Walkdowns: Walk up on your hands then back down to your elbows and repeat.
Side Planks: Keep your elbow under your shoulder and your shoulder away from your ear. As with the front plank, you can start on your knees and move to your feet.
*Note – these are just a few of the almost endless plank variations.
This exercise works your glutes and back which are important parts of your core that sometimes get overlooked. Lie facedown on the floor with your arms and legs extended, palms facing the ground. Pinching your shoulder blades together, lift your arms, chest, and legs off the ground. Slowly return to the floor. For an additional upper body workout, you can bend your elbows and pull your arms back while you’re in the raised position. Extend them back out and lower down.
Start in a push-up position with arms completely straight and directly beneath shoulders. Your body should form a straight line from shoulders to ankles.
Squeeze your abs, lift one foot off the floor, and bring your knee up towards chest while keeping your body in as straight of a line as possible. Hold for five seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat the movement with opposite leg. You can progress towards bringing each knee towards the opposite elbow to recruit the obliques.
Lie faceup with your arms fully extended along your sides. Bring your legs to tabletop position, you’re your knees bent and lower legs parallel to the floor.
Brace your core and reach your left arm up and behind head while straightening your right leg while keeping it up off the floor. Return to starting position and repeat on the other side to complete one rep.
Lie on your back with your legs extended straight toward the ceiling and place your hands palms down under your lower back for support. Slowly lower your legs down toward floor, hovering two inches off the floor (or higher if you feel strain in your lower back) . Lift your legs back to the starting position. You can scissor your legs while moving up and down as an added variation.
Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Lean back so your torso is at about a 45 degree angle. Using your abs, twist your torso as far as you can in one direction before reversing the motion and returning to the starting position to twist in the opposite direction. To progress this exercise over time, you can lift your feet over the floor while twisting. You can also hold a dumbbell or medicine ball as you twist
Windshield wipers are another sit-up alternative for which leg positioning matters. Lie flat on your back with your arms extended out to your sides. Keeping your legs together, bend at the knees to form a 90 degree angle. Then, lift your legs so that your shins are parallel with the floor. Make sure your knees are stacked over your hips. Next, engage your core while keeping your shoulders and back in contact with the floor. Drop your knees to the right, keeping your legs together. Return to center and repeat on the other side. Don’t drop them so far that your shoulders come off the ground. When you are ready, you can progress this exercise by straightening your legs instead of keeping your knees bent.