Spring is around the corner, and, like it or not, crop tops are still in style! Chances are you’ve been crunching away in hopes of achieving a lean, defined core—but what if I said that was all just a waste of your precious time?
The most effective thing you can do for core training isn’t an exercise at all—it’s nutrition. Eating to support a lean physique includes lots of protein and vegetables, in addition to some fruit and a moderate amount of healthy fats. But there are things you can do to help cultivate a strong, svelte midsection with zero crunches.
Why no crunches? Well, the jury is still mixed on whether or not crunches are safe for your spine; some claim that crunches are the worst thing you can do for your spine, and others dismiss this as alarmist dogma. What we do know is that they aren’t actually the most effective way to engage your entire core.
I’m not just talking about abs here. The term “core” actually relates to more than just your abs, and includes your shoulder girdle, obliques, and glutes—basically everything excepting your limbs. All of the crunches in the world won’t help you zero in on all those areas at once. Doing these 5 total body, core-focused moves instead will save you time and give you real results.
1. The Plank Up Down. This exercise challenges stability in the trunk, and requires you to keep a solid plank while moving up and down from forearms to hands. It’s important to maintain a straight line from ear to ankle while in the plank position, keeping your abs braced.
Start on your forearms, abs, glutes, and legs engaged. Be sure not to sag or hike your butt, and keep your gaze slightly in front of your hands without dropping your head.
Place your left palm on the ground and extend the elbow, following with the right arm.
Then lower the right forearm to the ground, followed by the left, returning to the start position. Be sure to switch sides every rep, and perform about 5 reps per side.
2. The TGU “Roll”. The “TGU” or Turkish Get Up, is an incredible full body exercise—but it’s also very complex and takes a lot of practice. The very first “roll,” however, boasts incredible benefits for your obliques and shoulders, and is relatively simple to perform.
Start on your right side, grasping the kettlebell (or dumbbell) deep in the palm of your right hand, and pulling it in close to your body. Roll to your back and use both hands to press the bell up towards the ceiling, extending your right arm. It’s very important that your wrist is not bent back, and your knuckles are flush with the ceiling.
“Pack” your right shoulder by pulling it down and back (not shrugged up into your ear!) and bend the right knee with your right foot firmly on the ground. The left leg and arm should be on the ground at 45-degree angles.
Keeping your right shoulder “packed,” breathe out as you roll up onto your left forearm. It helps to press the left forearm and the right leg firmly into the ground. Pause, and roll back to your back with your left shoulder touching the ground first, and then the right. Repeat for 5-10 reps, and then switch sides.
3. The Suitcase Deadlift . Offsetting the weight in this deadlift variation makes for a challenging core exercise. The tricky part is making sure you don’t deviate from the starting position when you pick up the weight!
Place a kettlebell or dumbbell on a small box, standing directly next to it with feet hip distance apart. Squat down and grasp the handle, “packing” the shoulder by pulling it down and back and squeezing under the armpit. Make sure your knees are pointing straight ahead at all times, and that one knee or hip doesn’t jut out in front of the other.
Stand up with the weight, keeping everything aligned, and return the weight to the box exactly the same way as you picked it up. Perform 5-10 reps and switch sides.
4. The Rolling Plank . This plank exercise is a great way to challenge your abs, obliques, and shoulders.
Start on your forearms as in the up/down plank, but this time with your arms perpendicular to your body. You should form a straight line from ear to ankle, abs, glutes, and legs engaged. Be sure not to sag or hike your butt, and keep your gaze slightly in front of your hands without dropping your head.
Rotate to one side, pulling your top shoulder back and packing your bottom shoulder. Engage the obliques by lifting up as high as possible through your side, then return to the start position and switch sides. Perform 5-10 reps on each side.
5. The Kettlebell Swing. The king of all core exercise, the kettlebell swing works your entire body. It’s a dynamic exercise that requires you master a simple kettlebell deadlift first, but once you can perform it safely, it’s an amazing move for power, strength, stability, and fat loss.
Once you can perform a safe deadlift, start by sitting your hips back, spine long, knees slightly bent and feet just outside of hips distance. The kettlebell should be slightly in front of you, and as you reach for the bell, pull your shoulders down and back to engage your lats. In this position you should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings and some engagement in your glutes; you should not feel any strain in your low back.
As you inhale, pull the kettlebell high through your legs, making sure to never let the bell fall below your knees. As you exhale forcefully, snap your hips to propel the kettlebell forward. When you’re locked out at the top, it should feel just like a plank for a brief moment before pulling the bell back down through the legs. Your glutes, abs, and legs should all be tight and fiercely engaged in the top position.
It’s important to never round your back at the bottom or arch your back at the top. It’s also worth noting that the movement is all in the hips, and the arms are only there to guide the bell—not lift it. If done properly and safely, you should feel the swing in your glutes, hamstrings, abs, lats, and even quads. Perform 5-10 reps per set if just starting out, and 10-20 once you’ve mastered the movement.
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