Core exercises are a staple of almost all resistance training programs, from athletics to general fitness. There are countless articles and videos on how to train the core, but most people, including athletes, still turn to their go-to exercises of Crunches and Sit-Ups. Below is a brief summary of the problem, the solution, and five of the most effective core exercises I use with Division I athletes.
Crunches and Sit-Ups are so ingrained in our culture that when we think about core training, they are some of the first exercises that come to mind. For most people in the general population, Crunches and Sit-Ups are still their go-to exercises. If asked, these same people would probably say that they are not the most effective exercises, but they are not aware of suitable alternatives.
A major part of the problem is the large volume of misinformation on the internet and in other published sources, making it difficult for people to separate fact from advertising hype. For example, it's common to see an infomercial trying to sell some gimmicky product that starts off with something along the lines of "get great abs and never do Crunches and Sit-Ups again" or "stop doing Crunches and Sit-Ups." We're constantly being bombarded with this stuff.
There is a tremendous amount of well-documented information available if you are willing to take the time and know where to look. However, simply being familiar with the information is not enough. Even when taught numerous other exercises, many Division I athletes I've worked with choose Crunches when given the option to pick a core exercise. It is not until they are challenged to pick something else and asked why they have been challenged to do a different exercise that the connection is made.
A number of very effective exercises can be done with no equipment, and many more require only minimal equipment found at most gyms. When it comes to core training, anti-movements are some of the most important and effective exercises. While the core does move during walking, running and most other activities, its ability to remain stable and transmit force between the lower body and upper body is critical to performance.
For example, if while you're running your back arches excessively when your foot contacts the ground, you're losing energy and running slower. This would be considered an energy leak. The core exercises below are staples in the programs I write while working with Division I athletes. Each one challenges the core to resist motion in different planes. Some of the exercises require resisting motion in multiple directions simultaneously. Similar to athletic movements, the core remains stationary. In many cases your limbs move like they would in higher level movements such as running and jumping.
The advantage is that the core is specifically targeted, allowing improvement over time. The challenge for the reader is to make one of the following your go-to exercise instead of Crunches. It would be even better to incorporate variations of all of the following into your workouts.
Dead and Dying Bugs
Of all the exercises, Dead Bugs is probably the best exercise to replace Crunches. Three basic variations allow an individual to train against excessive arching of the low back and resist rotation of the midsection. The first variation is continuous slow movement of opposite limbs.
For simplicity and ease, keep one arm and leg stationary while the other two move. This requires stability similar to running when opposite limbs move together. The second variation is to move an arm and leg on the same side of the body. This requires stability similar to pitching a baseball, where one side of the body moves while the other creates stability. The third variation, known as Dead Bug, is to hold the end motion for a period of time such as five seconds and then switch sides. This can be done for 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps. The first two variations can be done for 3 sets of 10-15 reps or slowed down and done for 3 sets of 1 minute.
Bird Dogs are essentially Dead Bugs flipped over. Similar to Dead Bugs, they challenge you to resist excessive arching of the back while the anti-rotation component changes from the front side of the body to the back side of the body. The same variations of the exercise can be used in addition to moving only one arm or one leg. Moving one limb at a time is a great place to start, as it is much easier. It is important to press the ground away through the hand and knee that are supporting the body. Sagging into the arm supporting the body is one of the most common mistakes. It makes the exercise feel much easier but makes it far less effective. This is not an exercise that will feel particularly difficult, but one that will be challenging to do well.
Planks are common exercises that most people already know. The Front Plank is great for challenging the body to resist excessive arching of the low back. The most common mistake is to attempt to Plank for extended periods of time, remaining up even if the back starts to arch or the butt creeps up in the air. A better way to perform this exercise is to hold a good position for short periods of time such as 20 to 60 seconds. The goal is to maintain a normal curve to the spine. The Side Plank variation is great for challenging the body to resist lateral flexion. The most common mistakes with Side Planks are sinking into the supporting shoulder, letting the hips sag and/or letting the hips sneak back, creating an arched back.
Rollouts are one of the most challenging exercises for resisting excessive arching of the low back. The exercise puts an individual in a stretched out position that requires a lot stability and strength through the core. The exercise can be made harder by using a TRX or a Barbell instead of a stability ball. The TRX variation also works well in a standing position. Another variation, which requires no equipment at all, is a Push-Up Walkout. You start in a Push-Up position and continue by taking small steps, walking your hands out as far as possible while maintaining a strong core or neutral back posture. To complete the rep, you walk your hands back to the starting position. Three sets of 10 is a great place to start when working with a stability ball. Each of the other variations is harder and 6 reps may be a better place to start.
The Palloff Press is an anti-rotation exercise. It's great for resisting being pushed around on the basketball court. It's also an effective way of training the braking motion at the end of a baseball or golf swing. To perform the exercise, you turn and pull the band into the center of your chest. From there, square your shoulders and press the band out straight. Hold this position for a second or two, then return to the starting position. Three sets of 10 reps facing both directions is a great workout. In addition to the regular standing position above, the exercise can be done in many of the FMS (Function Movement Systems) corrective positions, including kneeling on two knees, kneeling on one knee and standing in a split stance. It can also be done using various equipment; both a cable column or resistance band work great.
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