What's Wrong With the Sit-Up?
For decades the bent-knee sit-up has served as the go-to core exercise by military personnel, sports coaches, and physical education teachers alike. While there may be some merit to its use, evidence suggests it falls short of addressing the multifaceted training needs our core requires. Even in an attempt to train one component of the core, the sit-up only recruits these muscles during the first 10-20 degrees of the motion before heavily relying on the hip flexors for completion. It causes significant stress on the lower back and lumbar spine for some individuals. Exercise selection must always be the most effective, efficient, and safe choice to optimizes performance. Blindly prescribing and performing exercises based on their popularity without a deep understanding of their function is a recipe for disaster.
Athletes are forced into odd positions during sport that can place significant stressors on the body. To reduce the risk for injury and optimize performance, we must build a robust core that can absorb and transfer force effectively. A hockey player who gets hit from behind but can withstand the force, stay upright, and continue skating has a more resilient core than the one collapses and has to spend precious time collecting himself off the ice.
These 8 exercises are excellent additions to a program and superior alternatives to the traditional sit-up.
1) Paloff Press
A staple within my program and one that I feel every person should incorporate to some degree is the Paloff Press. Numerous variations exist, including; kneeling, overhead, split stance, etc. but they will all provide great benefit. The Paloff Press addresses anti-rotation at its finest and requires one to maintain perfect posture for appropriate execution. As the resistance extends further away from the torso, the difficulty becomes higher due to an increased mechanical disadvantage. To properly execute this movement, stand with a somewhat upright posture and soft quarter squat knee bend. Press the band or cable you are using straight in front of you in line with your sternum and hold it for a few seconds. The resistance should be challenging at the end range but not so much so that you can't fully extend your arms or maintain position.
2) Bear Crawl
The bear crawl is a fantastic addition to any program as it addresses rotary stability through the quadruped position similar to the primitive crawling patterns we do as children. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most incorrectly performed movements I see today. Bear crawling should be executed with the knees directly under the hips slightly off the ground, and the hands aligned directly under the shoulders. In a slow controlled manner opposing arms and legs should move forward in an alternating fashion for the desired number of reps, length, or time. The spine should remain completely neutral, and an excellent cue here is to imagine that you are balancing a glass of water on your back that you wish not to spill while moving.
3) Turkish Get-Up
A properly executed Turkish get-up (TGU) is a mental exercise as much as it is physical. It is truly a full-body exercise requiring shoulder stability and hip mobility as well as significant core strength to execute. I like teaching this movement in pieces to my athletes, ensuring that they master section before moving onto the next. We start with the sit-up to the elbow, then move to a fully extended arm, followed by the hip bridge, then the leg sweep, and finally, a step up from the half-kneeling position. The core is tasked with maintaining proper alignment through the spine as the kettlebell fight stays overhead the entire time. Coaches should watch for excessive extension and or lumbar flexion.
4) Dead Bug
In my opinion, an underrated core exercise is the Dead Bug. This movement starts with the athlete in a supine position, knees bent to 90 degrees in line with the hips and arms fully extended in line with the shoulders. From there, the athlete reaches their opposing arms and legs away from each other in an alternating fashion. None of the limbs should ever touch the ground. To cue this exercise, I tell my athletes to imagine a $100 bill under they're lower back on a windy day and that it's their job to hold onto it. This keeps their back to the ground if they like money, and as for the limbs, I tell them to get as long as possible or reach wall to wall. It's essential to reach as far as possible during this exercise because it helps train strength in the end range where we are most weak and susceptible to injury.
5) Single Arm Farmers Carry
In addition to the bear crawl, the farmers carry is another exercise that is executed with poor technique. The purpose of the exercise is to maintain a perfect gait cycle and posture while carrying the weight. Loading this movement unilaterally challenges one's compensatory urge to rotate and bend. I'll often see individuals use a weight that is too heavy for them and subsequently display poor posture as well as an excessive internal rotation through the shoulders. Ensure that you take your time with this exercise, and don't worry about rushing it. Do not allow the weight to rest along your thigh and control your breathing through every step.
6) Chop & Lift
Two additional exercises that are excellent are the cable chop and lift or similar derivatives of them. These exercises have been popularized over the years by movement specialists Gray Cook and Lee Burton, who founded Functional Movement Systems. While these movements commonly serve as correctives with which to address a host of dysfunctional movement patterns, they also serve as an excellent core exercise. It is no coincidence that poor movement is often associated with a lack of core stability; therefore, using these movements is an obvious choice. This movement executed from either the half kneeling or single leg supported position with the medial leg to the resistance being forward. What makes this exercise so unique is that it moves through every plane of motion while emphasizing posture and stability. When coaching the chop, I'll often instruct athletes to maintain a tight and tall posture by imagining somebody is pulling their hair towards the ceiling. From there, I will tell them to imagine they are stabbing the ground with their bottom hand of the implement and then punching it with top. Inversely, I instruct them to do just the opposite for the lift.
7) Hard Style Plank
If I had a dollar for every occasion that I've witnessed a poorly executed plank or listened to somebody brag about holding one for some ridiculous duration, I'd be a rich man. The traditional plank often leaves more people with tender shoulders and a sore lower back than a strong core. This is because they lack tension in specific areas that should be supporting their weight and instead allow it to be absorbed through the joints I just mentioned. A better variation is the hardstyle plank, popularized by Russian Kettlebell specialist Pavel Tstasouline. He implements this exercise in a similar fashion to a regular plank, but the key is how the tension is created. Instead of lazily holding a traditional plank, you will instead set up with the image in your mind that there is a steel rod from your head to your heels. You will dig your toes into the ground, pull your elbows forcefully down underneath your shoulders, and squeeze your glutes while driving your hips into perfectly aligned with your head. If done properly, one should only be able to hold this movement for 10-30 seconds maximum before breaking posture. Doing this in place of a traditional plank will yield infinitely better results.
8) Rotational Medicine Ball Tosses
My final core exercise of choice is the rotational medicine ball toss. I am especially fond of this exercise because it addresses both transfer and absorption of force paramount to core training and sport as previously mentioned. Whether it is a baseball swing, hockey slapshot, soccer kick, or snowboarder throwing a trick off of a jump; a number of sports require one to generate and transfer force through the hips while maintaining adequate core stability. When instructing the medicine ball rotational toss, I like to start with the athlete either throwing to a partner or using a reactive ball off of a brick wall. Subsequently, tossing the ball will be the transfer of force, and catching it will be the absorption. Athletes should start in an athletic quarter squat stance approximately 1-2 arm lengths away from a wall or far enough away from their partner so that they can effectively toss and catch the medicine ball. They should maintain their athletic position while turning the torso and loading the ball towards the back hip to begin the toss. As they transition to toss the ball, they should drive their hips along with their torso and fully extend their arms in a whip-like fashion to produce the highest possible power. When receiving the ball, they should absorb it back into their loading position, ultimately completing subsequent reps for the desired coaches' prescription. I often see athletes grab weights that are too heavy for this exercise and butcher the mechanics. Emphasize to your athletes that the goal of this exercise is power and speed, ultimately to see how fast and hard they can toss the ball under control.
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