Crunches, Sit-Ups, Leg Lifts and more Crunches. Everyone wants a good ab workout. Celebrity trainers are always giving advice on how to get a "6-pack." However, many of these techniques are not only a waste of time, they can actually cause damage.
Spine biomechanist Dr. Stuart McGill does not recommend curling, crunching or twisting in the core. The abdominals, he reasons, are designed to resist movement of the spine and maintain stiffness, not move through a full range of motion. Furthermore, abdominal exercises do not contribute enough to caloric expenditure, metabolism or weight loss to make them worth the amount of time the average person spends on them.
Instead of trying to isolate the abdominal wall muscles, you can work out more efficiently and effectively if you incorporate your core-strengthening into exercises for other areas of the body. The following workout accomplishes just that.
Before You Start
Time yourself in a good plank position:
See how long you can hold the Plank. Then try this Crunch-free ab workout three times a week for six weeks and see how much your Plank time improves. You should be able to hold a Plank for two minutes with good muscular endurance in your core and postural muscles.
Do these exercises with a slow, controlled cadence. One full rep should last 5 seconds. To make it harder, increase the rep time to 7 or 8 seconds. Keep rest between sets to 30 seconds or less to improve muscular endurance, which happens to be the most important fitness component for the core and postural muscles. Learn more about the Timed Plank in the video player at the top of the page.
Sets/Reps: 3x12 each arm @ 15- to 30-pound DBs (hold the body steady and move slowly through ROM)
Sets/Reps: 3x12 (count 12 Push-Ups, 6 Side Planks each side)
Sets/Reps: 3x8-12 (intensity depends on upper-body strength and how low you go). Check out NFL linebacker Jason Worilds' incredible Barbell Rollout in the video player above.
Sets/Reps: 3x8-12 each arm with 8- to 12-pound DBs.
Single DB Front Squat
Sets/Reps: 3x10 each arm
Sets/Reps: 3x5 circles in each direction
Unilateral Dumbbell Carry or Kettlebell Carry (a.k.a. Farmer's Walk)
Sets/Distance: 3x50 meters each side. Learn more about how and why to add the Farmer's Walk to your exercise routine in the video player above.
The Plank Row, Plank Fly, Kettlebell Carry, and Single Dumbbell Front Squat stress the transverse abdominis, obliques, and spinal erectors unilaterally because of the added contralateral load (5). The T-Push-Ups, Stir-the-Pot, Plank Fly, and Plank Row promote the instability needed to stress the abdominals and obliques. The Rolling Bridge and Rollout are primarily for the hamstrings and lats, respectively; however, you must use your hips and core to maintain body position.
- Axler, C., and McGill, S.M. (1997) "Low back loads over a variety of abdominal exercises: Searching for the safest abdominal challenge." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29(6):804-811.
- Callaghan, J.P., and McGill, S.M. (2001) "Intervertebral disc herniation: Studies on a porcine model exposed to highly repetitive flexion/extension motion with compressive force." Clinical Biomechanics, 16(1): 28-37.
- Kavcic, N., Grenier, S.G., and McGill, S.M. (2004a) "Determining tissue loads and spine stability while performing commonly prescribed stabilization exercises." Spine, 29(11): 1254-1265.
- Kavcic, N., Grenier, S., and McGill, S. (2004b) "Determining the stabilizing role of individual torso muscles during rehabilitation exercises." Spine, 29(11):1254-1265.
- McGill, S.M. (2009) Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 4th Edition, Backfitpro Inc., Waterloo, Canada, (www.backfitpro.com).