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Most-effective core exercises: Why traditional sit-ups may not be best


There are two kinds of people in this world: People who want to work their core and people who consider core exercises their worst nightmare. But regardless of which camp you fall into, if you are looking to add a new exercise to your routine, you should consider your core.

But beware: Boosting your ab game takes work — and the first step is to let go of the idea that “abs” equates to “core.”

Doing a few situps a day will not give you washboard abs or add much to your internal stability and strength. Rather, strengthening your core requires regular activating and stressing the following muscle groups:

  • Abdominal muscles
  • Back muscles
  • Muscles surrounding your pelvis
  • Diaphragm

If you don’t build your core strength across these groups, you’ll have a harder time completing exercises that don’t appear to have to do with your core at all. When you consistently work all three muscle areas, your core helps to stabilize your spine and improve your posture, give you greater balance and endurance, and reduce the risk of injury. It can even help with chronic pain.

Fortunately, you don’t need a bulky machine or a gym membership to do core-strengthening workouts.

In fact, the best core-strengthening exercises are doable anywhere there is flat ground.

Most effective core exercises

Here are five of the best exercises to tone your abdominal muscles and build core strength overall:

  • Planks
  • Leg lifts
  • Reverse crunches
  • Russian twists
  • Bird-dog crunches

5. Planks

Planks are a highly effective core-strengthening technique that forces you to work multiple muscles hard within seconds.

To perform a basic plank, start by lying on the ground and pressing your palms on the floor to push your body up. Try to open your shoulder blades and avoid hunching them over your ears. The back of your neck should be parallel to the ceiling. Next, push the balls of your feet onto the floor while squeezing your glutes to activate the rest of the muscles in your lower body. Keep your butt low and avoid arching your back to stay aligned — try taking a deep breath in and exhaling hard to engage your midsection.

A one-minute plank will make you feel the burn: Work up to a minute or more by maintaining a plank position for 10 or 15 seconds, taking a 10-second break, and resuming it until you’ve planked for a minute. Alternatively, try lowering your knees to the floor.

Doing a one-minute plank each day may not seem like a lot, but as you get stronger, you’ll be able to hold the position for longer or level up to more difficult variations of the plank.

4. Leg lifts

Leg lifts work your core, emphasizing the glute muscles, waist, and lower back. To do a leg lift, lower your back onto the floor and straighten your legs in front of you. Keep your legs together as you lift to a 90-degree angle and then lower them back to the floor.

If you have trouble doing the exercise, bend your legs at the knees as you lift them up. Make sure you’re not holding your breath or arching your back — stabilizing yourself with your arms on either side of your body can help. Doing 10 to 15 repetitions for 3 sessions during a workout will help build core strength over time.

3. Reverse crunches

Reverse crunches target your rectus abdominis — the top layer of abdominal muscles that make up your ‘six-pack.’ Please remember that not everyone can form a perfect six-pack — and that’s ok!

More important than aesthetics, having the correct angle and form can help maximize your core strength. Start the exercise by lying flat on your back on the floor and bending your legs at the knee to a 90-degree angle. Keep your back against the floor as you squeeze your abs and slowly draw your knees toward your face. Try to lift only your hips and lower back off the floor as you curl.

Aim to do three sets of 10-12 repetitions in your workout, resting between each set.

2. Russian twists

Russian twists require a little balance. Begin the move by sitting on the floor with your knees bent in front of you and your feet flat on the ground. Lean ‌back to form a V-like shape — make sure your back is straight. You’ll know when you lean back far enough to engage your core, trust us.

Once you’re in formation, squeeze your abs as you slowly rotate your torso to the side without moving your legs. Start with two to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. To make it harder as you progress, add in some weight by holding onto some full milk jugs or a large book as you twist.

1. Bird-dog crunches

Bird-dog crunches require you to kneel on all fours with your hands positioned shoulder-width apart and straight down from underneath your armpits. Your knees should start off under your hips.

Stretch one arm in front of you and extend the opposite leg behind you while engaging your midriff. Try thinking about knitting your torso into a tight ball. Hold that position for a few seconds before bringing your extended elbow and knees together into a crunch under your body.

Repeat the process five to ten times before switching to your other side. Then do it all again for two to three sets.

Can you work your core with limited mobility?

If you have limited mobility, core work can help strengthen your stability and balance. All the core workouts outlined above can be modified to accommodate an injury or differences in one’s mobility.

Research shows people with limited mobility may benefit from group-based Pilates sessions where you “engage your core” by contracting your abdominal muscles while sitting upright and performing exercises such as shoulder shrugs, one arm circles, and reaching or passing a ball to a partner.

Seated exercises that activate your core muscles include:

  • Tummy twists
  • Sitting bicycle crunches
  • Captain’s chair
  • Side bend stretch
  • Balloon Squeeze

Working your core after an injury

If you have injured your back, neck, or midsection, or recently been pregnant, you need to avoid traditional crunches. Reverse crunches and plank exercises may be more beneficial.

Research shows regular crunches can strain your spine and increase the risk of more back injury. Rather, reverse crunches are a more straightforward option since they flex instead of bend the spine. Reverse crunches also help with neck pain because, unlike traditional crunches, your shoulders and neck stay flat on the mat.

Research shows flutter kicks are also an effective core workout for people with lower back pain and can increase a person’s mobility, range of motion, and decrease pain over time.

If you have diastasis recti — a condition in which the abdominal muscles separate due to pregnancy — there are several core exercises that help to treat it. For those wondering if they have the condition, consider if you have a bulge or a cone-like peak that appears in your midsection if you try to sit up.

Research shows a workout regimen with a mix of planks, supine abdominal crunches, Russian twists, posterior pelvic tilt, and Kegels could help heal the core. A 2019 study showed that doing 3 sets and 20 repetitions of diaphragmatic breathing, pelvic floor contractions, plank, and isometric ab exercises effectively treat diastasis recti.