Physiotherapists, kinesiologists, strength and conditioning coaches and pelvic floor specialists are all in agreement; regular and excessive performance of sit-ups and abdominal crunches can place un-due stress on the lumbar spine, exacerbate tight hip flexors and lead to destabilization of the pelvic floor.
Just what we fabulous over-40 women need right? Lower back pain, poor posture, urinary incontinence and pelvic organ (i.e., vaginal) prolapse (as if hot flashes, muscle loss and menopot weren’t indignities enough…).
Still not convinced to give sit-ups a rest (or at least downplay their role in your workouts)?
What if I told you that sit-ups and crunches will only lead to a visible ‘six pack’ if you’re able to get your body fat percentage down into the mid-teens. (For reference sake, female body builders are around 10-12 %.)
And that they won’t really improve your athletic performance or prevent those injuries caused by the activities of every day life?
Suddenly crunches aren’t sounding all that great, are they?
Try working the muscles of your core the way nature intended them to be used; as spinal stabilizers (both with and without movement), spinal flexors and extenders and rotational powerhouses.
Below you’ll find 10 of my favourite “crunch-free” exercises for a stronger core; two for each of the five primary core functions.
Choose one exercise from each category. Hold the static stabilization move as long as you can, then perform 8 to 10 repetitions (on each side, where applicable) of each of the other four exercises, one after the other, circuit-style. Beginners may find one round challenging enough. More advanced exercisers can repeat a second and even a third time.
10 ‘crunch-free’ exercises for a stronger core
1. Plank: Planks can be performed on forearms or hands (aka ‘high’ plank) and from knees (less challenging) or toes (more challenging). When holding a plank, concentrate on bracing through your midsection, squeezing your glute cheeks tight, pulling shoulders back and down and maintaining a straight line from your knees (or heels, depending on the variation) to your neck. If your lower back starts to curve or your shoulders creep up towards your ears, come on down. Never sacrifice good form just for the sake of extending your plank another few seconds.
2. Resistance band anti-rotation hold: Loop a resistance band around a pole, post or other sturdy, vertical support. Stand at 90 degrees to the anchor point, feet shoulder width apart and with a slight bend in your knees. Grab both handles of the band in your hands, extend arms in front of you at belly button height and step away from the post to create resistance on the band. The greater the resistance, the more you’ll be working your anti-rotation muscles. Concentrate on keeping your torso upright, without leaning in towards the post. Hold for as long as you can. Switch sides and repeat. You can perform a variation of this exercise on a cable and pulley machine, using a standard D-ring and adding as much weight to the stack as necessary to generate an appropriate resistance on your obliques.
3. Walk-up-walk-down plank: The exercise can be performed on the floor or with hands placed on either a weight bench (less challenging) or the dome side of a Bosu (more challenging). Come into forearm plank position, on either knees or toes. Bracing through your midsection, ‘walk’ your hands, one at a time, up until you’re in a high plank position. Without rotating through your torso, ‘walk’ your hands, one at a time, back down into forearm plank. Continue ‘walking’ up and down, alternating which hand you’re leading with.
4. Side plank and row: Loop a resistance band around a pole, post or other sturdy support at floor level (I’ve used the leg of a heavy sofa, in a pinch). Come into side plank, with either your legs fully extended and stacked one on top of the other (more challenging) or with knees bent and feet behind you (less challenging), forearm on the floor, with elbow directly under your shoulder Make sure you’re far enough from your anchor point that when you grab the handle of the resistance band and extend your arm directly out in front of you, there’s already considerable resistance on the band. Maintain a perfect side plank (shoulders stacked one on top of the other, hips stacked one on top of the other, lower hip up and off the floor) and row the handle of the band in towards your underarm. Slowly return to starting position and repeat, making sure that you’re not giving in to the urge to rotate the upper body towards the anchor point. Complete all reps on one side before switching to the other. This exercise can also be performed on a standard cable and pulley machine, using a D-ring and with the cable set at the lowest position.
5. Stability ball roll-in or pike: Come into a high plank, with hands directly underneath shoulders and feet resting atop a stability ball (make this exercise a little easier by placing the ball under your shins or even your thighs). Keeping upper body stationary, roll ball in towards your chest, either bending at the knees (a roll-in’) or keeping legs straight and lifting hips up into an inverted ‘V’ (pike). Return ball to starting position and repeat.
6. Lateral trunk flexion: Start by standing with feet hip distance apart holding a dumbbell, kettlebell or weight plate in each hand, down by your sides. Hinging at the hip, lean upper body down and to the right, feeling a pinch between rib and hip. Engage through your core and use the muscles on the opposite side of your body to pull yourself back up to the starting position. Concentrate on slow, controlled, full range of motion movements, resisting the urge to lean forward or backwards.
7. Prone chest raise: Lay on your mat, face down, with arms at your sides, hands directly underneath shoulders. Spread your legs slightly, placing the tops of your feet firmly on the mat. Take a deep breath as you tighten your quads and glutes, lifting your chest up and off the floor with the muscles of your lower back. Avoid pushing with your hands and hyper-extending the back; you needn’t lift more than six inches off the floor to feel the effects of this movement. Slowly lower yourself to the ground, pause and repeat.
8. Back extension machine: Position yourself over the back extension machine, such that the cushions rest just below your hip bones. Lock your heels under the foot rest. Placing hands across your chest (or holding a weight plate at chest level, for more challenge), relax your calves, hamstrings and glutes as you bend at the hip to lower your upper body towards the floor. Engage the muscles of the lower back to lift your torso just high enough that your body forms a straight line from the back of your ankles to the back of your neck. Avoid lifting more than 10 degrees about 180; hyperextending the back can lead to rapid fatigue and injury.
9. Medicine ball diagonal rotation: Start by standing with feet slightly wider than hip distance apart, toes pointed forward or a little bit out. Holding a medicine ball (or dumbbell if you don’t have access to a ball) between your hands, bend slightly at the knees and rotate your torso to the left. Energetically lift the ball diagonally across your body, from outside the left knee to above and beyond the right shoulder. Pivot on the left foot and rotate the torso as you do so. Return to the starting position and complete all reps before switching sides. The focus of this move should be on the upwards phase of the lift.
10. Russian twist on the ball: Start by coming into ‘table-top’ position on a stability ball; your head and shoulders will be resting on the ball, feet will be on the floor with knees bent and hips pressed up towards the ceiling. Holding a single dumbbell between your hands, extend arms directly up and over your chest. Rotate arms and torso down to the right, shifting your weight so that the ball rolls under the right shoulder. Brace your core and return arms and weight to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating until all repetitions have been completed. Concentrate on keeping your arms long and holding the weight as far from your body as you can. Beginners should limit their range of motion until they become confident in their ability not to fall off the ball.
The above essay is part of YakkaFit’s monthly “10 on the 10th” blog link-up series. I’m looking forward to seeing what my fellow bloggers came up with this month!