Ab work is essential. It’s not just that belly that you’re targeting. Sure, ab workouts can lead to weight loss and definition, but they’re also essential for every part of your body to work better. If you have strong legs, arms, or chest, and weak abs, you’re asking for an injury. So working your core should be on your list of daily to-dos, but how?
First of all, there’s no one-stop solution. You might think, “hey, I do 100 sit-ups a day, so I can totally skip this story.” Not so. You should find some sit-up alternatives to get your full core firing. Just make sure you don’t just start doing the below core work that are, for the most part, a waste of your time.
Skip it: Crunches
Here’s why: The least-effective core move has to be crunches with your feet on the ground, says Shaun Jenkins, senior trainer manager at Core House in New York City. “Individuals have a propensity to only move one section of the abdominal wall when doing this exercise,” Jenkins says. “As a result, they tend to only work their necks in the process.” (Which isn’t bad, if a beach-ready neck is what you’re after…)
Try Leg Sit-Ups Instead: “I recommend straight leg sit ups while keeping your feet in constant contact,” says Jenkins. According to a study in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism, straight-leg sit ups do a better job activating the upper abdominal area than crunches. To start, lie in a prone position, arms overhead or by your sides. Engage your core and roll up to a sitting position, keeping your legs straight and stationary on the floor. Roll back down.
Skip it: Side bends with heavy weights
Here’s why: Side bends feel deceptively simple, prompting guys to double down on the dumbbells so they can “feel the burn.” But your obliques—the muscles you’re working when your bend your torso from side to side—don’t actually need a lot of weight to be effectively activated. Instead, by loading on the pounds, your torso starts to lean forward to compensate as you perform the side bend, putting stress on your back muscles.
Try This Bodyweight Movement Instead: You don’t need weights to fire up your obliques. Just deepen the angle of your side bend (known in yoga as utthita parsvakonasana or extended side angle pose) and you’ll feel the heat in no time. Start in a deep lunge, left foot in front and facing forward, left knee bent; right foot in back and turned out, right leg straight. Lean forward and place your left hand on the floor outside of your left foot. Twist your torso to the right and raise your right arm to the ceiling. Turn your head to look up at your right hand. Hold 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Skip it: Ab rollers
Here’s why: “Using toys to make the core work more difficult than it needs to be can backfire,” says Jenkins. Instead of working your muscles harder, you’re actually just working them wrong. Your focus becomes trying to complete an out-and-back roll by any means possible, as opposed to maintaining your form. As a result, your back, hamstrings, and arms all likely get a better workout than your core.
Try Planks Instead: “Guys are not utilizing the plank position enough,” says Jenkins. This fundamental core move may not be sexy, but it works the full range of abdominal muscles in one 60-second exercise.
Skip it: Bicycles
Here’s why: Tucking your hands behind your head and trying to touch your elbows to your knees as your feet pedal through puts strain on both your neck and your lower back: neck, because of the tendency to yank it forward in order to make contact with your knee; back, because without proper strength, the lower back arches off the floor when your legs hit the lower end of the cycling motion. The end result: A high risk of neck and back injuries and almost no core activation.
Try V-Ups Instead: V-ups are one on Jenkins’ favorite core exercises. The move requires both upper and lower bodies to move in unison in order to balance in a V position, thereby eliminating the possibility of overstraining one side or the other. To start, lie prone on the floor, arms overhead. Contract your abs and roll up through the mid-back and shoulders, while simultaneously raising your feet off the floor, legs straight. Maintain a V position and hold for two counts, before lowering and going again.
Skip it: Ab rocker
Here’s why: You mean beyond the late-night infomercials? If you need further evidence that the product is more gimmick than substance, a seminal study from the American Council on Exercise established the ab rocker as the single worst exercise for toning your core two decades ago. And yet, men keep buying it. We’ll say it one more time: This self-powered device relies on using your upper body to power the movement of your lower body. And since your arms are almost certainly stronger than your abs, you’ll end up getting a very nice biceps/triceps workout and zero core exercise.
Try Hanging Knee Tucks Instead: Jenkins is a huge proponent of hanging ab knee tucks. The only way to initiate movement in this exercise is to engage your core and as a result, your rectus abdominus and external obliques get a heckuva workout. To start, hang from a pull-up bar, arms straight. Contract your abs and bend your knees, aiming to touch knees to chest. Extend your legs back to the start.
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