Abdominal Exercise Substitution List

Today, you’re going to discover the Turbulence Training approved abdominal exercise substitution list. Now yesterday I told you about how I saw a trainer put his client through a back-destroying exercise, and here’s what it was…

The exercise was weighted Stability Ball Crunches…but there were not normal crunches on the ball that you see people do. No way.

You see, not only did the client do a full-on sit-up motion, but she kept going – violently, I might add – into a total body flexion movement that ended with her almost putting her head between her knees.

But doing any type of spinal flexion can be harmful to your low back because this will compress the disks in your spine.

In fact, Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s expert on low-back injuries and abdominal training, said in a recent New York Times article, “…no sit-ups, they place devastating loads on the disks.

The disks in your spine are the same disks that get herniated in low back injury. And moves like sit-ups essentially “crush” the disks between the bones in your spine, causing terrible pain and nerve damage.

So STOP doing crunches and sit-ups!

Fortunately, you can still get six-pack abs and a flat, sexy stomach by using back-friendly ab exercises instead.

So let’s review a huge list of abdominal exercise substitutions:

1) Replace crunches with:

Planks, mountain climbers, and stability ball jackknives

2) Replace cross-crunches (i.e. twisting or oblique crunches) with:

Side planks and cross-body mountain climbers

3) Replace sit-ups with:

Stability ball jackknives, stability ball planks, stability ball pikes, stability ball rollouts, and hanging knee raises.

Now let’s take a look at how we can make some of these “back-friendly ab exercises” even harder for your abs:

1) How to increase the difficulty of the Plank

First of all, before you move on from the plank, you have to “master” it.

Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s leading authority on ab endurance and low-back health, says that we should all be able to do a plank for 2 minutes straight.

And I’ll be honest, I “let myself go” on this exercise last summer. And not surprisingly, it was probably one of the reasons I had back pain. At one point, I was only able to do a strict plank for 75 seconds. I’ve worked my way back up over 135 seconds, and now my back pain is gone.

You can even do pushup-planks, as those will help prepare you for pushups if you are a beginner.

Eventually you will graduate to the Stability Ball Plank, which is 30% harder for your abs than regular planks.

2) Harder versions of the Side Plank

Advanced versions include the Side Plank with Leg Raise and Side Plank with DB Lateral Raise (allowing you to train your shoulders at the same time). Dr. McGill adds that we should be able to do a side plank for 90 seconds straight.

3) Mountain Climbers substitutions

You can use the Spiderman Climb exercise as a replacement, and this is excellent for lower-body and hip mobility.

A harder version of mountain climbers is the Cross-Body Mountain Climber, and you can also do mountain climbers with your hands on the ball or with your hands on the floor and feet on the ball. One of my favorite advanced versions is the “Hands on the Floor, Feet on the Ball Cross-body Mountain Climber” or even the “EXTREME X-Body Mountain Climber” (pictured).

Stability Ball NOTE

If you don’t have a ball, you seriously need to get one…they are cheap, and I’m not asking you to do any dangerous circus tricks with them…

But if you don’t have a ball, you can replace the Stability Ball Plank with the Mountain Climber exercise, but it will not be as difficult.

4) How to increase the difficulty of the Stability Ball Jackknife

Eventually you’ll progress to the Stability Ball Pike. And another way to do this exercise is using the TRX straps. That is one of the exercises that gets improved by the TRX. Very effective movement. But even with the ball you can step up your training by using this exercise.

5) The Stability Ball Pike

This is another exercise improved by using the TRX, as well as a cool toy I bought called the Power Wheel. The key to the exercise is raising your hips up as high as possible, and again, using the Power Wheel or TRX (pictured) allows you to do that better.

6) Alternatives for the Stability Ball Rollout

If you are new to this exercise, you can use a modified Roll-out, as you’ll discover in the TT Beginner Total Torso Training DVD.

Plus, you can substitute an ab wheel in place of the ball or you can even use the TRX in a similar type of movement. It works because you are fighting the extension of your torso.

Stretch your abs on the way out, and contract your abs to return to the starting position. This movement will leave your abs quite sore if it is a new exercise for you!

7) Additional Advanced Abs Exercises

Once you’ve dominated all of these Stability Ball exercises, you can move to traditional advanced ab exercises of of Hanging Knee Ups and Hanging Leg Raises.

However, you should only do these exercises if you can fully ELIMINATE momentum from the exercise. Do NOT swing your hips or rock back and forth.

8] Pushups That Workout Your Abs

You should also understand that a LOT of traditional exercises work your abs and slight variations of traditional moves can work your abs very hard.

For example, some of the best pushups for abs include:

  • Elevated Pushups
  • T-Pushup
  • Spiderman Pushups
  • Decline Spiderman Pushups

You’ll get all of these in Turbulence Training workouts, of course.

9) Pulling Exercises that work your abs

Back in the day, I trained a fit woman who had never been asked to do a chin-up by her previous trainers. So I had her do 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions.

She came back the next session and couldn’t believe how sore her abs were from this exercise. So again, you will get a lot of ab work from traditional movements. In addition to the chin-up, here are my favorite “total body pulling muscle ab exercises”.

  • DB Renegade Row
  • Pullups
  • Chinups/Pullups with kneeups
  • Spiderman Pullups

Use those to make your workouts more efficient.

10) Shoulder/Arm Exercises

YES, you can use shoulder and arm exercises to work your abs. Any time you do a standing exercise, you’ll need to brace your abs HARD in order to maintain a stiff torso. That works your abs as hard as planks and side planks.

Plus, in the triceps extension exercise, you are stretching your abs as you lower the weight and contracting your abs as you contract your triceps to return the dumbbells or bar to the start position. I’ve had super-sore abs just from doing triceps!

So here are my favorite upper body exercises for abs:

  • 1-Arm Press
  • 1-Arm Curl
  • DB Triceps Extension

Hope you enjoyed that massive list of ab exercise substitutions!

Just say NO to crunches,

Craig Ballantyne, CSCS, MS
Creator, TT For Abs DVDs

Health, Wealth and a Life Well Lived
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  • Joe


    Getting really confused, and a bit of anxiety!!!

    What should I eat? I’m around 13 – 15 % bf with the help of TT, but I would like to get a bit lower. Can I rat sprouted bread,beans, brown rice etc? Do I need to eat less than 150grams of carbs a day to be lean? There’s a lot of conflicting info out there and I know you are the expert. Is calorie in calorie out accurate??

    Thanks for all of your continued help. :)

  • Joe

    Thanks that helps! Just really confusing with so much info out there.

  • Jay Bee

    when i attempt to place an order through the clickbank website, internet explorer 8 blocks the loading of the site. is anyone else experiencing this issue? Exact error is below and I know no other issues with other sites:

    Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage

    What you can try:
    Diagnose Connection Problems

    More information

  • Matt Joseph

    Well I guess I jumped the gun a bit yesterday asking about modifications! Just wanted to say that I learned the spiderman pushup and cross-body mountain climber from you a couple years back, and they are still a big part of my interval workouts today. Guys, these Turbulence Training workouts are awesome, Craig has some great stuff!

    (And no, I do not know him personally, work for him or with him, or have any kind of relationship whatsoever with him…just learned a lot from him)

  • Kari

    Craig, great information and exercises ! However, I would appreciate it if you could show your exercises in videos/DVDs instead of pictures. It would certainly clarify the required movement patterns.

  • Chris

    Craig – how do you feel about making planks harder by lifting one arm or one leg? Too silly?

    • Thats fine, but doesn’t make them that much harder. Definitely need to move to the Ball for significant increases in difficulty.

  • Happy to help Joe!

  • Hope you got this fixed!

  • Bob

    Can mountain climbers exercise be done by a person with a hip replacement?

    • Hi Bob, I’m sorry, I don’t know. You’ll need to ask your doctor.

  • Bob

    Is the mountain climber exercise safe for a person with total hip replacements?

    • ttcert

      Bob, you will need to ask your doctor, thank you!

  • Priscila Moreno

    Thanks! Very helpful!