If you ever want to know what exercises NOT to do, just go into a typical “Mega-Gym” and watch a 60-year old man do his workout.
Almost every single exercise he does, from sit-ups to side bends to broomstick twists to bodybuilder bench presses to jogging, is either a waste of time or very dangerous..
I blame their old football coaches.
Back in the ’70s, those coaches didn’t know that doing spine-crunching exercises – like sit-ups – puts you at serious risk of injury.
But as Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s expert on low-back injuries and abdominal training, said in a recent New York Times article, “…sit-ups place devastating loads on the spinal disks” (in your low back).
Moves like sit-ups “crush” the disks between the vertebral bones in your spine, causing disk herniations, nerve damage, and terrible pain.
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.
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
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
- 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
- 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, Home Workout Revolution
PS – Now that you’ve got your exercises right…
…Make sure you get your “head right”, too.
Here’s your quote of the day!
We are not perfect. We need to get over the fact that we have faults and always will. Deal with it. Admit your flaws. Ask for help. Take Action. Never stop improving. “Persistence is a sure path to success with quality activities. Never, ever, ever, give up.” – Kekich Credo #75