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5 Ways… to Build a Solid Core Without Crunches

Build freaky strength through to your spine with these underused tactics.

When people think of core training, they often make two mistakes. First, they think “crunches” or “sit-ups” right out of the gate. The second mistake comes in thinking the abdominals alone comprise the core, without including the obliques, deep transverse abdominis, or the lower and mid back. Now that we’ve exposed those two errors, it’s time to list superior training methods that will properly strengthen your core which, by the way, makes you stronger on everything else you do while also fortifying you against injury.

1. Resist Rotation

The truth is, the muscles of the trunk serve a purpose that goes beyond creating movement. Their primary role is actually to resist unwanted movement and thus protect the spine. With that said, it’s smarter to train using isometric positions like the plank to promote a stationary trunk and stability through the spine. To increase the challenge, try a plate transfer plank. Take four small plates (2.5- or 5-pound plates work best) and stack them in a pile on one side of your body. Set up in a plank position so the stack is 6 inches away from one arm. With the hand farthest from the plates, reach across and transfer the plates to the same place on your opposite side. Avoid twisting or leaning during the set. Swapping all the plates to one side and back equals one rep. Try two to three sets of three reps.

2. Resist Extension

On the same wavelength, resisting the propensity for the back to overarch, or hyperextend, is another key function of the core musculature. Allowing excessive arch can indicate weakness in the lower ab region and possible tightness in the low back and hips. To help correct these problems, try ab wheel rollouts and overhead presses. Rollouts offer an added benefit as the arms move overhead while bearing load with the core, but bad form and a hyperextended spine will cause instant stress to the lumbar spine. Overhead pressing is a basic staple that not enough people do, simply because it’s hard and there aren’t too many ways to effectively cheat. Doing it under control while ensuring the back doesn’t overarch is an invaluable training tool that only emphasizes the same mechanisms we’re working on here.

3. Master Flexion

Now we get to the area most people train first, and still do inappropriately: trunk flexion. Most will simply hit the deck and crank out crunches or sit-ups, which promote neck strain, spine compression and kyphosis — not a good trade-off for strong abs. Instead, let the trunk flex from the bottom up by using exercises where movement is initiated at the pelvis and lower abs. Reverse crunches and leg raises are good floor-based options, but hanging leg raises are even better because they require slightly more control and are thus more challenging. Still, they encourage a “bottom-up” spinal flexion that most people fail to master.

4. Deadlift

For a healthy spine, never forsake the importance of having a strong deadlift. It involves more of your core than you think because you have to move so many different muscles in perfect synchronization to complete a lift. Any core weaknesses will result in a poor deadlift or, worse, severe injury. Training up your deadlift trains up your core, period.

5. Think Inside Out

It’s the oddest phenomenon that after a heavy or high-volume front squat session, your internal obliques and deep transverse abdominis will end up just as sore as your quads. That’s because your deep core muscles have to work overtime to stabilize your torso from the inside out and maintain an erect body position throughout the set. Don’t believe us? Try a single-lift front squat session, performing 10 sets of 10 reps. Let us know how your core feels the next day.