Unpopular opinion from an exercise connoisseur: You don't need a single sit-up in your life to build a solid core.
Your core includes muscles in your:
all four muscles of the abdominal wall (names aren't important, just know there are four).
Where we get a little sidetracked with core work is thinking that the outermost layer of the abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominis, also known as the "six pack") is the most important core muscle for trunk strength and overall core stability.
In my experience coaching and instructing, exercises that target the six pack are over-glorified, while those that work to help you brace the innermost abdominal muscles, glutes and back (basically the rest of your core) are grossly underrated.
While the burn that comes with traditional crunches can be oddly satisfying, the thing I always ask myself when writing our programming for Jolly Bodies is this: Is it effective?
Unfortunately, endless sit-ups are a road to nowhere for core strength. Cue the sad violin.
So, what is effective?
Think of a towel that's been soaked in water. Performing a strength exercise without knowing how to brace through your entire core is like wringing out only 60-70% of the water from that towel. If you want to squeeze every drop of work out of your next sweat session, you need to learn how to properly isolate your entire core.
Here are three exercises to get you on your way to developing a well-rounded, strong core. You'll need some dumbbells and a long resistance loop to perform this workout. As always, make sure to check with your doctor if you are concerned about any health conditions that may be exacerbated by engaging in these exercises. Follow along with the prompts listed under each exercise demonstration, and you're good to go!
Exercise 1: Palm flip back extension to push-up
Target: back muscles
Pro Tip: To progress this exercise, push up from the toes vs. the knees. To dial it down a bit, skip the push-up all together and focus on the palm flip back extension.
Begin on your stomach with your palms up. Lift your chest as you rotate your palms to face downward. Hold for 1-2 seconds, then lower back down and place your hands by your armpits with your elbows hugging the ribcage. Exhale as you press up into a half plank, then slowly lower back down.
Exercise 2: The hollow hold
Target: abdominal muscles that stabilize your spine
Repetitions: 4 x 15-second holds
Pro Tip: Slightly pull the knees in toward the hips to decrease resistance.
Begin on your back with legs stretched out. Interlace your fingers so you have a make-shift hammock to rest your head in. Once your head is resting firmly in your hammock, take a big inhale in. Exhale, lift the legs and brace through your midsection as if you were preparing for an impact to your tummy. Hold this braced position for 15 seconds.
The key is to stay braced throughout the entire hold. If you feel your midsection relax during the hold (the lower back will arch excessively when this happens), you've become disconnected.
The secret sauce to mastering these exercises is knowing when you're connected to the movement and when you're not. If you can recognize that, you're nailing it! If you become disconnected, disengage from the exercise by relaxing and taking a big breath in. Then, pick up where you left off. That way, when you're in your hold, you know you're getting the most bang for your buck by staying braced.
Exercise 3: Glute kickbacks
Repetitions: 20 reps on each leg
Pro Tip: Imagine placing the bottom of your foot against a very heavy object on wheels. Push that object away from you while you kick back. Also, make sure your band simulates a moderate-heavy amount of load. Too little resistance in the band will cause you to swing through your hip joint vs. using the glute to push against a challenging load.
Wrap a medium-heavy level resistance band around your foot. Anchor the band between your hands. Inhale as you tuck the target leg, then exhale, brace through the core (like you did on the hollow hold) and push the leg outward and slightly upward, making sure to intentionally contract the glute as you lift. Pause at the top of the contraction and really squeeze the cheek before lowering the leg back down.
Make sure you keep your abs braced during the kickback. This will keep your back from arching during the exercise.
Once you have completed one full round of these three exercises, repeat the entire circuit twice more. Make sure to rest completely between each exercise for about 30-60 seconds before moving on to the next exercise. Your body needs that time to circulate fresh blood into the muscles you're working, and too little rest between sets will cause you to fatigue too quickly on subsequent sets.
Go get it!
Lee Ann Jolly, Ph.D., is the co-founder of Jolly Bodies Fitness where she leads the design and development of fitness programs based on the core concepts of creativity, education, imagination and efficiency.