Reduce your risk of injury—and work toward the six-pack you’ve always dreamed of—with these non-crunch moves.
When it comes to fitness goals, defined abs are near the top of most people’s wish lists. Hey, they look cool.
But reasons to train your abs go way beyond aesthetics. From getting out of bed in the morning to just helping you stay upright, your core literally powers and supports your entire body in everyday life.
Connecting your lower and upper body, abs consist of both the rectus abdominis muscle (the six-pack) as well as the transverse abdominis. The latter supports the spine and acts like an internal weight belt, keeping you strong and stable, says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness podcast.
Technically, the internal and external obliques, pelvic floor muscles, and multifidus and erector spinae muscles of the lower back aren’t “abs,” but they are important components of the greater core that includes the abs. And to really benefit from strong abs—both aesthetically and health-wise—you need your core to be strong as a whole.
Here are four of the all-time best exercises for your abs and core. You’ll notice that this list doesn’t include crunches or situps, both of which put excess pressure on the lower back and can lead to spinal issues down the road.
Ab-Building Exercise #1: High Plank
Planks are part of most people’s ab routines, but McCall says that high planks—those performed with your arms fully extended––are superior to the on-your-elbows variety.
That’s because pushing your hands to the floor activates multiple muscles up and down your arms. Plus, your shoulders and upper back get a burn too, helping to increase stability, improve spinal alignment, and better brace your core.
How to do it: Get down on all fours with your hands as wide as and just behind your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you, bracing the balls of your feet on the floor so that your body forms straight line from head to heels.
Keep your shoulders pulled back away from your ears, and squeeze your core, glutes, and thighs. Pretend you’re digging your forearms into the floor and pulling them toward your feet. Hold for a maximum of 20 seconds, working up to five sets total.
Ab-Building Exercise #2: Glute Bridge
Glute may be in the name, but this exercise is about way more than building your backside. “Glutes are the foundation of the core,” McCall says, explaining that they control the positioning of the pelvis and base of the spine.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, about 6 to 8 inches from your glutes. Brace your core.
From there, squeeze your glutes and push through your heels to raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees.
At this top position, your shins should be completely vertical. Pause, then slowly lower your hips to return to start. That’s one rep. Work up to four sets of 20 reps, then perform fewer reps while holding a dumbbell across your hips.
Ab-Building Exercise #3: Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
Whenever you’re standing, walking, running, or taking the stairs, your core and abs keep your body upright and prevent it from falling over like a limp noodle. This exercise capitalizes on that role by requiring the core to resist rotational forces (stay stable!) from a half-kneeling position.
How to do it: Start in a half-kneeling position to one side of a cable station or anchor point of a resistance band. The back knee should be on the floor under your hips, and the front knee should bend at a 90-degree angle.
Hold the cable’s handle in front of you, close to your body, with both hands clasped. Make sure there is resistance in the cable. From here, press the handle straight out in front of you, making sure your body doesn’t turn to one side as you do so. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
Perform 12 to 15 reps, then repeat with the opposite leg bent in front of you. When you can perform three sets of 15 reps per side with proper form, increase the resistance.
Ab-Building Exercise #4: Curl-Up
If you’re still concerned with isolating your abdomen’s glamour muscles (because why not show off all your hard work?), this exercise is a spine-safe version of the traditional crunch that develops the rectus abdominus, according to McCall.
Like the crunch and situp, a curl-up works the spinal flexion (for which your six-pack muscles are responsible). However, it does so with a smaller, more targeted range of motion that keeps the spine in healthier alignment.
How to do it: Lie flat on your back with one knee bent and that foot resting flat on the floor. The other leg should be extended straight. Slide your hands under your lower back for support, then raise your elbows just slightly off of the floor. Brace your core.
Keeping a neutral spine, squeeze your abs to raise your head and shoulders one to two inches off of the floor. Hold for 10 seconds, then lower your shoulders back to the floor. That’s one rep. Do 12 to 15 reps, then repeat with the opposite knee raised. Perform three sets.
Strengthen every muscle in your body with flip50. Sign up for a membership today.
Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.