Let’s be honest, crunches are not the most exciting exercise to do. They’re often an add-on to the last few minutes at the gym, and it’s quite easy to slip into poor form and end up doing more harm than good. Crunches tend to exacerbate low back pain because they increase tightness in the hip flexors; that tightness pulls the pelvis forward, which can put strain on the lower back. This can be especially true for people that sit at a desk all day who may already be prone to tight hips.
So what can you do instead? Ditch the crunches and check out these exercises that not only work your rectus abominis (aka “six-pack”) muscles, but also target your transverse abdominis and deeper-lying core muscles. Working these muscles helps stabilize your spine, keeps your posture in proper alignment and tightens and tones your stomach. Win-win!
Dead Bug (10 reps each side, 3 rounds)
- Lie on your back with your arms and legs bent at 90 degrees like you are sitting in a chair. Press your palms into your thighs just above your knees.
- Press your low back into the floor. Keep your abs pulled in to maintain low back contact with the floor throughout the entire exercise.
- Slowly and with control, lower your right leg and left arm to within a few inches of the floor (your arm should end up above your head, not out to the side). Only go as low as you can – your low back should not come off the floor.
- Pause, and then squeeze your abs to slowly reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
- Repeat with your left leg and right arm. Continue alternating sides.
- Keep your torso and spine completely stable as the arm and leg move.
Mountain Climbers (20 reps, 3 rounds)
- Get in a high-plank position with your chest directly over your hands, and the balls of your feet on the floor, spaced hip-width apart. Your body should form a straight line from head to heels.
- Bend one knee and pull it into your chest. Keep your abs squeezed in tight and keep that straight line in your body.
- Extend your leg back to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Once you have these basics down, try bringing your knee across your core towards your opposite elbow for added oblique work.
Alternating V-Up (10 reps each side, 3 rounds)
- Lie on your back with your arms and legs fully extended.
- Press your low back into the floor; squeeze your core to maintain this flat-back position (picture pulling your belly button in towards your spine).
- From here, squeeze your abs to lift your upper back, arms and legs off of the floor (this is your “V” starting position)
- Raise your right leg and your left arm– twisting to reach your hand to your toes. Keep your leg as straight as possible and don’t letting your shoulders hunch forward.
- Return to starting “V” position and repeat on the other side.
Russian Twist (16 full rotations, 3 rounds)
- Sit on the floor with your knees bent, balancing on your butt with your feet flexed, heels dug into the floor. Keep your thighs squeezed together, and palms pressed together in front of your chest.
- Lean slightly back without rounding your spine at all; think about rolling your shoulders back and keeping your chest proud.
- Keeping your abs squeezed tight, turn your torso to the right as you tap your right elbow on the floor by your right hip.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat to your left. Continue alternating sides.
- For an added challenge, try keeping your feet off the floor.
Spider Plank Crunch (10 total reps, 3 rounds)
- Start in a high-plank position, hands on the ground directly underneath your shoulders, legs extended back with your toes on the ground, so your body is in a straight line.
- Lift your right leg and bring your knee towards the outside of your right elbow. Keep your arms straight and your core squeezed tight.
- Return to plank position and repeat the movement with the other leg.
Forearm Plank Rockers (30 seconds, rest, repeat)
- Start in a forearm plank, with your forearms pressed into the ground, shoulders stacked right over your elbows. Legs are extended backwards with your toes on the ground, so your body is in one straight line.
- Squeeze your abs to keep your hips level and in line with your torso.
- Picturing your body as a long straight saw, begin to rock forward on your toes so your entire body moves forward and your shoulders go past your elbows toward your hands.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
Bird Dog (15 reps on one side, then switch)
- Get on all fours in a table-top position, with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Keep your abs engaged and keep your back flat like a table.
- Reach out with your right hand and extend your left leg out behind you.
- Round your back and head to connect your right elbow with your left leg under your body. Extend your right hand and left leg back out straight.
- Continue bringing your elbow and knee together and extending; sticking with one side for 15 reps, then switch to your left arm and right leg.
Down Dog Abs (10 reps each side, then switch)
- Start in a downward dog yoga pose: hands on the floor, hips up to the sky and pushing your weight into your heels.
- Lift your right leg up behind you, squeezing your glute.
- Rock your weight forward over your hands, bringing your right knee toward your nose and pulling your abs into your spine to round your back.
- Extend your leg back up as your push your weight back into your heels.
- Continue bringing your knee toward your nose for 10 reps on the right, then switch to the left leg.
-Emily Koches, Fitness Instructor and Nutrition Coach