By this point in time, we all know that there are better options for your abs than situps, but in having that knowledge, planks, Paloff presses, and other stability-based tools—as great as they are—can feel redundant with the absence of variety. It’s important to review the abdominals’ functions to better equip you with the right moves for your arsenal. Here’s a quick lesson.
The core of the matter: A better way to train your abs
Some people think “core” training deals with the good old six-pack—the superficial abs muscles you can see. But in truth, the core comprises everything between your hip bones and nipples. That means properly training it involves training from multiple angles, in several directions. Your abs serve four major purposes:
- Spine Extension: Often used as a stabilization exercise in back rehabilitation, this pattern involves bending the spine backward. Supermans are a great example of this.
- Spine Flexion: This is the act of bending forward. A situp pattern embodies this movement.
- Lateral Flexion: This encompasses leaning the spine to one side or the other, or bracing against exterior forces (think about a contact sport, where you’re fighting someone off who’s trying to knock you over from the side). Standing oblique dips train this movement pattern.
- Rotation: Twisting patterns require plenty of core activation to give you the proper range of motion. Dumbbell woodchops and cable core rotations help bolster core stability.
With all these functions, we have a serious supply of options. It’s time to dig deep into the archives with some innovative training tools.
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1. Goalie Stance Side Bend
What it targets: lateral flexion
How to do it: Attach a skinny band to the base of a fixed point (machine, post, whatever you’ve got), and place a pad or mat next to it. Play with the distance so you can kneel (parallel to the anchor) on the leg farthest from the anchor point with the other leg fully extended and foot planted (it’s okay if it’s not flat on the floor). Hold the band with both hands, then extend it overhead. With a slight bend in your elbows, and keep arms directly overhead, not forward, use your trunk and obliques to slowly ease the resistance, letting the band shorten and leaning toward the post. You should feel a deep stretch in the obliques on your far side. At the extent of the stretch, straighten back up to a tall position. Perform 3 x 10-12 reps each side.
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2. Rower Pikeups
What it targets: trunk flexion and anti-extension (bonus: this also targets shoulder mobility)
How to do it: Find any rowing machine with a sliding seat. Bring the seat to the middle/end of the machine so your range of motion isn’t inhibited, and rest the ball of one foot on it to keep it from sliding back as you come down on your hands to assume a plank position (facing away from the machine). Bring your other foot onto the seat. Engage your core, then raise hips into a high pike position. Try to finish with your head through your shoulders with hips above hands. Slowly, return to the starting plank position. Avoid sinking too low and sagging at the hips by keeping your core engaged the whole time and monitoring tempo. Perform 3 x 10-12 reps each side.
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3. Supine Decline Rollout
What it targets: trunk flexion and anti-extension
How to do it: Set up a decline bench at the level of your choice. Hold a light plate (10 pounds works well), and assume a half situp position, holding the place at chest level. Next, slowly extend your arms overhead (remember, you’re in a situp position, so “overhead” will really feel like it’s behind you, not in front of you like an incline bench press). You shouldn’t be able to see your arms or the plate when you’re at full extension. Hold for a full second, then slowly return the weight to your chest. Perform 3 x 10-12 reps each side. *This is a great alternative to rollouts since holding a braced core without allowing the spine to overarch is challenging for many to accomplish correctly (and safely). Flipping from a face-down to a face-up position can alleviate some of that stress.
What it targets: trunk extension and flexion
How to do it: Sit on the floor with legs straight and plant hands beside your butt. Lift through your hands to raise your trunk off the ground, extending through hips to come into a tabletop position, feet flat and knees bent at 90 degrees. It’s okay if your spine rounds a bit during this motion. Then, slowly “swing” your body back down through your arms to the straight-leg starting position. Perform 3 x 10-12 reps
5. Off-Bench Oblique Chops
What it targets: anti-lateral flexion and anti-rotation
How to do it: Any off-bench exercise is sure to blast the obliques, but adding work for the arms takes things to a whole new dimension. This movement isn’t for the faint of heart, and was placed last because pulling it off requires a rock-solid core. Find any flat bench and make sure it’s sturdy before assuming the classic off-bench position. We suggest weighing the far side down with a couple of stacked plates, as seen above. Hook your feet under each side of the bench, and ensure you’re free of support from the hip joint up. Keep your upper body square and in line with the lower body (don’t sag toward the floor or twist, stay straight). Holding a 5-pound plate, perform a straight-arm overhead front raise by flexing at the shoulders, then return to the bottom position. Keep these slow. Perform 2-3 x 8-10 reps each side.
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