Monday 11 April 2016

7 Superior Alternatives to 7 Popular Core Exercises

Want a six pack? How about a healthy low back or high performance core strength? Maybe you’re like me and demand all of the above from your ab training. Regardless of your reason, you are likely doing some core exercises as part of your overall routine. But, are you doing the best exercises you can to train your abs? Success with any fitness or training goal starts with picking amazing exercises. The problem with this is that many popular core exercises range from not very good to downright dangerous. However, there are some fantastic alternatives – if you are willing to put in the work. 

We can do better - a lot better!

The Problems with Most Popular Core Exercises
Injury risk:
Back in 2002, the training world was rocked by the book “Low Back Disorders” by Dr. Stuart McGill. In his book, Dr. McGill shared his research on low backs. One of the key findings was that the low back does not like to move much and repeated spinal flexion and twisting is a risk factor for low back problems. 

Now since that time, other smart scientists such as Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras have challenged this and provided a good case as to why spinal flexion exercise may not be as bad as we once thought. However, regardless of where this debate ends up, we still leaves us with the other problems I’ll explain below.

Bad posture: 
Exercises like crunches cause you to repeatedly round your upper back, roll your shoulders forward and (at least the way most people do them), jut your chin forward. This is the exact position that most people spend all day in already – why do want to re-inforce bad posture with our training?

Most real-life, work and sporting movements require you to resist movement at the low back while you move from the t-spine upper back), shoulders or hips. Movement force comes from the hips and/or shoulders and is transferred through a stable core. However most popular core exercises have you moving at the low back.

Too easy: 
Most ab exercises are just too easy. They don’t provide much of a shock to your body or burn many calories. Most popular core exercises have you sitting or lying on your back (off to a bad start already). Most having you in easy positions and working a fraction of your body weight (which is fixed unless you are rapidly gaining or losing weight). Oh sure, you may feel a burn – if you do enough reps. But, you will feel a burn with any exercises if you do enough reps to have the set last for more than 30 seconds. Important note: while you may feel a burn with good training, it does not guarantee that you are building much or burning fat.   

This relates to what I believe is one of the single biggest problems in most gyms today – people working really hard on really easy exercises.

7 Exercise Replacements for Better, Stronger Abs

1. Replace Bicycle Crunches with Suspension Strap Mountain Climbers 
A long-time favorite for abs is the bicycle crunch which moves the legs and arms in a cross-body action.

However, a superior alternative to the traditional bicycle crunch is the suspensions strap mountain climbers. These are one of my favorite exercises to coach because they are deceptively difficult. If you watch the video below, you will say to yourself – that doesn’t look so hard. Wait until you try it! If you set up correctly and stay tight with your form, your abs are in for a treat. Oh, and remember this phrase while you do them – slow is fun! This is a high-tension exercise that you want to go slow on!

Bonus: Front Lever Cycling
Also for another “fun” spin on this, try doing the cycling motion in a front-lever position. This exercise is easier than a full front lever (which most people can’t do) and creates a unique collaborative challenge for your core and lats.

2. Replace Lying Leg Raises with Single-Leg Lowering
Leg raises are a great exercise, but most people don’t have the strength or skill to do them safely. Go into any gym and find people doing lying leg raises. Place your hand under their low backs as they lower their legs and more 99+ times out of 100 you will find the low back arches up as the legs go down. In lying leg raises, the legs are moved by your hip flexors which originate on your lumbar spine (low back) and pelvis. When you contract them to raise or lower your legs, your hip flexors will arch your low back and tip your pelvis forward. Your abs are supposed to stop this but often they lack the skill and strength to do this. The problem is made even worse when you have a partner pushing your legs down!

A superior alternative for most people is the single-leg lowering. This exercise comes from the FMS folks and is great for improving core stability and hamstring mobility. It provides a solid challenge for your abs while teaching you to move at the hips while keeping the back locked in place. 

Once you master this, you can progress into full lying leg raises with the low back locked in place.

3. Replace the Captain’s Chair with Hanging Leg Raises for Rings
Hanging knee raises with the Captain’s chair bench is a long-time “lower ab” favorite. 

I look so bored 

Besides the risk of the problems mentioned above with lying leg raises, it is just too comfortable and too easy to cheat and swing your legs up with these. A superior alternative is hanging leg raises in a chin-up position (ideally done with rings). I was introduced to this exercise a few years back from Chad Waterbury. The real “fun” with this exercise (especially when using the rings) is when you try to slowly raise lower your legs without swinging or momentum. 

4. Replace Seated Medicine Ball Twists with Partner Band Pallof Press 
For hitting your obliques, a gym favorite is the seated medicine ball twist. This exercise has you sitting down which locks your hips in place while you try to rotate. The problem with this is that the hips are where you want to rotate from. If they are locked in place, you are forced to rotate from your lower back. The problem with this is that the lumbar spine on has about 2 degrees of rotation at each vertebra (i.e. it can’t rotate much). 

If you are doing this exercise to smoke your obliques, try a Pallof Press instead. While the Pallof press can be done with a cable, my favorite way is with a band and a partner. I started using this exercise with my because we don’t have cable stacks in our athlete training area. I also had people work as partners because we often have more athletes than bands and this allows 2 athletes to work at once with only one band. However, I soon discovered that this exercise done with a partner significantly amplifies the intensity. When you have a partner on the other side of the band, you keep thinking, “I can’t give up before he/she does!” Your partner on the other side is thinking the same thing and both people work really, really hard!

Honorable mention: another great option here is the Swiss ball stir the pot 

What about rotational power for athletes? If you are doing seated medicine ball rotations to work rotational power (e.g. for hockey, golf, baseball), try standing and throwing the medicine ball against a brick wall. This will allow you to rotate from your hips – the way you want to for maximal rotational power! 

5. Replace Side Bends with 1-Arm Farmer’s walks
Another popular oblique exercise is the side bend. Again, we have the problem of the abs moving you instead of stabilizing and a lot of low back stress. 

Note: if you choose to ignore my advice and keep doing side bends, don’t make the mistake of holding a dumbbell in each hand. The opposite dumbbell acts as a counter weight and makes this exercise completely useless.

A far superior exercise that actually trains the oblique and hips the way you want to is 1-arm farmer’s walks. These are basically a walking side plank. Done correctly (i.e. torso straight and not leaning away from the weight and weight off your hip) this will really light up the oblique and burn way more calories than a side bend. 

If you honestly can’t do 1-arm farmers because of space, try side planks or the advanced version: side planks with the top leg raised.

6. Replace Sit-ups with Rollouts or Fallouts
Many people love their sit-ups and decline sit-ups. However, according to Dr. McGill’s research, a sit-up places 3300N (741lbs) of compression on the spine – ouch! 

A great alternative is a fallout or rollout. This movement used the shoulder to move while the abs are locked in place. Done correctly they will hammer your abs and lats while sparing your spine. This movement can be done with a Swiss ball, or an ab wheel. However, my favorite version is with straps as they are easier on the shoulders (note: this video has them from the feet, but they can also be done from the knees)

7. Replace Crunches with Dumbbell Swiss Ball Curl-Ups
Should you ever do dynamic ab exercises? Most of the time, I would say no. However, there are different times in sports or life where we do flex or extend at the spine. Also, what if you want to maximize the size of your rectus abdominis to really have that six-pack pop? Wouldn’t it be good to use a dynamic exercise to do this?  If you want a dynamic core exercise helpful. A far safer and superior exercise to a crunch is a curl-up. This exercise involves spinal flexion and extension, but get it from the t-spine (upper back) instead of the lumbar spine (lower back).

More on core training: 

How about you? What’s your favorite core exercise? I invite you to leave your comments or questions below or on my Facebook Page.

McGill, S. Low Back Disorders. Windsor ON: Human Kinetics; 2002.
McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. (2nd ed.). Waterloo ON: Backfitpro Inc; 2006.
Contreras, Bret; Schoenfeld, Brad. To Crunch or Not to Crunch: An Evidence-Based Examination of Spinal Flexion Exercises, Their Potential Risks, and Their Applicability to Program Design. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33(4):8-18, August 2011.


  1. Hi Andrew - loved all of the exercises in this post. One that stood out for me is the mountain climber using the straps. If straps are not available in a gym, what would you recommend? Would a stability ball work to achieve the unstable surface? And to regress, perhaps doing the exercise using a bench/ doing regular mountain climbers?

    Thanks very much!
    Irina Almasan

    1. Thanks for the feedback Irina. Excellent question! Yes, I would use a stability ball if no straps. The instability of the straps or ball really lights up the core - however you can (as you mentioned) regress by starting with a stable surface (e.g. bench) and really perfecting the movement before moving to an unstable surface.

  2. Andrew, as always thanks for all the great posts! I was wondering if you could comment on the frequency and variation of these exercises in a work out routine. I am wanting to gain significant strengths and aesthetics in my core during the next few months but want to do it in a healthy way.

    Is there a good combination of these exercises you would recommend, how frequently should they be done (every time your at the gym?) and what is the best chose of sets and reps for those exercises?

    Also, if you have a strong routine (with a squat, hip hinder, vertical/horizontal push and pull) is there a concern of having an imbalance in your body with over working the abs?

    1. Kentotn, excellent question! I started to answer it, but quickly realized it would be a big, long answer. I've added it to my list of new blogs for the new year - stay tuned.

    2. Sounds good! Thanks Andrew!

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