“You can do side-bends or sit-ups, but please don’t lose that butt.”
The immortal words of Sir Mix-a-Lot will inspire people for generations to come. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of those lyrics is they perpetuate the idea that side-bends and sit-ups are necessary for maintaining a strong and svelte midsection.
Not only are they unnecessary, but there are also far better ways to strengthen your core.
In this article, I’ll address some common myths about the core, help you figure out your motivations for wanting a strong core, and show you some sample exercises that do a much better job of strengthening the core than your typical crunches and sit-ups.
“Do 100 Crunches a Day!” …and other myths about “the core”
Before I get into the whole debate about whether or not crunches are a good idea (I think you can probably guess my stance on them by the title of this article), I want to talk about the biggest myth about the core:
Myth #1: The core is a distinct part of the body.
Nope. “Core” is not an anatomical term (you won’t find an arrow pointing to the core in any anatomy book).
So, what is the core? People usually use it to refer to the body’s center, but this is not well defined.
How far out does the core extend? Some core muscles lists include the trunk muscles, while others include the stabilizers of the shoulders and hips (e.g. the gluteal muscles and lower traps). Still others might use the term only in reference to the abdominal muscles.
Functionally, if we are using the term to refer to all the muscles involved in stabilizing the torso, this includes a very large percentage of the body’s muscles. For example (this list is not exhaustive):
So, as you can see, the core can’t be a single part of the body. But what it refers to is extremely important to the overall function of the body.
Myth #2: Crunches are the only way to build core strength.
This is a myth that’s been around for far too long.
Crunches (or sit-ups) are great for feeling like you’re working on your core strength (you probably “feel the burn in your abs” quite a bit after a whole bunch of crunches). But are you actually strengthening your torso-stabilizing muscles? Probably not too much.
The motion you’re engaging in when you do a crunch or sit-up is primarily spinal flexion, but the main function of these muscles is not to flex the trunk. Think about your daily life. How often do you flex your spine like that?
- When you lift a couch (or any other heavy object), you need your trunk muscles, including your inner and outer abdominal muscles, spinal erectors, and the small muscles in the spine, to support your spine and allow you to lift the weight.
- If you play tennis, when serving the ball, you need your obliques and abdominal muscles to stabilize you and prevent hyperextension.
- When rowing a canoe, the muscles of the abdominals, obliques, scapular stabilizers, and the lats are essential for transferring force from one shoulder to the opposite hip.
We rarely need those muscles to flex our spines, though there are of course some sport-specific examples, including doing flip turns in swimming, or the tuck preceding a back flip.
But even in those rare instances where you need to flex your spine, there are better exercises to strengthen that motion. The hollow body hold is one great exercise that does put the spine into flexion, but under much higher loads than crunches.
And that’s one important reason crunches aren’t a great exercise for building core strength. They’re a low resistance activity. They may be good option when you are first starting to exercise, but once you get past the point of doing 30 repetitions easily, then they aren’t the best for building up your strength anymore.
Myth #3: Crunches are the only way to get six pack abs.
Our focus isn’t so much on weight loss or physique at GMB–those things become a pleasant “side effect” of our training methods–but you should know that if you want to achieve a particular “lean” look, your diet is the most important thing to focus on.
No amount of crunches will give you a six pack if your diet isn’t dialed in.
(See our nutrition article for a general overview of the role diet plays in this side of fitness).
Why Do You Want a Strong Core Anyway?
Most people think they want a strong core because, well, you need a strong core, right?
But with a little digging, it becomes clear that the desire for a strong core is usually not for the sake of a strong core, but for other purposes. Maybe one of these rings true for you:
- You want washboard abs, and all the fitness magazines say you have to strengthen your core in order to get that look.
- You have low back pain, and you’ve been told that strengthening your core will help alleviate that.
- You’ve been trying to learn some physical skills, and you want to strengthen your core to help you learn those more easily.
These are all legitimate motivations, but what you’ll notice they all have in common is that building core strength is a means to an end.
For the vast majority of people, even if they don’t realize it off the bat, the process of trying to strengthen the core is in order to help them reach a separate goal–not for the sake of building core strength.
And that distinction is important because it will help you decide what actions you are taking to reach that goal.
I’m sure you’ve seen many “core workouts” or programs dedicated to building a strong core. Following those types of programs can lead to disappointment and frustration, though, if they aren’t specific to your goals. Let’s look at the examples above again:
- As we discussed already, if you want washboard abs, a core workout won’t help you achieve that. You’ll need to focus on your diet.
- If low back pain is your primary concern, you’re much better off addressing that through specific exercises and through improving your overall motor control. Plus, the repetitive spinal flexion of crunches and sit-ups tends to put more strain on the low back, so your efforts would likely have the opposite effect of your intention.
- For learning physical skills, you’ll want to focus most of your efforts on, well, learning those skills. The work you do to support those goals should be helping you build the attributes you need for those skills. Doing endless sets of crunches will not help you get physical skills. Period.
So, let’s look at some better options.
A Better Way to Build the Strength You Need
If you like doing hundreds of crunches, go for it. But that’s unlikely to help you build the kind of strength and stability you really need for whatever activities you’re into. (Also, I haven’t met too many people who actually enjoy crunches, but hey, no judgment here).
A better approach is to figure out what your specific goals are, and then work backward from there.
Instead of mindlessly trying to “strengthen your core” with a variety of crunches, work on building the attributes you need to improve your condition for the activities you care about.
When you’re doing that, and with an emphasis on important details in your form, your core will get stronger automatically.
A great example is from clients using our Parallettes program. There isn’t a crunch in sight, but if you’ve ever practiced L-Sits (on the p-barz or off), you’ll know why it’s a great core strength program. Controlling your body through different movements and positions on the p-bars will improve your trunk stability pretty damn quickly.
Whatever your personal goals may be, if you’re working toward those in the way we describe below, your core strength will sort itself out.
6 Sample Exercises for Core Strength (and a whole lot more)
You may be wondering what kinds of exercises would work better for building core strength if crunches and sit-ups aren’t the way to go.
The real answer is that almost any training you do can do a good job of building core strength, if you emphasize moving slowly and with control, and “making it pretty.” Engaging those trunk stabilizing muscles happens automatically with this kind of emphasis.
The key is the understanding of what we’ve discussed earlier. That what we think of us as our core, and it’s function, is to properly transfer forces and stabilize us when we use our extremities.
True core strength is the connection between our lower and upper bodies to help make our movements strong and controlled.
The following series of exercises demonstrates this concept well, and once you perform them you’ll understand much better what we mean.
Some of these exercises may look familiar, while others may look nothing like the “core strengthening” exercises you’re used to, but when done with control, you’ll be strengthening your core in a practical way, along with your entire body.
What Stacey’s doing in this video is based on the Bear exercise we teach in our programs. Here’s an overview of the exercises she demonstrated:
Quadruped Knee to Same Side Elbow
- Start in a quadruped position with your knees slightly off the ground and your shoulders above your hands.
- Keeping your back and hips straight and stable, bring your knee up to meet the same side elbow.
- Focus on your stability and positioning, and you’ll likely find this exercise much more challenging than it may look.
Quadruped Knee to Other Side Elbow
- Again, start in a quadruped position with your knees slightly off the ground.
- This time, you’ll bring your knee to the opposite side elbow.
- The goal, again, is stability in the upper body as you move your knee to the opposite elbow. There shouldn’t be much movement in your shoulders or spine.
Bear Knee to Same Side Elbow
- Here, you’ll start in a downward dog position, then begin to move forward with your opposite leg and arm moving at the same time.
- As you move forward, you’re going to bring your knee up to the same side elbow between steps.
- Move slowly as you go through this variation of the Bear, and keep your hips up toward the sky.
Bear Knee to Other Side Elbow
- With this variation of the Bear, you’ll add in a twisting motion by bringing your knee to the opposite elbow between each Bear step.
- Be careful that there is not too much twisting going on, but that the motion is happening primarily at the hip.
- Moving slowly and with control in this exercise will really help you build that stability in your core.
Quadruped on Elbows Torso Rotation
- For this exercise, start in a quadruped position, but this time with your elbows on the ground (keeping your knees slightly off the ground).
- Turn toward one direction, extending the leg and pulling the opposite arm up.
- Push through the supporting arm to keep your body stable. Hold for about 5 seconds before moving slowly and with control to the opposite side.
A-Frame Torso Rotation Foot Across
- Start in the A-Frame (downward dog), then rotate, bringing one foot across and the opposite arm up.
- Maintain a nice, straight line by pressing firmly into the ground with the supporting arm.
- Again, moving with as much control as possible will help you improve your core strength much more effectively.
Once you’ve practiced these exercises, you can work on combining them into a flow, as Stacey shows at the end of the video. Moving in this way will help you really solidify using your body as a unit, and that’s a great way to build incredible core strength.
Put the Pieces Together and Build the Strong and Capable Body You Need
The most important point I hope you take from this article is that you can’t build a strong core without addressing the totality of your body’s capabilities. Identify and work on building the attributes you really need for whatever sports or activities you enjoy, and that’s how you’ll best strengthen your core.
A great way to see this in action is by working on our free Strength & Mobility Kickstart. It will show you how controlled movements will help you build the kind of core (and overall) strength you really need for your life.
Doesn’t that sound better than endless crunches?
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