Unpopular opinion from an exercise connoisseur:
You don't need a single sit up in your life to build a solid core.
Your core includes muscles in your:
All 4 muscles of the abdominal wall (names aren't important, just know there's 4).
Total core strength is necessary if you want to master basically all of your favorite strength training exercises like squats, deadlifts, anything in a plank position, and even isolation exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions.
Think of a towel that's been soaked in water. Performing a strength exercise without knowing how to brace through your core is like wringing out only 60-70% of the water from that towel. If you want to squeeze every drop of work out of your next squat, you need to learn to isolate your core.
Where we get a little sidetracked with core work is thinking that the outermost layer of the abdominal muscles (the Rectus Abdominis, also known as the "six pack") is the most important for trunk strength and overall core stability.
In my experience coaching and instructing, exercises that target the six pack are over glorified while those that work to help you brace the innermost abdominal muscles, glutes, and back are grossly underrated. While the burn that comes with traditional crunches can be oddly satisfying, the thing I always ask myself when writing our programming for Jolly Bodies is :
"Is it effective?"
Unfortunately, endless sit ups are a road to no - where for core strength. Cue the sad violin.
So what IS effective?
Here are 3 exercises to get you on your way to developing a well-rounded, strong core. You'll need some dumbbells and a long resistance loop in order to perform this workout. As always, make sure to check with your doctor if you are concerned about any health conditions that may be exacerbated by engaging in these exercises. Follow along with the prompts listed under each exercise demonstration, and you're good to go!
Exercise 1: Palm flip back extension to push - up.
Target: Back muscles.
Pro Tip: To progress this exercise, push-up from the toes vs. the knees. To dial it down a bit, skip the push-up altogether and focus on the palm flip back extension
Begin on your stomach with your palms up. Lift your chest as you rotate your palms to face downward. Hold for 1-2 seconds, then lower back down and place your hands by your armpits with your elbows hugging the ribcage. Exhale as you press up into a half plank, then slowly lower back down.
Exercise 2: The hollow hold
Target: the abdominal muscles that stabilize your spine.
Repetitions: 4 x 15 second holds
Pro Tip: Slightly pull the knees in toward the hips to decrease resistance
Begin on your back with legs stretched out. Interlace your fingers so you have a make-shift hammock to rest your head in. Once your head is resting firmly in your hammock, take a big inhale in. Exhale, lift the legs, and brace through your midsection as if you were preparing for an impact to your tummy. Also think of making a banana shape with your body. Hold this braced position for 15 seconds. The key is to stay braced throughout the entire hold. If you feel your midsection relax during the hold (the lower back will arch excessively when this happens), you've become disconnected. The secret sauce to mastering these exercises is knowing when you're connected to the movement and when you're not. If you can do that, you're nailing it! If you become disconnected, disengage from the exercise by relaxing and taking a big breath in. Then, pick up where you left off. That way, when you're in your hold, you know you're getting the most bang for your buck by staying braced.
Exercise 3: Glute kickbacks
Repetitions: 20 reps on each leg
Pro Tips: Imagine placing the bottom of your foot against a very heavy object on wheels. Push that object away from you while you kick back. Also, make sure your band simulates a moderate - heavy amount of load. Too little resistance in the band will cause you to swing through your hip joint vs. actually using the glute to push against a challenging load.
Wrap a medium - heavy level resistance band around your foot. Anchor the band between your hands. Inhale as you tuck the target leg, then exhale, brace through the core (like you did on the hollow hold) and push the leg outward and slightly upward, making sure to intentionally contract the glute at you lift. The resistance band will help you do that because it gives you something to actively push against, which will require you to use the glute to do so. Pause at the top of the contraction and really squeeze the cheek before lowering the leg back down. Make sure you keep your abs braced during the kickback. This will keep your back from arching during the exercise.
Once you have completed one full round of the 3 exercises, repeat the entire circuit twice more. Make sure to rest completely between each exercise for about 30-60 seconds. Your body needs that time to circulate fresh blood into the muscles you're working, and too little rest between sets will cause you to fatigue too quickly on subsequent sets.
Go get it!