“You can do side bends or sit-ups, but please don’t lose that butt” -Sir Mix-A-Lot
Was Sir Mix-A-Lot right? Should you do side bends and sit-ups?
Actually, no, you shouldn’t.
There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to core training. Everyone wants abs, but the reality is that the BEST exercise for abs is table push-aways (think about it).
Seriously, though, it’s impossible to spot-reduce fat on your abs. Having abs is largely genetic, and nutrition has a huge impact on whether or not you’ll be able to expose them. The classic ab exercises-like side bends and sit-ups-DO NOT give you abs. They DO NOT burn fat on your stomach. Instead, they can cause a whole host of low back issues…the spine is not built for bending like that!
Instead of thinking of it as “ab exercises”, start thinking of it as “core training”. Your core includes all the muscles of the abdominals (rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis), your obliques (internal and external), your erectors, and your multifidious.
Core training can be broken down into 4 categories:
- Anti-Lateral Flexion
- Hip Flexion
Anti-rotation exercises prevent the spine from rotating and twisting, which helps prevent low back pain and injury. Three great anti-rotation exercises include:
- Pallof Press: Standing next to a cable machine, hold the handle in front of your belly-button and take a few steps out to the side. You should have tension on the cable. Keeping the core engaged, and standing tall with the shoulders back, slowly extend the arms moving the cable away from your body. Stay in line with the center of your body, and don’t allow that cable to move back towards the machine. Start with 10 reps on each side. *Helpful coaching cue: Do not allow your arms to do all the work-they’re moving, but the core is what’s MAKING them move. Video here.
- Pallof Hold: This is the exact same set-up and execution as the press, except that instead of moving in and out for a certain number of reps, you are going to hold in the “out” position for 20-30 seconds on each side. *Helpful coaching cue: Brace your stomach like you are about to take a punch. This helps engage the core muscles (but don’t forget to breathe!!) Video here.
- Cable Anti-Rotation Chop: Standing next to the cable machine again, place your feet about shoulder width apart and grab a rope attachment on your cable machine with a double overhand grip. The cable should be at chest height. Rotate your arms across your body, making sure that your hips and lower back stay completely still. Start with 10 reps on each side. *Helpful coaching cue: if you find that you can’t stabilize your hips, try widening your stance or bringing the weight down. Video here.
The goal with anti-extension exercises is that you don’t allow your lower back to extend. In other words, no arching of the spine. These exercises are great for building core stability and strength. Here are three great anti-extension exercises:
- Plank: This includes the basic forward plank and all forward plank variations. Hold your planks for 0:20-0:30 seconds. *Helpful coaching cue: relax every muscle in the body EXCEPT the abdominals and glutes. This helps focus in on engaging the core. Video here.
- Deadbug: Lying flat on the ground, knees are bent and feet off the floor. Place your hands on top of your knees. Slowly extend the right arm over your head and the left leg out in front of you. Bring it back in, and switch. Alternate sides for 8-10 reps on each side. *Helpful coaching cue: Press your spine into the mat and DO NOT allow it to come off the mat at all throughout the movement. Video here.
- TRX Fallout/Ab Wheel: Set the straps to mid-calf length, and kneel on a thick pad facing away from the anchor point. Holding the handles in front of you, slowly fall forward, allowing your feet to come up off the ground behind you and your arms to float forwards and upwards. Keep the head neutral between the arms. Return back to your starting position, and repeat for 15-20 reps. If you do not have TRX straps but you do have an Ab Wheel, it’s the same movement! Ab Wheel is slightly harder since you are so much closer to the ground. *Helpful coaching cue: As SOON as you feel your back start to arch, give, or break form, come back to the starting position. Video here.
The goal of anti-lateral flexion is to resist lateral flexion (side-bending!!) of the lumbar spine. Check out three exercises that promote anti-lateral flexion:
- Suitcase Carry: This is basically a single-arm farmer’s carry. You are holding weight in only one hand and resisting that side bend motion towards the weight. Start at a moderate weight for these. *Helpful coaching cue: avoid resting the kettlebell on your body-be sure to hold it slightly away from you! Video here.
- Side Plank: This plank variation can be done down on the elbow or with the arm extended and palm on the floor. Stack the feet and be sure to keep your body in a straight line as you lift your hips off the ground! For beginners, try putting one foot in front of the other instead of stacking. Hold each side for 0:20 to start, then increase the time from there. *Helpful coaching cue: ask someone to take a look at your alignment. It’s hard to see it yourself and it’s really easy to be completely OUT of alignment with these (and then you won’t reap the benefits!) Video here.
- Waiter Carry: Also known as kettlebell overhead carry, these are similar to suitcase carries in that you are only holding weight on one side. With these, the weight is above your head rather than down by your side. These are tough, so start light! *Helpful coaching cue: don’t allow the elbow to bend-be sure to keep the arm above your head straight throughout the exercise. Video here.
Hip flexion exercises are a little more advanced. Instead of resisting movement, (like the previous three categories), hip flexion creates movement. However, you should still be sure to maintain control throughout these movements. Even though this category is called hip flexion, your abdominal muscles should be the ones creating the movement. Here are three hip flexion core exercises:
- Hanging Knee Lift: You are going to need a chin-up bar or something similar for this exercise. Grab onto the bar and let your body hang. Do not let your shoulders completely relax-your shoulders should be engaged, shoulder blades down and back. Brace the core, and bend the knees up towards the chest, using your core muscles to pull them up. Straighten the legs back down with control. *Helpful coaching cue: if hanging is too tough at first, try these in a captain’s chair where your back is supported. Video here.
- TRX Knee Tuck: Set the TRX straps to mid-calf length. You’re going to get into a prone position, with your feet in the handles. Start in an extended plank position-arms are straight with the palms flat on the floor. Legs are extended fully behind you. Slowly flex at the hips, bringing the knees in towards the chest. Straighten the legs back behind you with control. *Helpful coaching cue: move slowly through this movement, and really make sure you’re using your core muscles to flex the hips. Video here.
- Racked KB March: I learned this one from Stefi Cohen and have been loving it lately! Grab a moderately heavy kettlebell, and get into the racked position (kettlebell at your shoulder). Bring one knee up towards the chest, flexing at the hip, then lower it and bring the other knee up. Alternate like this for 30 seconds then switch and rack the kettlebell on the other side. *Helpful coaching cue: be sure that you are standing straight and tall-don’t let your body lean to one side or the other! Video here.
Did you notice anything? Not a crunch or side-bend in sight!! 😛
If you want a STRONGER core, these exercises will do the job.
If you want visible, shredded abs, then your #1 focus should be your diet….THEN exercises like these (and pray you have the ab gene!)
Don’t listen to Sir Mix-a-Lot. Side bends and sit-ups do more harm than good. And, don’t worry…these exercises won’t make you lose your butt 😉