Sick to death of crunches? It’s time to mix up your core routine with something new—and better yet, something more effective than the tried-and-true crunch.
In fact, a study conducted at the San Diego University Biomechanics Lab more than a decade ago confirmed that crunches aren’t all that when it comes to training your core. Researchers compared 13 different abdominal exercises to determine which ones engaged the most muscle activity and were the most effective. Out of 13 exercises, the traditional crunch came in at only the 11th most effective. Yikes!
To get a sleek, toned core—and yes, that sought-after six-pack—you need to understand the muscles of your core and how to train them:
The rectus abdominus: This is what most of us think about when we think of “abs.” When you’re lean, this is the “six-pack” muscle that reflects a healthy lifestyle and time in the gym. This muscle helps flex your torso and keep your torso stabilized.
The obliques. These muscles run along the sides of your torso; your external obliques are the ones you can see when you lean to one side while your internal obliques run underneath the external obliques. Your obliques help twist your torso and bend from side to side.
The transverse abdomnius is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and acts as the support for your torso; think of it as a inner girdle that helps compress your abdomen. This muscle helps you cough and sneeze but it can be hard to isolate and train.
Because the muscle groups have different purposes, you have to train them differently. Try these moves for a stronger, leaner core (start with 1 set of 8-12 reps):
The bicycle. This is one of the most effective core exercises you can do. Lie on your back with your hands interlaced behind your head. Bend your knees to bring your legs up to “tabletop” position, and then bring your right elbow to your left knee while you extend your right leg out in a “bicycling” movement. Return to your original position and then bring your left elbow to your right knee. That’s 1 rep.
The plank. Lie facedown on a mat with your forearms flat. Keeping your shoulders over your elbows, push your body up onto your toes and forearms, keeping your spine in a straight line. (Don’t let your butt stick up, or hang down.) Focus on maintaining a neutral spine and breathing evenly; hold for 10 seconds, gradually increasing your time as you grow stronger.
Ball tap. Sit on a mat, holding an exercise ball in your hands. Straighten your legs and lean back to create a “v” shape with your body, keeping your feet off of the floor. Tap the ball on the floor next to your right hip before twisting and bringing the ball over to the floor by your right hip and tapping it there. Bring the ball back to the center of your body; that’s 1 rep.
Half get-up. Lie back on a mat with a dumbbell in your right hand, arm straight toward the ceiling, with your left arm by your side. Keeping your eyes on the dumbbell, use your core strength to lift your body up until your torso is nearly perpendicular to the floor; lower yourself back down. Do 12 reps with the weight in your right hand before switching to your left hand for the next 12 reps.
Captain’s chair knee-up. Bend your arms and hold the handles of a captain’s chair, and press your back against the chair with your legs straight. Bend your knees and lift them toward your chest as high as you can; pause briefly and then lower your legs. That’s 1 rep.
Train your core every other day, the way you would any other body part, and focus on perfect form rather than banging out as many reps as possible. You’ll get more results that way.