Beyond The Crunch: Finding Your Inner Six-pack
By now most of us have heard of programs like P90X and CrossFit, and who doesn’t think getting “ripped in 90 days” sounds like a good plan? As avid exercisers, most of us use crunches in our abdominal routines. However, to avoid the dreaded “plateau,” it’s best to change your routine often to keep the muscles guessing. This article will breakdown 12 crunch-free exercises to use as a complete abdominal and core workout or to add moves your existing ab routine. In my class, we do about 20-25 reps of each exercise. It may take some time to work up to the entire routine, but the results are well worth it.
1. Double Knee Drops. Laying on your back, bend your knees to a 90-degree angle, and lift your legs so that your knees are directly over your hips. With your arms extended out to the side, inhale as you slowly lower your knees to the right. Then exhale and squeeze through the obliques as you return to your starting position. Switch sides to complete one repetition. To increase intensity of the move, when your knees are dropped to the side, slowly extend your legs out straight for a count of 8 seconds. Return your knees to the bent position and bring them back to center. A good reminder is to only bring your knees down as far as you can control the move with your obliques. You don’t need to drop your knees to the floor to reap the benefits of this exercise.
2. Single Leg Drops. Laying on your back, lift one leg straight up with your heel flexed toward the ceiling. Your opposite leg extends parallel to the floor. Inhale with arms over head, then exhale lifting up through the shoulder blades and extending your arms to reach your raised leg. Hold your leg for the count of 4 to 5 seconds and slowly switch sides. It is important to keep your legs straight and your shoulder blades up off the floor for the highest intensity. As a beginner modification, you can do the Single Leg Drops with your shoulders down on the floor.
3. Wide-Leg Sit-ups. Lay on your back with your legs spread in a v-position on the floor (feet wide apart). Pull your abs in and inhale as you lift your right arm up. Exhale as you roll all the way up bringing your right arm across your body reaching toward the left foot. Slowly lower your body back down, one vertebrae at a time, squeezing the abs for stability. Repeat the exercise alternating arms each time. If this exercise is difficult and you find yourself jerking your body to roll all the way up, place a rolled towel under the small of your back and try the exercise again. This should help alleviate the jerking motion. Once you’ve mastered the Wide-Leg Sit-up, you can try a higher intensity Cross-Leg Sit-up. This variation has your legs crossed, Indian style, but the movement is the same. Instead of extending the opposite arm towards your foot, just extend it across the midline of your body.
4. Rock and Raise. This exercise is a variation of one used in P90X’s Ab Ripper X video. Laying on your back, place the soles of your feet together, knees bent and pointed out to the side. Your arms stay flat on the floor right at your side. Squeezing the abs, lift your legs up bringing your knees to your chest. As you lift, focus on squeezing through the lower abs and lifting your hips up off the floor. Bring your knees in toward your chest and point your feet up to the ceiling.
5. Reverse Curls. Lay on your back, bring your legs straight up and flex your feet. Press your heels to the ceiling as you pull your abs in and lift the hips straight up. Try and get your hips as high as you can off the floor, but you want to avoid swinging your legs to use momentum. When I look around my class during this exercise, inevitably I see one or two people lowering their legs a bit and swinging them in. The key to this exercise is to press through your heels and lift your hips straight up off the floor. No cheating!
6. Double Leg Drops. My class refers to this exercise as “The Killer.” It can be done in several variations . . . depending on my mood of the day, sometimes we do all of them! Lay on your back with both legs straight up, heels pressed toward the ceiling. Keep your back on the mat and your belly button pulled down toward the floor. Inhale as you lower your legs until they are parallel to the floor. Hold this position for 5 seconds, exhale and slowly return the legs to starting position. The key to this exercise is doing it as slowly as possible. Concentrate on your breathing. If you feel your back lifting off the floor, try only lowering your legs to a 45-degree angle. You can start with lowering them to a 45-degree extension. Once you’ve mastered this one, try lifting your shoulder blades up off the floor. You can place your hands behind your head to support your neck, or to further increase the intensity, extend the arms out straight. The final progression in this exercise is to work up to adding weights to the move. Using 5 to 10 lb. weights, extend both the arms and legs straight up. Slowly lower both your arms and legs simultaneously, keeping your back flat on the mat. Again, the slower the better. Exhale as you return to the starting position.
7. Side Oblique-Ups. Lay on your right side, slightly rolled back on your hip. You can place your right arm along the front of your body or extend it straight out from the shoulder to aid with balance. Place your left hand behind your head, elbow pointing out. Lift your legs off the floor and bring your elbow (the one that’s behind your head) toward your knee. For a visual, I remind my class to squeeze through the waist and bring your lowest rib towards your hip. This exercise can be also be performed with bent knees to decrease intensity. Otherwise, concentrate on keeping your legs straight and feet together. For those who want to go a step further, add a weight to the left hand and extend it overhead with your palm facing the front of the room. Inhale as you reach the weight overhead, and slowly exhale into the lift, squeezing through the obliques. Using the weight will not only increase the intensity of the oblique workout, but will also add a bit of shoulder and lat work to the mix. One you are finished with your 20-30 reps, flip over and repeat on the left side.
8. Weighted Roll-ups. Lay on your back with your legs straight out in front of you. Using anywhere from 5 to 10 lb. weights, inhale as you press your arms overhead. Exhale and slowly roll up one vertebrae at a time. Slowly roll back and repeat the move. An easier version has your arms extended straight out as you come up, resulting with your arms parallel to your legs. To add intensity, do the roll-up extending your arms overhead.
9. Weighted Twist. Sit up and lean back slightly, holding your abs in. Clasp a weight between both hands and hold it along the midline of your body. Bend your knees and lift your feet up off the floor. This is your starting position. Bring the weight to one side and tap the floor and then over to the other side and do the same. This counts as one repetition. When we began doing these in my sculpting class, we used a slower pace. It’s more important to execute the move correctly than it is do it quickly. As you become more comfortable doing the exercise, you can increase your side to side speed.
10. Bicycles. Laying on your back, place both hands with fingertips behind your head and elbows out to the side. Bend your knees to a 90-degree angle. Lift through your shoulder blades and bring your opposite elbow to knee. Alternate sides beginning at a slow pace, holding each move for 5 to 10 seconds. We usually do about 20 reps at the slow pace, and then pick up the pace for another 20 reps. With this exercise it is important to pull your abs in, visualizing pulling your belly button down to the floor.
11. Opposite Arm & Leg Reach. Laying on your back, grab a 5 to 10 lb. weight and place it in your right hand. Your left hand supports your head with the elbow pointing out to the side. Lift both legs up with heels pressed to the ceiling. Lift through the shoulders extending your right arm up. Slowly lower the right arm and left leg and then return to your starting position. Your right leg can stay extended straight up for a greater challenge, or you can place your right foot flat on the floor to allow for more stability through the movement.
12. Leg Circles. Laying on your back with both legs extended straight up, place your heels together, turning your toes out. For those ballerina bodybuilders out there, you’ll recognize this as, “First Position.” Keeping your back flat on your mat with your abs pulled in tight, slowly circle your legs in a clockwise motion. For a visual, I tell my class to think of an actual clock. You want to inhale from 12 to 6 and exhale from 6 to 12. We do 25 reps in one direction, take a quick break, and repeat going counterclockwise.
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This crunch-free abdominal workout is best used every other day. It’s important as you get used to the moves, to take breaks and drink water throughout the workout. Remember, it’s more important to perform 5 reps of an exercise correctly, than it is to do 25 in bad form.
It’s a good idea to follow this workout with some stretching. Use a few simple moves and yoga poses to both stretch your muscles and increase flexibility.
Side stretch. Laying on your back, bring both knees into your chest and drop them to the right. You can extend your arms over to the left for a deeper stretch. Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Child’s Pose. On your hands and knees, pull your hips back over your heels. This is a great lower back stretch. You can keep your arms at your sides, or extend them overhead to get a nice upper back stretch as well.
Cobra. Laying on your stomach, place your hands even with your chest, with fingertips forward. Slowly lift the upper body up off the floor until your arms are almost straight. Press your abs forward as your relax into the stretch.
Go Ahead and Try It
As always, if you are new to exercise or have physical limitations, check with your doctor prior to beginning an exercise program. I promise you will be tired and fatigued when you finish this abdominal workout. My class may not love me when we do this complete combination of exercises, but they do appreciate the results. Go ahead and give it a shot. You may suffer a bit today, but you and your body will love you for it tomorrow — well, if not tomorrow, definitely next week.