Contrary to popular belief, crunches aren't the only way to tone the core muscles. Our exercises work all your abdominal muscles to tone your torso.
Call it a spare tire, mummy tummy, beer belly, or muffin top: abdominal fat is easy to poke fun at. It’s also a big motivator when it comes to working out. But there’s much more to a strong core than having so-called six-pack abs.
To achieve and maintain a solid core, it’s crucial to work not just the abdominal muscles but those in the back as well. And good old-fashioned sit-ups alone aren’t enough to address a bulging belly. The abdomen consists of different muscle groups, and it takes various exercises—not just a bunch of crunches—to target each one. (It takes cardiovascular exercise and a healthy diet to slim down, too.)
Beyond the crunch
Crunches—where you lie on the floor with your knees bent, then lift your torso upward—do have their place. They’re one way of working the rectus abdominis, a long, paired, flat muscle that runs along the front of the entire abdomen.
But there are the external and internal oblique muscles to focus on too. These muscles run along the side of the torso. Then there’s the transverse abdominis, which is the deepest layer of muscle in the abdomen—and also usually the most neglected.
All the abdominal muscles help support the torso, but not without the help of the muscles in the back. The erector spinae consists of two groups of muscles that run along both sides of the spine.
Doing a series of exercises that targets different muscle groups is the most effective way to acquire core strength. Like other strengthening exercises, you can do 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions of each of the following exercises.
If you ever feel pain in the lower back while doing any abdominal or back exercises, stop immediately. This is a red flag. You will need to modify the exercise or find an alternative. For example, if the lower back hurts while doing the Dead Bug, keep the legs bent and just lower them slightly—don’t go as low as before.
Posture is crucial when it comes to performing abdominal exercises safely and effectively. Always keep your shoulders back as opposed to rounding the upper back.
Avoid holding your breath. Always exhale on exertion, during the hard part of the exercise.
Take breaks. It’s okay to take a rest if you need one.
Hydrate. Drinking plenty of water before, during, and after a workout doesn’t just apply to cardio. Drink up for strengthening and core sessions too.
1. Butterfly Crunch
This exercise targets the upper portion of the rectus abdominis. You’ll notice right away that it’s a very small range of motion, but you should start to feel these muscles working right away.
Lie on your back with legs bent and the soles of the feet together.
You have three options for your arms: they can be outstretched by your sides, or folded across your chest, or you can bring your hands to your ears while keeping your elbows back (not folded inward toward your temples).
Lift your upper body upward while looking up to the sky. Try to get your shoulder blades completely off the floor.
Lower and repeat, trying to keep your belly button pulled in toward your spine throughout. This helps engage the core and helps protect your lower back.
Exhale as you lift upward; inhale on the way down.
2. Hip Raises
This exercise complements the Butterfly Crunch in that it works the lower portion of the rectus abdominis.
Lie on your back with your legs extended up toward the ceiling, with your knees slightly bent.
Have your arms at your sides, pressing your palms into the floor.
Flex your feet.
Lift your hips up off the ground, as high as you can. Think about pushing the ceiling away with your heels.
Exhale as you lift your hips up.
You want the power to come from your abdominal muscles and not from momentum, so avoid swinging the legs. Keep the movement contained as if your legs are moving in a cylinder.
Keep your belly button pulled in throughout. Avoid tilting your neck by keeping your chin tucked into your chest.
If you’re comfortable, you can lift your arms up off the floor, clasping your hands together over your chest.
3. Oblique Crunches
Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent.
Drop both knees to the left, so that the left leg is resting on the floor.
Keep your chest square to the ceiling.
With arms outstretched by your sides, or folded across your chest, or with your hands at your ears and your elbows back, lift your chest up toward the ceiling. Keep your gaze on the ceiling and not your knees.
Think about your rib cage moving toward your hip.
Exhale as you lift your torso up.
Repeat on the other side.
4. Dead Bug
This funnily named exercise works the transverse abdominis. If you’re new to this exercise, you might feel like you have mild cramps the next day. This is simply because this muscle typically doesn’t get a lot of attention.
Lie on your back with your belly button pulled in and legs extended toward the ceiling with your knees slightly bent.
Slowly lower one leg toward the floor. Start by keeping the leg bent; if it feels comfortable, straighten the leg and point the toe. Bring the leg back up.
Repeat with the other leg, moving slowly.
Exhale as you lower your limbs.
Keep your arms by your sides, palms pressed into the ground.
Another option is to reach the arms up, as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling.
You can add opposite arm movements:
Start with both arms reaching upward.
As you lower your right leg to the ground, lower the left arm toward the floor, over your head.
Bring the arm and opposite leg back in together.
Lower your left leg to the ground as you lower the right arm.
This exercise works the erector spinae.
Position yourself on the floor on all fours, with your knees directly underneath your hips and your hands under your shoulders.
Slowly extend your right leg out behind you as you reach out your left arm in front of you.
Bring the arm and leg back in, then repeat on the other side, extending your left leg and right arm.
Be sure to keep the hips square to the floor.
The beauty of these core exercises is that you don’t need a single piece of equipment to do them. If you don’t have a mat, you can use a towel.
If you’d like to incorporate equipment for variety or added challenge, consider using a light set of free weights for the Dead Bug. You can also hold a single free weight against your chest for the Butterfly Crunch or Oblique Crunches.
Gail Johnson is an award-winning digital, print, and broadcast journalist based in Vancouver.