These simple yet effective moves will keep your abs, back, and whole midsection strong.
Younger folks may obsess over picture-perfect abs. But you’re smarter than that.
You know the real value of a strong core goes way beyond how you look—and that’s especially true as you get older. A weak core can lead to pain and injury. A strong core helps you move freely and safely, so you can keep doing the things you love for longer.
You probably already know the core is actually made up of multiple muscle groups. There’s the rectus abdominis, which sits on the front of the stomach and is the most famous of the ab muscles.
There’s also the transverse abdominis, which is the deepest layer. It supports the spine and acts like an internal weight belt, keeping you strong and stable, says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer and author of Smarter Workouts.
You also have muscles along the sides of your torso, across your back, and around your bladder and other pelvic organs.
That’s a lot of parts. Luckily, you only need a handful of simple yet effective exercises to keep your entire midsection strong—and not one of them is a crunch.
How to Use These Exercises
You can pick one or two exercises to add to your normal workout, or you can do all four together as a routine. After warming up, perform each exercise as directed, focusing on good form. If you’re doing them as a routine, work up to two to three sets total.
As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis), an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.
Can’t get down on the floor? Check out this 10-minute seated core workout.
Better-Than-Crunches Exercise #1: High Plank
Planks are part of many people’s core workouts, but McCall says that high planks with your arms fully extended are superior to the on-your-elbows variety, if done with good form.
That’s because pushing your hands to the floor activates multiple muscles up and down your arms. Plus, your shoulders and upper back do work too, helping increase stability and improve spinal alignment.
Hold for 20 seconds
How to do it: Get down on all fours with your knees underneath your hips and your hands underneath your shoulders. Make sure your palms have good contact with the floor, and engage your belly.
Extend your legs behind you, balancing on the balls of your feet so your body forms a straight line from head to ankles. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears, and squeeze your glutes and thighs. Hold for 20 seconds.
Make it easier: If you need to break it up, go for as long as you can, rest, and repeat until you reach 20 seconds total.
Make it harder: Try one of these plank variations.
Better-Than-Crunches Exercise #2: Glute Bridge
Glute may be in the name, but this exercise does more than build your backside. “Glutes are the foundation of the core,” McCall says. They control the positioning of the pelvis and the base of the spine.
Do 10 reps
How to do it: Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart, and heels a few inches away from your buttocks. Press your arms into the floor for support, and brace your core to minimize the arch in your lower back.
From here, push through your heels and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips up until your body forms a straight line from your knees to shoulders. As you get stronger, focus on getting your shins as close to vertical as you comfortably can at the top of the movement. Pause, then slowly lower your hips to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do 10 reps.
Make it harder: Perform the move while holding a light dumbbell in the crease of your hips to upgrade this core and glute exercise.
Better-Than-Crunches Exercise #3: Modified Curlup
This exercise is a spine-safe version of the traditional crunch that develops the rectus abdominis, McCall says.
Like the crunch and situp, the curlup works spinal flexion, or the forward-bending movement of the spine. The key difference: It does so with a smaller range of motion that keeps the spine in healthier alignment.
Do 4 to 6 reps per side
How to do it: Lie on your back with one leg straight and the other knee bent so that your foot is flat on the floor. Place your hands, palms down, underneath the arch in your lower back for support. Brace your core.
Engage your abs to pull your head and shoulders just a couple of inches off the floor. Hold for up to 10 seconds, slowly breathing the entire time. Release to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do four to six reps, switch the position of your legs, and repeat.
Make it easier: Lift up less. Even if you can’t lift up much, engage your core by pretending you’re about to be punched in the gut. Feel that? You’re working your abs.
Better-Than-Crunches Exercise #4: Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
Whenever you’re standing, walking, or taking the stairs, your core keeps your body upright and prevents it from collapsing like a limp noodle. This exercise helps your core do that important job better by making it work against rotational forces to stay stable.
Do 10 reps per side
How to do it: You can use a cable station or loop a resistance band around a sturdy anchor at knee level. Start in a half-kneeling position to one side of the cable station or your anchor point, padding your knee as needed. Your back knee should be under your hip, and your front knee should be bent about 90 degrees.
Grab the cable with both hands, interlock your fingers, and bring your hands against your sternum. Make sure there is resistance in the cable. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together to ensure proper posture.
From here, press your clasped hands straight forward. Pause, resisting the rotational forces of the cable, then slowly return your hands to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do 10 reps per side.
Make it easier: If it’s too hard on your knees, try a standing Pallof press—it’s still one of the most effective exercises you can do.
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