Workout Wednesday: Train Your Core Without Crunches (Or Planks!)

Ah, core exercises.

What comes to mind when someone says “ab workout?”

Is it the sit up test that you did in the 5th grade gym class Presidential Challenge? (God, I hated that).

Is it planks for minutes upon grueling minutes?

Unfortunately, core workout for many people falls into those two categories, or at least variations of those two things. The good news, though, is that there are far more (and better) exercises that you can do to train your core without having to suffer through either of these.

Not to mention, being pregnant, there are certain exercises that I now have to avoid, such as crunches, for various reasons. A)Laying on my back is a no-no, as it can occlude blood flow to the baby. B) Diastasis recti is a thing. A thing I don’t want.

But, BUT! This is not just a pregnancy post. Truth be told, crunches are not in my repertoire of core exercises anyway, and they haven’t been for quite some time due to many theories about repetitive spinal flexion, and the fact that I really don’t think they do much of anything, anyway. Planks are something I do, but I don’t utilize them as a training staple — and I certainly don’t believe in super long held planks as something that is necessary or functional for real life. Why not train our core in a way that we may be using it in our daily lives?

The main purpose of our core is to stabilize the rest of our body, correct? To provide a strong base from which our limbs move, while at the same time protecting our spine from unhealthy movements. So unless someone can tell me why they think sit ups and crunches are the best way to do that, we’re going to move on to some much better, and more effective core exercises.

And the bonus is that these are safe for the mama’s-to-be as well! Keep in mind that these are my favorites — of course there are more out there. But try to swap out your planks or crunches for some of these full-body core activation exercises, and see if you can feel the difference !

Carries –  These are great because they can be done anywhere — at home or in the gym. All you need is a dumbbell or kettle bell, and a little bit of space to walk. Carries are a great way to engage your core while moving other parts of your body, which is extremely functional for real life (carrying a heavy bag of groceries or a heavy suitcase/duffel comes to mind!)

There are 3 different positions you can utilize for carries. From most advanced to most beginner-friendly, try one of these soon:

Overhead Carry: Make sure that your arm holding the weight remains completely straight, with elbow right next to your ear (not translating in front of or behind your head). Grip the weight tightly, be conscious to not let your shoulders creep up by your ears (pull your shoulder blades back and down). Keeping your core engaged, walk slowly for a predetermined distance — usually 10-20 yards to start, but this will depend on your level. And you can always turn and walk “laps” if you don’t have that much space. 

OH carry KB

Rack Position Carry: Carry the weight at your chest, with elbow bent and palm facing your body. Your knuckles will be just about resting on your collar bone. The most important things here are to make sure your wrist is strong and straight, not bending under the weight, and also to keep shoulders tightly down. Keep your elbow in by your side, brace your core, and walk. 

rack position carry KB

Farmers Carry: These will be done with the weight down by your side, and are the most beginner friendly of the carries. These can usually be done with a heavier weight, which will benefit your grip strength as well. Keeping your torso upright (not bending towards or away from the weight), keep your core engaged and walk straight ahead. Make sure to keep your shoulders tucked down — again not letting that shoulder on your weighted side creep up by your ears. 

farmers carry KB

With carries, I generally will do 2-3 reps of overhead or rack position carries a couple of times per week, transitioning from overhead to rack position when I become fatigued and can’t hold a proper position anymore. Remember, proper form is much more important than doing one of these for a long distance!

Pallof Press – Pallof Press is another amazing core exercise, one that I utilize with almost all of my rehab patients as well as my personal training/group fitness clients. I learned this one from one of the greats — Tony Gentilcore (if you don’t read his blog, you’re missing out BIG time). Again, it engages your core in a very functional way, allowing you to brace and stabilize your core while moving your upper body limbs.

standing pallof press

To start, stand next to a cable machine or resistance band that is about at chest height. The band/cable should be at your side. Grasp the band, standing with core braced and knees slightly bent, an “athletic position”. Bring the band to your chest, and then straight out in front of you until arms are straight. You will be using your core to avoid letting it twist you back towards the cable or band attachment. Remember to breathe! 

kneeling pallof press

An alternate position here is a half kneeling position, where your “down” leg is the one that is closest to the band attachment/cable machine. The arm positioning and core bracing cues will be the same. 

Wood choppers- Similar to the Pallof Press, wood choppers can be done with either a cable machine at the gym or resistance bands, that are attached at a height that is a little bit taller than you, or at least at shoulder height. Standing with your core engaged and knees slightly bent, begin the movement holding the band high up on the side that it is attached. Keeping your arms straight, bring the band/cable down in a diagonal pattern across your body, ending low on the opposite side. Complete reps on one side before turning and completing on the opposite side.

Standing wood chopper abs

Similar to Pallof Press, these can also be done in a 1/2 kneeling position to increase the challenge a little bit. 

kneeling woodchopper abs

I’m not sure why I look so sad here..I promise I wasn’t! 🙂 

Land Mines- Land mines are one of my favorite core exercises, but they do require a barbell so they may need to be done at the gym, unless you have a very impressive home gym! If you don’t have a “Land Mine” attachment for the barbell — essentially a set up that attaches at one end to let it pivot, these can still be done easily, all you’ll need is a corner of the room. Place one end of the barbell in a corner to keep it from rolling around. Pick up the other end, and hold it at chest height — you may have to play around a little bit with hand positioning to find the right fit for you. I tend to hold with my Left hand above my Right hand on the base of the barbell, just because that is more comfortable for me.

Bring the barbell straight out in front of you, then slowly and with control, bring it down by your right side, keeping your left arm straight. Use your core to then swing the barbell back up and down to the left side, this time keeping your right arm straight. As you are moving the barbell from side to side, your goal is to keep your torso completely still, not letting it rotate with the weight of the barbell.

landmine 2

Landmine 1

These are pretty advanced and I wouldn’t start with any weight on the barbell at first — just those 45 pounds goes a long way!

Readers: Do you utilize any of these in your training? What are your favorite core exercises? 


3 thoughts on “Workout Wednesday: Train Your Core Without Crunches (Or Planks!)

  1. love this post and love that you shared these exercises! I actually incorporated some in my workout yesterday 🙂

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