These attempts at a six-pack may do more harm than good.
Amy Roberts 1 / 7
Sure, we all covet abs that could grate cheese—but less so if getting them leaves your lower back in shreds, or your posture so crappy that no one can see the washboard beneath your hunched shoulders. And, if you really think about it, your spine is really only supported by those core muscles between your rib cage and your pelvis; bad training can set you up for all sorts of lumbar problems. For abs that are both functional and brag-worthy, best to reconsider these 6 moves.
Long duration planks
Don’t get this wrong. Good planks = really awesome core workout. Planks for so long that your form suffers, not so much. “When you do planks just for the sake of time, it’s at the expense of building any type of useful strength, and actually just reinforces bad habits such as forward head posture, shoulders bunched up in ears, low back sagging, and collapsed shoulder blades,” says Clifton Harski, director of training and head coach at FitWall.
Try this instead: Harski recommends short, intense “hard-style” planks. To do: Start on your forearms, with your elbows about one inch in front of shoulders—this will require your lats and abs to engage during the plank. With your feet and legs together, begin by squeezing first your glutes, then abs, then thighs, and then—without moving your arms—press your forearms firmly into the floor, while also feeling like you’re pulling your elbows toward your feet. Squeeze everything like hell for 10 seconds. Aim for three to six 10-second max-effort holds, resting in between.
Weighted side bends
You know these—and you’ve probably done them, with a dumbbell or plate in one hand, bending sideways back and forth like a lop-sided pendulum. Harski says they’re no bueno, because of the strain they can put on the spine by crunching it laterally (and weighing it down that way, no less).
Try this instead: farmer carries. “These force you to develop rigidity and strength by resisting lateral flexion,” he says. Basically, the opposite of what those side bends do. To do: Grasp a heavy dumbbell or plate in one hand down by your side and walk the length of a room and back, focusing on keeping your shoulders square and not giving in to gravity.
These are best left in high school gym class for their potential to cause injuries in two places: the hip flexors and the spine. “During a sit-up, the rectus abdominis flexes the lumbar region of the spine approximately 35 degrees and beyond that point, the movement is performed by hip flexors,” says Jeffrey M. Willardson, PhD, CSCS, associate professor of kinesiology and sports studies at Eastern Illinois University and author of Developing the Core. With the feet hooked, the straining on the hip flexors is intensified. Harski doesn’t like them because they’re often done aggressively over and over, and “this flexion/extension pattern could be very tough on the spine.”
Try this instead: Willardson approves of the reverse crunch. To do: Lie on your back with your hands behind your head, and bend your knees so they’re above your hips. Engage through your ab muscles (like someone is about to sucker-punch you), then lift your hips up off the ground while bringing your knees toward your head and your toes toward the ceiling. Lower down with control, and try not to use momentum as you go from one rep to the next. Do 10 before taking a break.
Hanging or captain’s chair leg (or knee) raises
OK, that name’s a mouthful. Basically, these are bent-knee or straight-leg raises, done while either hanging from a bar or holding yourself up on your forearms in a captain’s chair. “These involve significant activity of the hip flexor muscles, which may overwhelm the activity in the abdominal muscles, and thus place excessive stress on the passive structures (discs, ligaments, joint capsules) in the lumbar region of the spine,” says Willardson. In other words, less active abs + overactive hip flexors = lower back strain and possible injury.
Try this instead: the leg lower. Lie on your back with legs out straight. Place your hands palms down beneath your lower back where it meets your butt. Raise both your legs to a 45-degree angle from the floor, then lower them slowly, but stop as soon as you feel your lower back pop up off the floor. Repeat for 10 reps.
Anything that twists the spine, especially if weighted—as in those old-school seated ab twister machines—is a lower-back liability, particularly if you already have a lumbar disc injury. Ideally, you should train your core muscles to resist the twist to protect the spine.
Try this instead: cable-assisted Pallof presses. Set the cable handle at diaphragm height, and stand so one side of your body is facing the machine. Holding the handle in both hands close to your torso, step to the side so the cable is at tension. Press your hands straight out from your body, shoulders down, and hold your arms straight, bracing through the core to resist turning your body toward the machine. With control, draw your hands back in. Do 10 reps, and don’t forget to do the other side.
For some people, that is. (Relax—we know they work!) “Crunches must be done for very high reps to yield a training effect,” Harski explains. “And some people may not tolerate that many repetitions very well, leading to spinal degeneration or injury.” Not to mention, that repetitive forward curving isn’t awesome for your posture. If you do them, focus on your form, lifting the shoulders up toward the ceiling rather than yanking your head (and spine along with it) toward your knees. To keep from cheating, cross your arms across your chest rather than putting your hands behind your head. Or...
Try this instead: Deadbugs. Lie on your back, and raise your arms and legs so your feet and hands are up in the air (yep, like a dead bug). Lower your right arm and left leg at the same time, without letting your lower back leave the ground. Bring those limbs back in, then lower your left arm and right leg. Repeat for 10 sets. “This move forces your abs to work in a great and safe way,” Harski says. “And the burn will still be there!”