So by now, we’ve covered fundamental exercises that target the chest, shoulders, back, arms and legs. The muscle group that’s left is arguably the most important muscle group to train in your entire body, and that’s your core.
Now, truth be told, your core is worked with almost any body-weight exercise you can think of. All of the exercises we’ve talked about these past few months use the core extensively. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. If your core stabilizes your body as you move, it makes sense that it would be used with body-weight exercises.
In contrast, free weight exercises – ones that use dumbbells, barbells, etc. – and machine exercises don’t necessarily engage your core, and the reason for this is because they tend to confine your body into restricted ranges of motion. For example, push-ups engage the chest, triceps, shoulders and core. Bench press works all of those muscles except for the core. That’s because, by lying on the bench, you focus the resistance solely on the chest, triceps and shoulders while disengaging the core and everything else below. I’m not saying weighted exercises are substandard, because they have their advantages (isolation, more weight), but when it comes to body-weight exercises, almost all of them work some of everything.
So the first thing I’ll tell you if you want to know how to do body-weight exercises for your core is, just do body-weight exercise in general, because they all do a decent job on the abs.
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For those wanting to focus the resistance a bit more on the abs, let me give you the two fundamental exercises that I use to work them out.
Sit-ups were my first ab exercise. My brothers and I would go running with my dad, and after getting back home, we’d put our feet under the couch and do 50 sit-ups. These days there’s a little controversy around sit-ups because of contraindications for folks with previous injury, but if your back is healthy and you place a pillow under your lower back, cross your arms over your chest instead of pulling that neck, and practice careful form, they’re a pretty safe and effective exercise.
To execute, sit on the ground with a pillow under your lower back, and place your feet under a couch (or let someone stand on your feet). Bend your knees to an angle of maybe 30 to 45 degrees and lie down on the ground. After crossing your arms across your torso, use your abs to pull your torso towards your bent legs. Come all the way up, then return to the ground to complete a repetition.
Planks are a much safer alternative abdominal exercise, but don’t let the word “safer” fool you. They are no joke. Another advantage they have over sit-ups is that, while sit-ups target more of the rectus abdominis (the “six-pack”), planks generally target the rectus abdominis, the lower back, and the inner core muscles that you don’t see, including the transverse abdominis which is the “core of your core”.
Perform a plank by getting into the top position of a push-up, with your arms extended, hands and tips of the feet on the ground, and your body as straight as a 2 by 4. Hold the position as long as you can. If you want to make it harder, instead of having your hands on the ground, rest your elbows and forearms on the ground.
Before I end, let me mention this. It is imperative that you keep a strong core for overall fitness and health; however, all the ab exercises in the world will not get you a defined six-pack. If you’re doing hundreds of reps on those abdominals but your diet is junk, your abs might look great, but you’ll never know it because they’re covered with 2-3 inches of fat. Perhaps that’s a topic for a future column.
Macon resident Shawn McClendon is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, podcast host and owner of the health/fitness blog YourHealthAtTheCrossroads.com. E-mail him with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @ShawnB2B on Facebook.