1. Sit-Ups (“old-school” style)

If you do sit-ups in the traditional manner, you may be raising your head too high or grasping your hands behind your head or neck to tug your neck into flexion.  Other common errors include keeping your knees straight (bad for your back) or locking your feet under a piece of furniture or on a piece of exercise equipment to provide stabilization.  All of these form imperfections take some stress off your abdominals (where you want the challenge) and may lead to injury.  You are also likely recruiting your hip flexors to assist the abdominals with the flexion of your trunk.  You certainly aren’t getting a good bang for your exercise buck.

To simplify the explanation of abdominal exercises: when you move your arms or upper trunk while stabilizing your core, you are targeting your upper abs.  When you move your legs on a stable core you are targeting your lower abs.  When you add some rotation/twisting, your obliques are the focus, and your transverse abdominals respond to lateral (sideways) motion or stress.  In many cases (heel slides, bridges, planks), the central core must be maintained in a stable and neutral position.  If your abs are not strong enough to maintain that neutral position and counterbalance the stresses placed upon them, you risk injury.  Precise form is essential.

There is a HUGE menu of exercises that target the abdominals.  This space does not allow for detailing most of them.  However, options include:

Lower Abdominals: If your back even begins to arch, you are tackling an exercise that is too challenging for you.

Posterior Pelvic Tilt (abdominal bracing): The basic foundation for all abdominal exercises.  This involves contracting/tightening your abs to flatten your back while lying in a bent knee position.  Avoid squeezing your buttocks or pushing your feet into the mat (both engage the gluteal muscles to assist the abdominals, which then don’t have to work as hard).

Pelvic Tilt with Heel Slides: Lie with knees bent, feet flat and maintain the tilt while alternately sliding one heel partway toward your butt (and back) and then the other.   If this ceases to challenge you, progress to

Marching Steps with a Pelvic Tilt.  Lie with knees bent at about 90 degrees  (as above) and alternate lifting/lowering one foot and then the other while keeping the knees locked and maintaining a pelvic tilt.  Marches can be progressed by bending the knees less than 90 degrees so your feet are farther from your core as you raise and lower them.  An even more advanced version entails executing a bicycle like motion – moving one knee up while the other is on the way down (keeping the knees locked and moving from the hips).

Marches While Seated on a Ball: Maintain an erect posture and keep your feet and knees in line with your hips.  Alternate raising one thigh and then the other.  This exercise adds a balance challenge to core work.

images-6Bridges With a Pelvic Tilt: Lie with your back flat, knees bent to about 90 degrees and abdominals braced.  Tighten your buttocks and press through your feet to raise your butt upward (without arching your back).   Progress these to Bridges with Marching Steps (while holding the tilt) when the standard bridge is too easy.  These can also be progressed to One-Legged Bridges with a tilt.  The key to bridging (especially the one-legged variation) is to keep your pelvis level, not allowing one side to dip lower than the other.

Alternating Hip Extension (with a pelvic tilt): Lie on your stomach over pillows placed at your waist/hips.  Keep your knees straight.  While maintaining a pelvic tilt, alternate lifting your legs a short distance behind you.  Do not relax your abs until completing an entire set.  Make sure that your back does not arch as you raise your legs.  Advance this exercise by doing this while on your hands and knees (the quadriped position) or prone over a ball.

Upper Abdominals:

Pelvic Tilt With Arm Lifts: Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat and with a posterior pelvic tilt.  Raise your arms toward the ceiling.  Slowly lower your arms (from the position above your shoulders) toward the mat overhead, keeping the elbows straight.  Add a medicine ball or weight to make this more challenging.  Note: do not do this if you have a shoulder problem!

Crunches: Do a pelvic tilt (with the knees bent and feet flat) and raise only your head and shoulder blades from the mat without pulling your head with your hands.  You may progress this exercise by combining the arm lift with the crunch and adding a medicine ball.


images-5Crunches with a twist:  As you elevate your head and shoulder blades, reach one shoulder slightly toward your opposite knee.

Lift and Chop Patterns: While seated on a ball with erect posture and a stable core, use resistive bands or a cable system to pull or lift on a diagonal (ie: from in front of your right shoulder toward your left hip).

Transverse Abdominals and Combined Abs:

The Pointer Exercise: While in a prone-over-pillows or quadriped position, raise one arm and the opposite leg simultaneously while maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt.  This exercises both lower and upper abs.

images-7Planks – A wonderful but more advanced and challenging exercise that can be performed either forward or laterally (side-ways).  A push-up like position is held for a period of time while maintaining a neutral spine.  This entails resting (weight-bearing) on your forearms and toes for the forward plank and on one forearm and same-side foot for the lateral plank.  Begin by holding the position for about 15 seconds and progress gradually over time to one minute or more.  You need not do many repetitions of these exercises as they focus on abdominal endurance and entail a longer duration rather than high reps. Planks can also be advanced by performing on extended arms, raising one arm or foot, or lifting a weight or kettle-bell from the lateral plank position.

2. The Roman Chair (and variations thereof)

It is important to achieve a balance when working on core strength and that means strengthening the back extensors as well as the abdominals.  The extensors are the muscles that raise your back from the bent (forward) position toward the extended (arched) position.

However, the error many people make when doing extensor exercises is to work into an extreme position, which may compromise the spine and stress the discs.  Instead, begin in a flexed forward position and raise your head, shoulders and trunk up toward a neutral position.  Stop before the position requires that you arch your back.  This exercise can be performed a number of ways, Three varieties include: lying on a mat over pillows with feet stabilized against the wall, lying on a prone leg-curl machine with feet secured and stationary under the resistance bar, and lying prone over a gymnastics ball with feet stabilized at the wall.

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About the author

Abby serves as the Injury Expert for CBS New York where, since 2010, her Injury Breakdown Blog examines injuries in professional sports. She also blogs on health & fitness as well as sports injuries for Huffington Post, and Recovery Physical, where her blog earned a top ten mention for physical therapy blogs in 2012 @ In a ranking of the Top 30 Healthcare Blogs for 2012, Top Masters in Healthcare also rated Abby’s blog in the top three in Physical Therapy! Abby is the founder of Fit-Screen and she welcomes your comments and questions!