Everyone knows this exercise, some people love it and some not so much. A plank is a great exercise as it has many ways to make it harder and easier based on your current strength level. The two basic versions are a low plank and a high plank. The low plank is performed on your elbows (easier) and the high plank on your hands (harder).
The plank is an anti-extension exercise which means its main focus and objective is to prevent your lumbar spine from over arching (extending) which can cause pain and injury if done repeatedly or severely. The main focus should be to prevent your hips from sinking down towards the floor. You should aim to keep your spine neutral (natural lower back arch is completely fine) and to avoid over arching of the lumbar spine as you begin to fatigue. If you can perform low/high planks for a minimum of 60 seconds with perfect form then utilising plank variations would be a better option to challenge yourself harder.
Doing alternating shoulder taps while holding a high plank is a great alternative. I also get my clients to do alternating feet taps. Both these variations incorporate a dynamic movement on top of what is an isometric exercise to challenge your core further for those who want and need the added challenge. The focus now also becomes keeping the hips locked in place as still as possible while performing the dynamic component to the exercise. By keeping your spine neutral and hips still you’ll feel your core working very hard to keep your body stable and strong, which is one of the main purposes of your core.
Again this is another exercise most people know of and yet again some people love, some not so much. A crunch works the rectus abdominis (think 6 pack muscles) that everyone wants to see and develop. The rectus abdominis is a part of the ‘outer core’ which means the part you can visibly see along with the outer obliques which are either side of the rectus abdominus. A crunch focuses on the function of the core that is responsible for trunk flexion (bending the spine). So if you think when doing a crunch you are rolling your shoulders and upper back up off the floor (trunk flexion) and then releasing back slowly down to the floor to a neutral position.
If you can perform 30 crunches with perfect form then utilising crunch variations is great way to challenge and develop your rectus abdominis further. A great variation i like to give my clients is to bring your feet up off the floor with bent knees and holding them up and still so as you then perform your crunch you are working your core simultaneously by making it having to isometrically contract holding your legs still while crunching.
Another variation i like to utilise is paused crunches. This means as you get to the top of the movement when your shoulders are fully up off the floor you need to hold that position for a 2-3 second count before slowly going back down to the starting position. By adding in this pause it will cut your reps in half due to the added time under tension and stress your putting your abs through.
Leg raise/leg raise variations
As you can see from the previous two, and now this third exercise, is that they are all very known, popular and common exercises. Leg raises are one of the harder exercises but still very known and heard of by most. Core training doesn’t need fancy extravagant exercises, it needs exercises that work well and provides options for regression (easier) and progression (harder). Leg raises, like crunches, works on trunk flexion. However this focuses on bottom to top flexion (along with a couple other things) compared to crunches which does top to bottom flexion.
Leg raises are great for working on the lower abdomen. This is typically the area that people want to develop and ‘tone’ as its a common area where people hold body fat. Leg raises also provide great benefits like strengthening hip flexors and building flexibility and mobility in the lower back. Leg raises can be extremely challenging if you have a weak core so starting with a regressed variation is advised. This simply is just performed with bent legs as opposed to traditional straight legs. A main focus should be trying to keep your lower back neutral and some what flat to the floor which will prevent your lower back from arching which like planks can cause injury so making this a forefront intention is important.
If you can perform 20 perfect form leg raises then you can try out these two variations for more of a challenge. First variation is pausing in the bottom part of the exercise which is when your legs are straight out in front of you. Pausing in this position for 1-2 seconds is very difficult as it is your core in its most stretched out position and so to maintain a neutral spine (lower back) becomes very difficult and removes all potential momentum. The second variation is to try is adding in a reverse crunch at the top of the exercise so this would be when your legs are straight up in the air. A reverse crunch is trying to roll your lower back and hips up and back (think doing a backwards roly poly).
By doing all 3 of these exercises you can be assured you’ll be getting a very effective core workout in. Your core does have a couple other functions that require other exercises to be utilised like russian twists to work on rotation but these 3 exercises are 3 reliable and productive exercises to perform to help achieve your goals of stronger and better looking core muscles.