Plenty of research points to the value of the crunch in abdominal hypertrophy and sports performance, but let’s face it — it’s getting old. Plus, if you want to keep your abdominal routine fresh and challenging, it’s best to introduce a little bit of change every now and then. These five moves will help you build a strong, well-carved set of abs, no crunches required.
1. Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers are the cardio activity that everyone loves to hate. Done properly, the mountain climber calls for dynamic engagement of the lower abs and the maintenance of a picture-perfect, flat-as-a-board spine. All the evidence you need is to see what happens when someone starts to fight fatigue on this move: The hips begin to elevate as the core muscles lose their ability to hold proper spinal alignment. Try three to five 30-second bouts with 30 seconds of rest between sets to start frying your abs with this off-your-back exercise.
The plank — done from elbows or at full extension, as in the top of a push-up — is known for targeting the deep transverse abdominis. But as these muscles wear out, the superficial rectus abdominis has to pitch in even more to try to maintain the position. To get the best of both worlds, test yourself with more sets and longer bouts. Try adding five to 10 seconds to your plank max each time you hit the mat.
3. Front Squat
A study published in the journal Physical Therapy in Sport found that competitive female weightlifters have significantly stronger internal and external oblique muscles than a recreationally active control group. The front squat, in particular, which requires you to maintain a rigid, upright body position, forces your body to make countless, often unnoticeable corrections in order to hold this position. Anecdotally, heavy front squats tend to leave lifters sore in an area they describe as “behind their abs,” as well as their obliques.
4. Suitcase Carry
Keeping in mind that the job of the abs is to keep your spine from collapsing, anti-flexion movements (like the plank) are important, as well as anti-rotation exercises like the suitcase carry. It’s simple: Pick up something heavy with one hand and walk with it. This has tremendous functional value, but it also puts your entire midsection on blast. The opposite-side oblique and transverse abdominis will get the most work. Try starting out with a 40-pound dumbbell or kettlebell, taking long, deliberate steps. Aim for a certain distance — say, across the gym floor — and be sure to keep your eyes forward and chest up. Increase the weight or the distance walked each session.
Sore abs make people happy. The pain lets you know that you’re laying the groundwork for a grand reveal. One way to nearly guarantee that deep delayed onset muscle soreness is with the rollout. Performed with an ab wheel or a weighted barbell, you start holding the wheel directly beneath your shoulders with your arms extended and then roll out by pushing the wheel or barbell ahead of you and extending the hips until they’re at full extension. Roll the wheel (or barbell) out past your head to extend the stretch placed on the abs, pause, then reverse direction to the start. This move hits the transverse abdominis, but your next-day woes will be felt primarily in the rectus abdominis, from origin to insertion. Try three to five sets of 15 reps with no more than a minute rest between them.