Almost every athletic pursuit relies on a strong core for stabilization and support. From running, climbing, and cycling to surfing, skiing, and even hiking, every type of athlete’s performance can be improved with increased abdominal strength.
Athletes are repeatedly reminded to incorporate core-strengthening exercises like crunches and sit-ups into their training routines, and of course many everyday exercisers religiously rack up countless sets of crunches with aims of showing off their six-pack abs.
However, what many exercisers don’t realize is that repeated spinal flexion (the crunching motion) and twisting (especially in a vigorous manner) can place harsh loads and forces on the spinal discs that could lead to overuse injuries and general wear and tear.
This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your ab routine. If you find crunches to be effective, continue to incorporate them into your routine. However you may find it beneficial to include a few crunch-free ab exercises, too.
This will help reduce the potentially harmful forces associated with the repetitive loading patterns of a traditional crunch and, according to a study conducted at the American College of Sports Medicine’s Auburn Montgomery human performance laboratory, more effectively strengthen all your abdominal muscles.
The study used a technique called electromyography (EMG) to measure muscle activation levels for several different abdominal exercises focusing on alternative ab-strengthening maneuvers commonly used in Pilates and yoga routines such as the “boat pose,” “hundreds,” and side planks.
Researchers found that both the Pilates and yoga ab exercises produced more muscle activity compared to the standard crunch. The Pilates movements tested significantly stimulated the rectus abdominus (more commonly known as the “six pack") and external obliques.
Below is a list of the top three crunch-free yoga and Pilates exercises that produced the most significant amounts of rectus abodominus muscle activity during the study and video descriptions for how to perform each.