Jessica Matthews by Jessica Matthews

The road to sporting a stronger, sexier, better-functioning core starts with incorporating effective exercises into your workouts that will challenge your core and help you get the results that you’re looking for. This often means ditching other moves that may be wasting your valuable time—and possibly setting you up for injury. Top personal trainers dish on which common exercises you can cut out of your fitness routine and the upgraded moves you can replace them with to help you score a better core.

Common Exercise: Leg Thrown Down
Better Move: TRX-resisted Straight-leg Raise

TRX-resisted straight-leg raise

Why the Upgrade: If you’re anything like Shana Martin, American Council on Exercise and TRX Master Trainer, you may recall being in P.E. class and grabbing onto a partner’s ankles as he or she threw your feet down toward the floor in an effort to strengthen your abs. While at first glance that exercise might appear to be challenging, it is, in fact, an ineffective move that can cause excessive extension of the spine and harm the lower back, says Martin, who is the Fitness Director at Supreme Health and Fitness in Madison, Wis. Skip this dangerous exercise and opt instead for a more effective move using one of Martin’s favorite training tools—the TRX. To perform TRX-resisted straight-leg raises, lie on the ground facing the anchor point, placing both hands in the foot cradles as you press down. Keep your core engaged and slowly lower both legs toward the ground, keeping the back on the ground the entire time. Slowly return to your starting position, keeping pressure in your hands as you do so.

Common Exercise: Traditional Crunches
Better Move: Wall Ball Squat

Wall Ball Squat

Why the Upgrade: Instead of simply training two of the more superficial muscles of the core—the rectus abdominis and external obliques—fitness expert and core-performance guru Linda LaRue, R.N., M.Ed., A.T.C., recommends ditching the crunches and focusing instead on creating a strong, functional core and back that’ll put you closer to the abs of your dreams. Opting for more of a multi-planar, compound core move performed in a standing position not only most effectively challenges the dozens of muscles that make up your core, it also best trains your body for how it moves in everyday life, shares LaRue, creator of Crunchless Abs and Core Transformer. To perform the wall ball squat, keep your body at a 45° angle as you press a medium-sized stability ball up against the wall. Keeping your core engaged, inhale into a squat and drive your body up into the ball. Repeat for desired number of sets and repetitions, working to become breathless with this exercise. For an added challenge, try performing this move with one arm extended out during the exercise (switching sides after each set) or with one foot lifted two inches off of the ground (again switching sides after each set).

Common Exercise: Rotary Torso Machine
Better Move: Standing Medicine Ball Woodchops

Why the Upgrade:  The desire to whittle down our middles and melt away love handles leads many people to gravitate toward this machine with the hopes of sculpting a smaller waist. However, this particular exercise—which is commonly performing either in a seated or kneeling position—decreases the functional aspect of twisting given the fixed nature of the machine. As a result, it falls short compared to other movements with more metabolic and neural demands, explains Amber Long, ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Director of the Kirmayer Recreation Center at The University of Kansas Medical Center. Because twisting exercises are recommend as part of a balanced strength-training program, Long suggests opting for moves like standing medicine ball woodchops for a total-body approach to training, allowing for more integrated movement and stabilization and resulting in greater body benefits in the long run. To perform this move, begin standing while holding the medicine ball in both hands and slowly bring the ball to the starting position just above the left shoulder without rotating your torso. Keeping your core engaged and the chest, hips and head facing forward throughout the movement, bring the ball down and across your body to your right hip. Hold this end position briefly before returning to your starting position. Once you’ve completed the desired number of repetitions, repeat this exercise on the opposite side.

To enhance your exercise experience, be sure to check out the top tips for training the abs from ACE Master Trainer Jonathan Ross, author of the book Abs Revealed.

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