Newsflash: achieving the perfect six-pack-by performing countless sit-ups and crunches is a bogus and outdated approach to core conditioning.
Aside from the fact that nutrition plays the largest role in uncovering the coveted washboard abs, sit-ups just aren't that efficient. Sure, they'll make your core burn, but their function is limited, failing to engage all the critical muscles of the abdominal cavity -- the obliques, transverse abdominis, and rectus abdominis -- not to mention the stabilizing muscles of the core, including the spine, shoulders, and hips.
If you want a great ab-strengthening program that's also functional, protects you from injury, and offers a burst of cardio to help you meet your daily activity goals, look no further than this 10-minute routine.
The ab workout of your six-pack dreams
The workout itself is straightforward: perform each exercise for a minute, cycling through the whole routine twice. But just because the program is straightforward doesn't mean it's simple. Be prepared to bring your A-game and work hard throughout. It's just 10 minutes. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right?
Exercise 1: Mountain climbers
Mountain climbers boost your heart rate while firing up your entire core, from shoulders to hips. Perform them as fast as you can while maintaining good form, keeping your shoulders over your wrists while preventing your hips from sagging toward the ground or rising toward the ceiling.
- Start in a high-plank position, shoulders over wrists, legs extended fully
- Draw one knee toward your chest, placing the ball of your foot on the ground
- In a single movement, hop both feet into the air, switching their positions, extending your bent knee to straighten your leg, and bending your straight leg to draw your knee to your chest
- As soon as both feet land in their new positions, immediately hop them back into the air to switch positions again
If performing the hop is uncomfortable, or if it becomes too challenging, make it easier by stepping your feet from one position to the other, foregoing the hop.
Exercise 2: Side plank (30 seconds per side)
The static side plank strengthens your obliques while engaging the deep, stabilizing muscles of your transverse abdominis and erector spinae. It also requires engagement through your supporting shoulder and hips to maintain proper form. Perform the exercise for 30 seconds per side before moving on to the next exercise.
- Lie on one side with your bottom elbow directly under your shoulder, your forearm positioned at a 90-degree angle to your body so your torso is lifted slightly from the ground. Stack your top leg directly over your bottom leg, feet aligned.
- Press through the outside of your bottom foot and your supporting forearm as you engage your abs and hips and lift your hips off the ground until your body forms a straight, diagonal line from the center of your forehead to the center of your feet.
- When balanced, raise your top arm toward the sky and look up. Hold the position, making sure to keep your abs engaged and hips lifted.
Exercise 3: Oblique twists with weight
For a more active exercise that targets the obliques, core stabilizers, and even the "six-pack" muscles of the rectus abdominis, look no further than the oblique twist. While you can do it without weight, I love adding a medicine ball or dumbbell to the motion to enhance functional strength for everyday twisting and bending motions.
- Sit on the ground, knees bent, heels on the floor about shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell or medicine ball between your hands at your navel
- Lean your torso back until your abs engage to hold your body at an angle somewhere between 60 and 45 degrees
- From this position, keep your hips steady and twist your torso to the right as you reach the weight toward the ground just behind your right hip
- When you’ve twisted as far as you can, immediately reverse direction, this time twisting through center all the way to the left, reaching the weight toward the ground behind your left hip
- Continue twisting to the right and left for the duration of the exercise. If, at any point, the exercise becomes too difficult, set the weight down and continue without the added resistance.
Exercise 4: Bird dog with crunch
As important as it is to strengthen your abs, you don't want to neglect your low back. The bird dog with crunch allows you to do double duty, targeting your low back and hips while also engaging your abs as you perform a suspended crunch. During the first circuit, extend your left leg and right arm for the duration of the exercise, as described. During the second circuit, switch sides and extend your right leg and left arm.
- Start in a tabletop position on the ground, knees under hips and palms under shoulders, your back flat
- In a single movement, extend your left leg behind you, pointing your toe and straightening your hip and knee as you extend your right arm in front of you
- After extending your arm and leg, "crunch" them in toward one another, bending your extended left knee and drawing it across your body toward your right elbow as you bend your elbow and pull it in, trying to touch it to your knee
- Immediately extend the same arm and leg, never touching them back to the ground. Continue for the duration of the exercise, remembering to switch sides for the second circuit.
Exercise 5: Plank jacks
When you’re looking for a core challenge, look no further than plank jacks. Like mountain climbers, they’ll set your heart to racing while requiring keen engagement through all the major muscles of the core. If you're uncomfortable doing the plyometric jumping motion, simply step your legs out and in, foregoing the hop.
- Start in a low-plank position, body forming a straight line from heels to head as you support yourself with the balls of your feet and your forearms. Make sure your abs are engaged, your hips aligned with your knees and shoulders.
- In a single movement, hop both feet out laterally to the sides, landing with knees slightly bent to absorb impact and protect your low back while keeping hips level and strong
- Immediately hop your feet back to center, again landing on the balls of your feet with knees slightly bent
- Continue hopping your feet out and back in a jumping jack-like movement for the duration of the exercise
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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who swore off traditional sit-ups when she swore off listening to the Backstreet Boys, even "ironically." It's been a lot of years. Connect on Twitter: @girlsgonesporty.