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Alternative Exercises for Building Your Abs

Let’s be honest, if having abs that pop wasn’t as much work as is needed, we’d all be rocking washboard abs. And since most of us grew up with P.E. coaches telling us that sit-ups were the way to get abs, it’s no surprise that sit-ups are among the most popular exercises you’ll see at most gyms. Unfortunately, for some of us that have back or neck pain, sit-ups aren’t a very good option.

Luckily, there are alternatives that can target and strengthen the abs without relying solely on sit-ups.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into three effective exercises that can get your abs to pop without having to do sit-ups.


I wasn’t formally introduced to planks until I started rowing for UC-Santa Barbara, and with all honesty, I absolutely hated them. Unlike sit-ups, where you feel a deep burn, you don’t really get that with the plank. Nevertheless, upon further inspection, I have come to learn that planks are excellent for engaging all 360-degrees of the core.

A great benefit to planks is that different variations exist! You can do the standard four-point plank while resting on your elbows or simply hold the top of the push up position. Tighten the midsection as much as possible, imagining that Mike Tyson is about to punch you in the stomach. Also, tilt the hips to squeeze the glutes by going into a posterior pelvic tilt (pointing the tailbone down towards the ground). Begin in a push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to toe.

Do you think you’re too hardcore for the standard four-point plank? Try the three- or two-point planks. For the three-point plank, lifting up one hand will make it more difficult than lifting up a foot. For the really advanced folks, lift one hand off the ground as well as the foot on the opposite side. Check out the Coach’s Corner page on my website for more variations and how to do them.

You don’t want to forget about the obliques, so make sure you add the side planks to your training plan. Lie on your side with your elbow directly under your shoulder and your legs extended, stacking one foot on top of the other. Lift your hips off the ground, creating a straight line from head to toe. Engage your obliques and hold the position for about 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Mountain Climbers

I’ll be honest, while in Navy boot camp, mountain climbers were the only punishment exercise that I always dreaded. These things not only target the abs, but they’ll also get your legs burning and your heart rate rising. Since mountain climbers are a dynamic exercise while in a pronated position, they’re highly effective in engaging the entire core and require loads of coordination and stability.

Here’s how you can get started with doing mountain climbers. First, you’ll be in a push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line. Bring one knee toward your chest, engaging the abs, then quickly switch legs, alternating the movement in a running motion. Do this without slowing down for 30-60 seconds. If you think you’re hardcore, do them how we did them in the Navy, bringing the foot all the way up to the hand on the same side.


The deadbug isn’t nearly as popular in recreational gyms as the plank and mountain climber, but that is no reason for you to overlook them. It’s a common exercise seen in strength and conditioning facilities with athletes because of their ability to maximize core strength and stability. It engages the abs, obliques, back extensors, and the deep stabilizing muscles of the core.

How do you do deadbugs? Lie on your back with your arms extended toward the ceiling and your legs in a tabletop position (hips and knees bent at a 90-degree angle). Brace your core as tight as possible and make sure that you don’t allow the lower back to arch up too high. You will slowly lower your right arm and left leg towards the ground; again, make sure there isn’t any arching or rounding of the back. Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side, alternating arms and legs, doing 10 repetitions with each arm/leg combo.

Alternative Ab Exercises

So, why should you limit your sit-ups? In many cases, sit-ups are totally safe, but adding in a variety of core exercises allows you to strengthen the entire core, instead of just the rectus abdominis (aka the six-pack). You want to emphasize exercises that fully engage the core muscles in a way that mimics real-life activities because that’s what will improve stability, posture, and overall core strength for better performance in sports and daily activities.

Sit-up variations that add load have been known to increase strain in the lower back, and sit-ups with the hands interlocked behind the head can strain the neck. For these reasons, you want to train with safer and more controlled methods that will target the abs without compromising spinal health.

Why do I prefer adding in planks and deadbugs? These exercises require that you maintain a stable core while performing dynamic movements. Even though you’re not experiencing an intense burn like when you’re doing sit-ups, these exercises effectively develop core stability, which you need for maintaining proper alignment and transferring forces throughout the body, reducing the risk of injuries and enhancing overall athletic performance.


Having abs that pop is one thing, but being safe and preventing injuries is worth so much more. Sit-ups are an extremely popular exercise for training the abs, but they are not the only effective option available. Plank variations, mountain climbers, and deadbugs are just three examples of alternate core exercises that can get your abs to pop. Better yet, each of these exercises are also highly effective in increasing core stability and reducing the risk of unwanted back injuries. For more examples of alternate exercises for your midsection, be sure to check out the Coach’s Corner page on my website at


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