Crunches and sit-ups are not the best options for core training. That shouldn't be earth-shattering news anymore. Thanks to experts like top spine doctor Stuart McGill, we realize that exercises such as planks, “bird-dogs," the ab wheel rollout, and “stir-the-pot," are just a few of the safer, more effective ways to train the core.

What The Research Tells Us

In a 2011 research study with McGill, it was concluded that “Herniation (posterior and posterior-lateral regions of the annulus) occurred with relatively modest joint compression, but with highly repetitive flexion/extension moments. Increased magnitudes of axial compressive force resulted in more frequent and more severe disc injuries." (Callaghan, J.P., and McGill, S.M. (2001) Intervertebral disc herniation: Studies on a porcine model exposed to highly repetitive flexion/extension motion with compressive force. Clin. Biom. 16(1): 28‐37.)

Dr. McGill has found that sit-ups can put hundreds of pounds of compressive force on the spine. These forces, combined with the repeated flexing motion in sit-ups, can squeeze the discs in the spine. That combination eventually can cause discs to bulge, pressing on nerves, and causing back pain potentially leading to disc herniation.

The military has always had a reputation of performing thousands of sit-ups. The U.S. Navy has called to banish the sit-up from the physical readiness test sailors must pass twice a year. Additionally, the Canadian Armed Forces recently cut the sit-up from its fitness test, citing concern over potential injury and its lack of connection to actual military work.

Many have been taught that training the core involves either being supine with your back on the ground, or being in a prone position. What if we told you that there are plenty of other ways to train the core when you are actually vertical?

Vertical Core Training

Let's look at five exercises to train the core, and see if you can notice a common theme:

Pallof Press

The nice thing about the Pallof press, as well as most good core exercises, is that it will also work your shoulders, hips and even ankle/foot complex. Resist rotation as you straighten your arms out, without ANYTHING else moving, and you will immediately feel that internal tension. You can progress or regress based off of athletic stance vs. split stance vs. half kneeling stance to name a few.

RMT Club Circle Stop

Reactivity is a major component of core training, and this RMT club exercise is a prime example of that. In this drill, the core has to stabilize a weight moving very dynamically around it, and then suddenly stop it! We want to build a body where our musculature can turn on and off – as opposed to being on for too long or most of the time (often see in a lot of bodybuilders) or the opposite where the muscles don't move enough and are always off.

RMT Club Bailer

The bailer exercise with the RMT club challenges the core by crossing the midline. This is very similar to chopping and lifting patterns. Ensure that you train both your dominant and non-dominant side. For more information on non-dominant side training click here:

Tall Kneeling ViPR Rainbow

This is another prime example of resisting lateral flexion, and a great drill for strengthening the lateral line that Thomas Myers often refers to in his work, Anatomy Trains.

KB Goblet Squat or Rack Squat

Yes, a squat can be an excellent core drill, especially when you are loaded with either one or two kettlebells. Just think about the total body tension you need to generate to hold weight directly above your core, as you go through level changes while maintaining a tall spine. This is an example of resisting spinal flexion.


What do all of the above exercises have in common? You have probably figured out that they all challenge the body to RESIST rotation, lateral flexion, and/or forward flexion. Think about the differences in this ideology as opposed to crunches, sit-ups, and side bends that actually promote kyphosis and lateral flexion.

As with most advances in our ever-changing world, we look back on how we did certain things as outdated. In our fitness industry, core training is certainly one of those areas.


About the Author: Giovanni Roselli is a Nike Master Trainer. Most recently, he created the Equinox national signature group fitness class 'Fully Loaded.' Additionally, he is a master instructor for ViPR, Animal Flow, and Progressive Bodyweight Training, as well as being a master kettle bell instructor for Kettlebell Athletics. He holds a nutrition certification with industry leader Precision Nutrition. He writes regular articles for PTontheNet as well as David Weck's WeckMethod website, Dr. Jeffrey Morrison's Morrison Health website, and NY/CT lifestyle magazine WAG. His television appearances include NBC's 'Today Show' and National Geographic's 'Brain Games.'