06/03/2014 10:12 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015

The 4 Best Core Exercises That Aren't Crunches

Here are 4 more effective -- not to mention safer -- ways to get a stronger, more sculpted midsection.

By Corrie Pikul

  • 1 Bent-Knee Pilates Hundred
    Courtesy of Michele Olson
    Why do it: Michele Olson, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University, has found that dozens of moves (some familiar, some new) are better than crunches at working your core—without putting stress on your spine. How did she do it? She lab-tested ab exercises using an EMG machine to measure the strength of contractions. One of her favorites is the no-frills Pilates Hundred. This isometric exercise was 31 percent more effective than traditional crunches at targeting the external obliques (the V-shaped muscles running diagonally down your sides). The Hundreds are also uniquely effective at working the deeper ab muscles, Olson says, which support the spine.

    Starting position: Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees, shins parallel to the floor (arms at your sides).

    How to do it: Lift your head and shoulders. Inhale and pump your arms, palms facing down, 3 to 4 inches off the floor, 5 times. Exhale and pump your arms 5 more times. This is 1 breath cycle, or 1 rep. Repeat until you have completed 10 breath cycles.
  • 2 Plank with Arm and Leg Raise
    Courtesy of Michele Olson
    Why do it: This advanced version of the classic "bird dog" is another terrific move for those deep abdominal muscles, which, Olson says, are practically neglected by crunches. And because this move strengthens the support muscles for your back, it can help improve your posture.

    Starting position: On all fours, align your knees under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders.

    How to do it: Raise your left arm in front of you to shoulder height and, at the same time, extend your right leg out behind you. Hold for 2 counts, then lower your left arm and right leg to the ground. Alternating sides, complete 15 to 20 reps total.
  • 3 High Knee March
    Courtesy of Michele Olson
    Why do it: Sure, this standing move works both your abs and your lats (the muscles that pull in your waist). But its real advantage over crunches is that it works the front and back muscles in harmony -- a feat that, Olson says, helps you build overall core strength and makes you less likely to get injured when picking up heavy objects.

    Starting position: Stand tall with feet hip-width apart and hands behind your head, elbows out.

    How to do it: Tighten your abs and lean slightly forward as you bring your right knee up toward your belly button. Lower the right leg and return to start; repeat on opposite side for 1 rep. Alternate legs; do 12 reps total.
  • 4 One-Knee Side Lift
    Courtesy of Michele Olson
    Why do it: This yoga-inspired move is a variation on the side plank, which Olson found is 47 percent better at working the external obliques on the sides of your body and slightly better at toning the rectus abdominus (those muscles that make the 6-pack).

    Starting position: Sideways: Lie on your right side with your right forearm on the floor, your hips and legs stacked.

    How to do it: Press into floor, straightening left arm upward and lifting hips toward ceiling. For stability and balance, bend your right knee so that your shin makes contact with the ground. Hold for a count of "one Mississippi," then lower. Lift again and repeat. Complete 15 reps on each side.

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  • 1 Transform Abs That Haven't Been Worked In Months
    Physique 57
    The move: Swivel Chair "This was one of our go-tos for getting our own abs back into pre-pregnancy shape," says Tanya Becker, a founder of Physique 57, a boutique fitness class that combines ballet, Pilates and isometrics. She and co-founder Jennifer Vaughan Maanavi both used this move to trim down after giving birth, and they now recommend it to women with weak abdominal muscles due a recent baby, a not-so-recent baby or 9 months of nights at your desk. 1. Stand a forearm’s distance away from a waist-high sturdy piece of furniture, with your feet, knees and thighs together. Lightly place your hands a bit wider than your shoulders on the furniture. 2. With your upper body facing forward, rotate both feet and hips to point toward your right hand. Lift your heels and bend your knees over your toes, lowering your body five or six inches. 3. Bend deeper and pulse down and up. Remember to keep your abs engaged, your posture lifted with your shoulders stacked over your hips and your tailbone pointing toward your heels. Reps: 15 slow pulses and 30 quick pulses Bonus: From the same starting position, tuck your hips forward and back 30 times to target your glutes and the hard-to-reach lower abs.
  • 2 Tone The Front And Tighten The Back
    Physique 57
    The move: Folded L "This is a fantastic seat exercise that relies less on upper-body strength and places a deeper focus on your core," says Becker. 1. Place one forearm over the other on your piece of furniture and lean forward so that your head rests on them. Walk your feet back so that they’re directly under your hips. 2. Soften both knees and then draw your right heel up toward your seat, pointing your toes. 3. Lift and lower your right leg about two to three inches.Reps: 45 seconds to one minute on each legBonus: Extend your leg to sculpt your hamstring and create an extra challenge for your core.
  • 3 Stand Like A Ballet Dancer
    Watch It Now/Pop Physique
    The move: Relevé In a study from the University of Louisville, people perceived women who were standing up straight to be thinner than those who were slumping -- even when the slouchers weighed 20 pounds less on the scale. Train yourself to stand straighter with this move from Jennifer Williams, a former professional ballet dancer and creator of the fitness program Pop Physique. 1. Stand with your heels together and your toes pointed out. Place your arms in a circle in front of your chest with your palms facing your body. 2. Slowly lift up on to the balls of your feet. 3. Exhale and pull your belly button in and up -- as if it's tracing the capital letter "L." Hold for two counts. 4. Keep the torso lifted as you slowly lower your heels. Pretend that an invisible force is making it difficult for you to come down and you need to work against the resistance. 5. Pause for two counts, then repeat. Reps: One to two minutes (or 15 counts of eight)Bonus: Lift and lower your arms when you rise up and down.
  • 4 Squat Like A Ballet Dancer
    Watch It Now/Pop Physique
    The move: 2nd-Position Plié You'll quickly feel this in the seat and the thighs, but to maximize the stomach-flattening, focus on keeping the abdominal muscles engaged, says Williams. 1. Step your feet two and a half feet apart (or wider than your hips) and turn out your toes. 2. Place your hands on your hips and roll your shoulders back. 3. Bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. 4. Tuck your tailbone under and pull the abs in and up, tracing the letter "L" with your belly button. 5. Pulse down one inch, up one inch (that's one rep). Keep the moves small and controlled and the back straight and tall.Reps: 32 reps Bonus: Lift one heel up a few inches for two counts, then lower and lift the other heel.
  • 5 Strengthen Your Sides As You Narrow Your Waist
    The move: Standing Oblique Strengthener Chicago-based health and fitness coach Traci D. Mitchell loves this move because it's simple, effective and doesn't require any special equipment (or much floor space). 1. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart. 2. Grab a heavy object, like a gallon of water. 3. Tighten your core and lift the object with both hands, keeping your arms straight out in front of you. 4. While keeping your hips stable, slowly move the object to the left, then to the right (that's one rep).Reps: Three sets of 20 Bonus: When facing forward between twists, do one squat.