CORE TRAINING: Alternatives to the Abdominal Curl

Get a flat tummy at Elevate Fitness in Syracuse

The average American spends 55% of their waking life in sedentary behaviors. The average office worker spends 10-12 hours sitting each day. At the same time, the CDC reports that more than one-third of Americans suffer from obesity. Indeed, the scientific community is now using the term “sitting disease” to describe the metabolic syndrome and ill effects associated with an overly sedentary lifestyle.

Sitting at the office for eight hours a day creates a very steep uphill battle for a workout that is only 30 or 60 minutes long. It’s not just that people are less active overall; sitting postures can actually alter the anatomical configuration of the human body.  Core training is an important area to consider when working out for people who are in a sitting position for extended periods of the day.

How many times have you heard someone say that what they want out of a core workout is to “really feel the burn” in their abs? We’ve all heard it, and at some point, we’ve all thought that the “burn” you feel is the hallmark sign of a great core workout. But scientifically speaking, that “burn” doesn’t necessarily equate to effective core training.


The range of motion for ab curls is very small. Compare ab curls to something like a backbend or a full sit-up; ab curls have a range of motion that is visibly much smaller. What causes the “burn” sensation is high repetition of that movement over a 2-3 inch range of motion. The upper abdominals “burn” due to excessive fatigue. However, the lower abdominals and deep core are barely involved in an ab curl. Moreover, the position of the body in an ab curl closely resembles the posture of sitting hunched over a desk staring at a computer screen. In this position of spinal flexion, the ribs are collapsed and the diaphragm is compressed, making it near impossible to take a full breath. Rather than engaging the abdominal muscles, sitting in spinal flexion creates prolonged intra-abdominal pressure, causing a “pooch” or expansion of the lower abdomen.

This posture also results in what is called “passive stiffness.” This means that, even when the abdominals are not being intentionally contracted, those muscles are shorter and tighter at rest because the body is in a hunched over position for so many hours of the day. For example, sitting for too many hours during the day can result in spinal flexion in the standing position; this is due to passive stiffness. In other words, the torso gets “locked” into a position that makes breathing more difficult, even when you’re not sitting down.

Exercises like ab curls exacerbate the postural deficiency that results from sitting. Because of the negative effects on posture, breathing, and movement, this can be detrimental to your overall physical health and wellbeing. Importantly, this does not mean that people should never do ab curls. The significance of this research is that core training should be diversified so that the programming uses different movements that may not feel like a “total ab burnout” but are nonetheless highly effective training.


People need a total-body approach to core training that counterbalances their sedentary lifestyles to improve their overall movement health. First and foremost, if you really want a “six-pack,” then what you need is full-body metabolic conditioning to reduce abdominal fat. Doing ab curls does not necessarily “burn” abdominal fat. People do not get to pick the area of the body where fat burns first – this is called the “spot reduction myth,” and it has been scientifically disproven.

In order to target the abdomen, you need to work the body as a whole using compound movement. That means movements like Squats, Lunges, and Burpees have a much greater effect on carving out your core than what people usually think of as “core training.” In Group Power, for example, participants do the vast majority of “six-pack” building before they ever get to the Core track at the end of the workout.

Group Fitness classes are a great way to incorporate all of these training modalities and options without a lot of extra leg work on your part. Programs like Group Power, Group Active and Group Core especially focus on these benefits of full-body training to increase abdominal strength and toning.

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