Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
There is an astounding lack of education regarding the true purpose of the muscles in your midsection, and in the interest of strengthening and sculpting via countless crunches and twists, standard workout programming has inadvertently marginalized some vital training techniques that can drastically reshape your waistline from the inside out — “anti-”exercises.
Instead of initiating movement, these moves resist it, tapping into the deeper musculature of your midriff, giving you a soreness you will never forget. Add them into your routine and enjoy greater strength, fewer injuries and a tighter, smaller waist — for real.
Traditional ab training focuses on flexion movements such as crunches. However, your abdominal musculature is actually more complex than the simple six-pack. Multiple overlapping abdominal layers work in concert to help you twist, bend and stabilize in every direction and make physical activity possible. But your abs also have another function — resisting unwanted or excessive movement. This “anti-”movement occurs when your core musculature is contracted to hold your body in a singular plane, direction or motion, stabilizing your spine and pelvis to maintain a neutral position while being acted upon by outside forces.
Training your core using anti-movements is important from a performance standpoint because it improves your ability to transfer energy and force between your upper and lower body by remaining stiff and stable. This translates to greater explosiveness, improved efficiency, faster reaction times and increased speed. Additionally, anti-training helps prevent imbalance injuries, which happen when you’re able to create more force than you can resist. And since you engage your transverse abdominis — also known as the “corset” muscle — in nearly all anti-exercises, you incrementally shrink your waistline over time.
4 Basic Anti-Actions to Know
The act of resisting spinal flexion (folding forward)
A rounded back during lifting is the source of many a herniated disk, and in order to prevent a chronic back injury, you need to be able to resist excessive trunk flexion. If this musculature — particularly the erector spinae — is weak, you may suffer during daily activities such as picking weeds or bending over to pet your dog and will be more susceptible to injury even during passive activities such as sitting for extended periods of time.
Back extensions and deadlifts engage a ton of muscles in your posterior chain — inside and out — and require proper skeletal alignment for optimal muscular engagement and lumbar protection. Training in anti-flexion primarily targets the more susceptible spinal erectors while also hitting your deeper transverse abdominis for spinal stabilization.
The act of resisting spinal extension (bending backward)
Can you do a perfect push-up with a boardstraight spine? Most people cannot, and this is because of an overextension of your spine, or a sway back. Anti-extension moves do require a contraction of your rectus abdominis, but its contribution is minimal, forcing the transverse abdominis to do the majority of the heavy lifting. Because of this 360-degree strengthening action, you’ll get stronger at handling overhead loads such as with a snatch or an overhead squat while also helping streamline your freestyle stroke in the pool and tossing your kids around without pain or strain.
Training your core in anti-extension with moves such as the crawling plank and banded dead bug will fortify this position, ultimately protecting your spine while improving your training results.
The act of resisting spinal/trunk rotation (twisting side to side)
Incorporating medicine-ball twists, cable rotations and even windshield wipers into your workouts actively trains your obliques and core to contract and shorten, but resisting a twisting force is a next-level activity. Anti-rotation comes into play when you’re carrying something bulky or awkward or if someone shoves you and you try to recover. Building anti-rotational prowess drastically raises your ability to resist injury in any number of athletic and life activities, including sudden or unexpected changes of direction, trips and falls.
The Palloff press and medicine-ball twist-to-hold combine dynamic movement with postural fortitude to heavily tax your internal and external obliques as well as the transverse abdominis.
4. Anti-Lateral Flexion
The act of resisting lateral flexion (bending side to side)
If you’ve ever hefted a 5-gallon water bucket across the yard, you’ve done an anti-lateral flexion exercise. When you carry things unilaterally — with a load on one side — your obliques shift into high gear and contract hard on the unweighted side to prevent the weighted side from collapsing. It also can help with quick side-to-side and agility movements such as trail running to keep your torso and spine steady. Most people also have a stronger side, and anti-lateral flexion exercises can help balance this out, helping prevent injury while improving results.
The rack carry or an offset weighted movement such as the kneel-to-stand overhead hold works your internal and external obliques, improving your ability to get all those groceries into the house in a single trip.
Whittle Your Waist
The transverse abdominis holds your viscera and other abdominal muscles in tight to your spine and is highly involved in spinal stabilization. To feel the transverse abdominis at work, simply pull your bellybutton inward and hold it there.
A well-worked transverse abdominis acts to tighten your midsection all the way around and can drastically reshape your waistline as a result, if that’s your goal.
Abs: Layered Strength
|Muscle Group||Primary Function|
|Internal Obliques||Rotation; lateral flexion|
|External Obliques||Rotation; lateral flexion|
|Transverse Abdominis||Spinal/pelvic stabilization, intra-abdominal pressurization|
Use the following guidelines to get the most out of these inside-out ab crushers.
- Save the best for last. Because these exercises truly fatigue the muscles of your core, put them at the end of your workout. Otherwise, you compromise safety on other exercises, particularly those done standing, so pick a few anti-moves and perform them postworkout for optimal results.
- Forget about the burn. Just because it doesn’t burn doesn’t mean it’s not working, and anti-exercises won’t necessarily feel difficult while you’re performing them. This is a different type of training, and you shouldn’t expect to be sweat-soaked after. However, tomorrow you’re guaranteed to be sore through and through.
- Err on the side of caution. Because the muscles you’re targeting with anti-movements are likely undertrained, choose your weights wisely. It’s better to undershoot on resistance until you discover how your body responds.
1. Back Extension
Lie facedown with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight. Keep your head in line with your spine as you exhale and lift your upper body and legs off the floor as high as you can and hold for a count of 10. Slowly lower to the start.
Back extensions also can be done on a machine designed for that purpose or a GHD — glue-ham developer — for variety and an increased range of motion.
Training tip: If you can’t lift both your torso and legs off the floor simultaneously, alternate between the two, or position your arms along your sides to reduce the load on the upper body.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and your toes underneath a barbell. Push your glutes back, then bend your knees to take an overhand or alternating grip on the bar outside your legs. Your shoulders should be over the bar, hips higher than your knees, shoulder blades packed and back straight. Extend your knees and hips at the same rate to pull the bar up in a vertical line along the front of your body to standing. Reverse these steps, touch the bar lightly to the ground and then go right into the next rep.
Training tip: Squeeze your upper arms into your sides as if you were holding a ball in your armpit, and take the slack out of the bar before initiating the pull. These cues will allow you to pull more weight while simultaneously fortifying your spine.
1. Banded Dead Bug
Secure a band around a sturdy object just above the floor, then lie faceup with your head a few feet away from the anchor. Lift your legs over your hips so both knees and hips make 90-degree angles, and hold the band with both hands over your chest, arms straight. There should be enough tension in the band so that you have to actively hold it in place. Press your lower back into the floor and hold it here as you slowly extend one leg out until it is straight and hovering just above the floor. Return your leg to the start and continue, alternating sides.
Training tip: Do this move slowly and with control to ensure that your lower back stays glued to the floor and that you’re working your abs, not your hips.
2. Crawling the Plank
Get into plank with your elbows directly underneath your shoulders and your head, hips and heels aligned. Rotate your arms inward so that your forearms are parallel to one another. From here, crawl one forearm forward over the other while keeping your toes in place for two to three steps. Return to the start to complete one rep.
Any prone plank variation will work your core in anti-extension. Change your planks up from workout to workout for optimal results.
Training tip: Keep your hips low and your core braced to prevent your lower back from sagging, and push backward through your heels and contract your quads to stabilize your lower body.
1. Palloff Press
Loop a resistance band around a rig or machine leg at shoulder height. Stand sideways to the anchor and grip the handle with both hands at your chest, elbows down. Step away from the anchor to create tension and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Slowly extend your arms, resisting the lateral pull of the band, until they reach full extension at shoulder height. Hold here for two to three seconds, then slowly return to the start. Do all reps on one side, then switch.
Training tip: Set the band at different heights to change the emphasis of the move. Alternately, perform it while sitting or kneeling for variety.
2. Medicine-Ball Twist-to-Hold
Sit on the floor with your feet and knees together and hold a light medicine ball at your chest. Keep your back straight as you incline backward until your torso is approximately 45 degrees to the floor. Extend the ball straight out in front of you in line with your shoulders. Moving your upper body as one unit, rotate quickly to the left as far as you can and hold for three to five seconds. Then rotate all the way to the right and hold another three to five seconds to complete one rep.
Training tip: Your shoulders will likely fatigue before your midsection. Use a lighter ball, if needed, or extend your hold time to keep the demand on your core muscles high.
Any offset weighted movement — such as a farmer’s carry, suitcase carry, waiter’s walk or even a side plank — which requires one side of your body to contract against the weight held on the other, will work your core in anti-lateral flexion.
1. Rack Carry
Hold a kettlebell at shoulder level with your wrist directly above your elbow and your elbow tight to your side. Using brisk, short strides, walk smoothly forward for distance or time, then switch sides and repeat.
Training tip: Work to increase the mind-muscle connection with your non-weighted side to actively resist a collapse toward the weighted one on each pass.
2. Kneel-to-Stand Overhead Hold
Kneel on the floor and hold a kettlebell in one hand straight up over your shoulder. Bring your opposite leg forward and place your foot on the floor in front of you, then use that leg to stand up completely while keeping the weight steady and arm straight. Reverse these steps to return to kneeling. Complete all repetitions on one side and then switch.
Training tip: Place your hand on your upper abdomen to make sure you’re not leaning to one side or the other
These sample workouts combine these anti-movements for a rock-solid abdomen. Perform one of these sample workouts once per week, either as a stand-alone routine or after your normally scheduled session. Rest no more than 60 seconds between sets.
|Rack Carry||4||50-100 feet (each side)||Anti-Lateral Flexion|
|Banded Dead Bug||4||8-10 (each leg)||Anti-Extension|
|Kneel-to-Stand Overhead Hold||4||8-10 (each side)||Anti-Lateral Flexion|
|Medicine-Ball Twist-to-Hold||4||8-10 (each side)||Anti-Rotation|
|Crawling the Plank||4||5-8||Anti-Extension|
Photos by Ian Travis Barnard