Anti-Rotation Exercises: The Ab Exercises You Need for a Stronger Core

When you think of ab exercises, you probably think of twisting and flexing exercises such as crunches, oblique twists, and maybe even wood chops. There's nothing inherently wrong with these moves—they target and strengthen the muscles of the abdomen, particularly the obliques, and rectus abdominis. But these movements are less effective for improving spinal stability and total core strength, two factors that are particularly important for protecting the low back from injury.

Think for a second about the last time you got knocked off-balance and had to right yourself before falling down. Your torso probably twisted or jerked to one side, forcing your core to engage to work against the off-kilter movement of your spine. In other words, your deep, core-stabilizing muscles were put to work to prevent you from falling.

Of course, you can understand the importance of these muscles in the context of a potentially-hazardous fall, but the reality is that these muscles are constantly at work. Every time you take a step, your body is shifted off-balance, and your core stabilizers work to keep you upright. Every time you pick something up off the floor, or you reach one arm high overhead to pull something off a shelf, your core stabilizers are helping to keep you steady and prevent unwanted movement of the spine. 

The stronger your deep, core-stabilizing muscles, the less prone you'll be to lower-back pain or injury, and the more coordinated you'll be during athletic movements. The good news is, it's not hard to incorporate core-strengthening, anti-rotation exercises into your fitness routine.

Pretty much any exercise where your body is unevenly weighted or is forced to work against its natural inclination to rotate the spine or shift the pelvis is considered an anti-rotation exercise. So, a shoulder press exercise performed while standing on one leg would be considered anti-rotational because you have to engage your core to keep your torso and spine from twisting or shifting off-center. 

The next time you head to the gym, try incorporating a few of the following anti-rotational core exercises into your routine.

Bird Dog Extensions

bird dog extension
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Bird dog extensions help strengthen the posterior chain, or the back side of your body, particularly the stabilizing muscles of the spine. While the exercise looks simple, it requires balance and coordination that depends on a strongly-stabilized core.

  1. Start on all fours on a mat with your palms under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  2. Engage your core and make sure your spine is in a neutral position—your body should form a straight line from your hips to the top of your head. Make sure you aren't collapsing your chest between your shoulders or allowing your hips and glutes to point toward the ceiling.
  3. Keeping your core tight and your torso and hips parallel to the floor, slowly lift your left arm and right leg as a single unit, pointing them to opposite sides of the room. Hold the position for a count when your body forms a straight line from fingers to toes.
  4. Slowly lower them back to the floor.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side.
  6. Perform at least two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions per side.

Anti-Rotational Single-Arm Planks

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Standard plank exercises are great for building static core stability, but they don't develop anti-rotational strength. To transition the focus, all you need to do is perform plank variations that rely on instability between limbs. The most basic option is the single-arm plank.

  1. To perform this move, start in a high plank position with your palms under your shoulders and your legs fully extended so your body forms a straight line from heels to head.
  2. Engage your core, then without allowing your hips or shoulders to rotate, shift your weight to one arm, lifting your opposite hand from the floor.
  3. Hold the position as long as you can with perfect form before resetting and switching sides.

For a slight variation to this move, you can practice lifting one leg from the ground at a time, or you can transition between a forearm plank and a high plank, working to keep your hips and spine stable throughout the transition.

Farmer's Carry

farmers walk
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The farmer's carry is a straightforward exercise that requires total-body engagement to lift, hold, and carry weight over a predetermined distance.

The kicker is that every time you take a step and shift your body forward, the weight you're holding on the same side of your body will try to pull you out of spinal alignment. To maintain a stable and upright torso, you have to engage your entire core musculature from your shoulders to your hips.

  1. Lift a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells of equal weight, holding one in each hand. Choose a weight that's challenging, but manageable.
  2. Engage your core and walk forward at a comfortable pace, maintaining perfect posture with each step you take.
  3. Walk forward roughly 20 to 40 yards, or take between 20 and 40 steps.
  4. Rest, then repeat two to four more times.

To make the exercise more difficult, carry just one dumbbell or kettlebell on one side of your body, creating an uneven distribution of weight. Switch which side you're carrying the weight with each set.

Walking Lunge and Single-Arm Static Press

single-arm lunge press
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The walking lunge with a single-arm static press is like the graduated version of the farmer's walk.

Because lunges require a wide step and greater range of motion as you lower your back knee toward the ground, they also necessitate greater balance and core engagement. Then, when you add a single-arm static press to the mix, you off-set the weight distribution, pulling yourself off-balance. As a result, your core must engage to a greater degree to keep your torso stable and upright.

  1. Stand tall with your feet roughly hip-distance apart with a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand.
  2. Press the weight straight overhead, palm facing forward, extending your elbow and keeping your upper arm close to your head. You can allow a slight bend at your elbow. This is the starting position, and you'll maintain your arm in this position throughout the set.
  3. Engage your core and take a wide step forward with your right foot, planting your right heel as you allow your left heel to lift slightly off the ground.
  4. Tuck your pelvis to keep your torso tall and bend both knees, lowering your back knee toward the ground.
  5. Just before it touches, press through your front heel and rise to standing as you take a wide step forward with your left foot.
  6. Repeat.
  7. Walk forward 10 to 20 steps before switching the arm holding the weight and continuing, making sure you're hitting both sides equally. Perform a total of two to three sets.

Single-Leg Deadlift

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Single-leg deadlifts unilaterally strengthen the hamstrings and glutes while offering a balance challenge. It's the balance challenge that creates the perfect opportunity to enhance anti-rotational core strength.

As with all the exercises mentioned here, the goal of the single-leg deadlift is to maintain a stable core throughout the exercise, not allowing your spine to rotate or your hips or shoulders to lift or sag during the movement. If you're not sure if you're maintaining perfect form, perform the exercise in front of a mirror, and reduce the weight lifted and the range of motion as needed. 

  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-distance apart, knees slightly bent, core engaged.
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands at your thighs. If managing two weights is too challenging, hold a single weight between your hands, or skip the added weight altogether.
  3. Shift your weight to your right foot and extend your left leg behind you so your knee is straight and your toes are lightly touching the floor.
  4. Engage your core and tip forward from the hips as you simultaneously lift your left leg from the ground.
  5. As you lean forward, pull your shoulder blades toward your spine to prevent your shoulders from hunching forward, but allow the weight to hang straight down. Lean forward as far as you comfortably can with good form, using your hamstrings and glutes to control the motion.
  6. Your hips and shoulders should remain squared throughout the exercise, not twisting off balance. When you feel a light stretch through the back of your supporting hamstring, engage your hamstring and glutes, using them to pull you back to the standing position.
  7. Perform two to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions per side.

Renegade Rows

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The renegade row has similar mechanics to the single-arm plank in terms of its anti-rotational benefits. The difference is that the arm you're lifting and lowering from the floor is weighted, serving to create an imbalance you have to account for with greater core engagement. Also, the exercise targets and strengthens the muscles of your upper back.

  1. Set up in a high plank position, gripping the handle of a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. Make sure your core is engaged and your body is aligned from heels to head.
  2. Shift your weight slightly to the left, making sure you keep your hips and shoulders steady and squared to the floor.
  3. Squeeze your right shoulder blade toward your spine and lift the weight, pulling it toward your chest as you bend your elbow up toward the ceiling. Again, your hips and shoulders should remain parallel to the ground, not rotating to the right as you lift the weight.
  4. Return the weight to the ground and repeat to the opposite side.
  5. Perform two to four sets of 10 to 15 repetitions. 

Single-Arm Kettlebell Press

To work your chest, shoulders, and core, opt for a single-arm kettlebell or dumbbell press in place of the more traditional bench press. The unequally-weighted sides require substantial core engagement to keep your back affixed to the bench.

  1. Lie on a flat bench holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in your right hand, extended directly over your chest, your palm facing away from you.
  2. Place your left hand on your left hip and engage your core, making sure your lower back is flat on the bench, and your left hip and shoulder aren't rotating upward away from the bench. Keep your core engaged in this manner throughout the exercise.
  3. Bend your elbow and lower the weight toward your chest. At your chest, reverse the movement and press the weight back to the starting position.
  4. Perform two to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions per side.