Forget Sit-ups—I Tried These Two Moves To Really Challenge My Core Strength

Two women lying on the floor lowering a dumbbell behind their heads
(Image credit: FreshSplash / Getty Images)

Most people, myself included, start core training with sit-ups. I included them in my workout routine for years and as I got stronger they began to feel easy. Despite this, I noticed my core felt weak when doing compound exercises with a barbell, or gymnastics movements like toes-to-bar.

To improve my core strength, I’ve been trying routines that target the deep core muscles, as opposed to sit-ups which isolate the rectus abdominis—the core muscle just under your skin that gives the six-pack shape.

I decided to try a dumbbell workout personal trainer Elise Young posted on Instagram. It’s only two moves, but the moves are tough progressions of the leg raise and dead bug, and both fire up the entire core.

According to strength and conditioning coach Fiona Scott, who lent her expertise to Coach’s guide to leg raises, the move is a true core exercise, engaging your pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, internal obliques and multifidus. Similarly, in Coach’s dead bug exercise guide, certified PT Cara D’Orazio says the dead bug works the transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, erector spinae and obliques, as well as the rectus abdominis.

Young progresses the leg raise to the alternating single-leg version and adds a chest flye, and adds a dumbbell pull-over to the dead bug.

Take a look at Young’s Instagram Reel where she demonstrates each of the exercises.

I might be confident with common abs exercises, but I found myself struggling to get through 12 reps of the moves in Young’s workout, even while using light weights.

These exercises require control and stability, as well as strength, and I could feel my hip flexors as well as my abdominal muscles working hard just a couple of reps into this workout.

In her form guide, Scott emphasizes the need to keep your lower back pressed into the floor throughout. Scott recommends placing your arms by your sides and pushing into the floor with your hands for extra support, but in Young’s routine your hands are busy moving dumbbells!

I tried to keep my lower back flat on the mat, but a few reps in, I felt it lifting to try and support my core. I had to really focus on squeezing my glutes and abs, and followed Scott’s form cue, trying to move your belly button toward the floor. I also took plenty of rest between sets.

My core was burning by the end of this routine and I had worked my core harder than I had in a long time. It’s important not to push your body too hard, though. If your form starts to suffer, it’s better to make modifications to the reps, or rest, or the exercise itself—mastering the basic move before progressing.

Alice Porter

Alice Porter is a journalist who covers health, fitness and wellbeing, among other topics, for titles including Stylist, Fit & Well, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, VICE and Refinery29. When she’s not writing about these topics, you can probably find her at her local CrossFit box.