Most people have a trusty mat they lie down on to do certain exercises, especially abdominal exercises. Floor exercises have a certain appeal. All you need is a mat and some space, although you can increase the intensity of some floor exercises by adding weights or using resistance bands.
Some of the most popular floor exercises are those that work the abdomen and core. Abdominal crunches, planks, and bird dogs come to mind. You can also include leg raises, donkey kicks, and hip thrusts on the list of floor exercises. These exercises are not without benefit, but they also have some limitations that you should be aware of. Let’s look at some of these limitations and how they can affect your fitness gains.
Floor Exercises Don’t Burn Many Calories
Most floor exercises aren’t calorie burners as they don’t work multiple muscle groups at the same time, like compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts. The more muscles you work, the more work your body does and the more energy it burns. Makes sense, right?
Yet there’s a common misconception that you can reduce tummy fat by doing abdominal crunches and planks. That’s why you see so many people doing fifty or more abdominal crunches at a time, believing they’re working toward six-pack abs. Plus, people often do this exercise using momentum, and with such poor form that they never feel the burn in their abs. Quality matters more than quantity.
An exercise that isolates the abdominal muscles, like crunches, can hypertrophy your ab muscles, but you need to burn fat to remove the layer of fat that covers those muscles. It would take a full hour of crunches to burn 150 calories, not a good return on your time investment. Planks burn even fewer calories, although they’re a good core exercise for building core stability.
Leg raises are another low-yield exercise in terms of time investment. Raising your legs off the ground targets your hip flexors rather than your abdominal muscles. You can get more abdominal stimulation by raising your legs higher than 90 degrees, but it’s easy to use poor form on this exercise and that limits the results you get. Just as with crunches, people often use momentum when they do leg raises. So, it’s not an exercise you should focus too much time on.
A better approach for leaning down is to do multi-joint exercises, like squats and deadlifts, using a challenging resistance or add some high-intensity interval training to your workouts to boost the calories you burn after the workout is over. This approach will help you reveal your abs faster than doing endless crunches.
They’re Not Ideal for Strength Building Either
Not only are floor exercises not substantial calorie burners, but they also aren’t big strength builders either. With exercises like abdominal crunches and leg lifts, most people don’t add resistance. You can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell across their torso when they do crunches but doing so can alter your form and place added stress on your back. The only way to make the exercise harder is to do more repetitions or sets. A basic principle behind strength building is progressive overload, making an exercise harder over time by adding more resistance or increasing the volume. However, you don’t want to do a high volume of abdominal crunches or leg raises as you’ll end up using momentum. So, strength gains are limited with abdominal floor exercises and you don’t burn a lot of calories either, so they don’t top the list for fat burning either.
Some Floor Exercises Are Hard on Your Back
Some experts question whether certain floor exercises are healthy for your spine. That’s true of exercises that require repeated spinal flexion, such as the abdominal crunch. When you do crunches you round your back, and this increases compressive forces on the spine. Some studies in non-living animals show that repeated spinal flexion and extension increases the risk of disc herniation. Although you can’t extrapolate these results to living human tissue, it’s best not to overdo the crunches, especially when there are other effective alternatives available. If you have a history of lower back pain or pathology, steer clear of crunches until you talk to your physician.
If you have a healthy spine, you don’t have to give up all crunches but do them in moderation and know what they’re most useful for. The best use of crunches is to strengthen and hypertrophy your rectus abdominis muscles, the large muscles in the front that give your abs definition. If you’re trying to improve abdominal and core strength, planks are a safer option. You also engage your core muscles when you do multi-joint exercises, like deadlifts and squats, therefore, compound exercises should make up the bulk of your training. Don’t neglect isolation exercises entirely though. They can be effective for muscle hypertrophy if you do them with good form and without using momentum.
You’ll Reach a Plateau
The gains from floor exercises are limited due to the lack of progressive overload. Therefore, you’ll reach a plateau at some point and stop making gains. To keep the gains coming and get a more balanced workout, vary the types of floor exercises you do and make floor exercises only a small part of your routine. Focus on compound lifts that work large muscle groups, like squats and deadlifts. When you do these exercises, engage your core muscles as much as possible. Once you’ve mastered basic floor exercises, try a more advanced version. For example, there are at least 50 variations on planks, many of which are quite challenging. Don’t fall too deeply into a comfort zone.
The Bottom Line
While not worthless, floor exercises shouldn’t make up the bulk of your routine. You’ll get more return on your training time if you focus on multi-joint exercises and high-intensity interval training to burn fat. You’d also be remiss not to optimize your diet. Whether you’re trying to build muscle or lose body fat, diet is a critical factor. Trainers point out that abs are made in the kitchen and there’s truth to the statement!
- Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2001 Jan;16(1):28-37. doi: 10.1016/s0268-0033(00)00063-2.
- American Council on Exercise. “American Council on Exercise (ACE)-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises”
- Strength and conditioning journal 33(4):8-18. DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182259d05.
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