Welcome to Alter This Exercise, the ongoing series where you’ll discover everything you need to modify a typical workout to suit your objectives, your physique, and your state of mind. Each article will explain how to execute a fundamental fitness move and then provide various adjustments based on your current level of fitness or energy, previous or existing injuries, or the specific muscles you wish to target the most. So leave your pride at the entrance and make sure every workout meets you where you are today.
At some stage in your fitness journey, planks — often the favored exercise for strengthening the core — may start to become as dull as the potato chips that have been concealed at the back of your pantry for months. And when this feeling of monotony sets in, don’t hesitate to bid farewell to the traditional plank and try a core-strengthening exercise that may have intimidated you in the past: hollow body holds, an isometric exercise that essentially acts as a reverse plank, according to Joanna Castro, a NASM-certified personal trainer and certified functional strength coach in New York.
During a hollow body hold, you’ll lie on your back, elevate your legs, arms, shoulders, and head off the ground, and, well, maintain that slightly curved, supine position — envision a banana. By doing so, you will challenge your entire core as these muscle groups will need to work diligently to stabilize your body in this stance, explains Castro. In case you didn’t know, your core encompasses muscles along the front, sides, and back of your trunk (meaning it’s not just your abs), and they all collaborate to stabilize your spine and prevent injuries, as confirmed by Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist in New York City, previously interviewed by Shape. Consistently training your core, such as through practicing hollow body holds, will enhance core stability, protecting your spine and ensuring that your lower back doesn’t excessively arch (potentially leading to lower back pain and injuries) during your day-to-day movements and exercises, she explained.
Moreover, there are alternative options available if the traditional hollow body hold doesn’t feel suitable for you. If you’re aiming to grasp the basic elements of correct form or you want to develop the skill of engaging your core correctly before attempting other exercises, you can utilize modified hollow body holds specifically designed for those particular goals. In the case of experiencing shoulder or lower back pain, you can also experiment with different variations of hollow body holds to reap the benefits of the exercise without aggravating any existing discomfort. And if the basic version feels effortless (congratulations!), you can challenge yourself further with a hollow body “hold” that incorporates dynamic movements. Regardless of your motive, you should feel empowered to modify, adjust, or advance the exercise to ensure it suits you best.
Are you ready to attempt this core-strengthening exercise? Follow the instructions below to master the traditional hollow body hold.
Then, observe as Castro exhibits how to alter the vacant body grasp using four distinct variations that are effective for all capabilities and fitness objectives.
How to Perform a Hollow Body Hold
A. Situate yourself on the ground with your knees bent at approximately a 45-degree angle, keeping your feet together and your heels resting on the floor. Position your hands on your shins and pull your shoulders downward, away from your ears.
B. Activate your core and release your hands from your shins. Then, gradually lower your back to the ground while simultaneously extending your legs in front of your body and reaching your arms above your head. Ensure that your biceps are aligned with your ears and your palms are facing upward.
C. Maintain this position by keeping your head and shoulders lifted off the floor, while pressing the sides of your feet together. Make sure to maintain contact between your lower back and the ground to prevent excessive arching.
4 Alternatives to the Hollow Body Hold
If you attempt the basic hollow body hold and find that it doesn’t align with your current abilities or goals, do not feel obligated to continue with it. Instead, consider trying a variation of the hollow body hold that offers the intense, gentle, or moderately challenging core workout that you desire.
In this section, you will discover different versions of the hollow body hold that can be adjusted to be more or less difficult. Additionally, there are options to explore if you are experiencing shoulder or low back pain. While performing these exercises, remember to maintain a consistent breathing pattern and press your back into the floor as you exhale, as advised by Castro. Regardless of the option you select, make sure to regularly assess how your body is responding during each set and switch to a different exercise if it feels inappropriate.
Scaling Down the Hollow Body Hold: Dead Bug Exercise
If you are uncertain whether you are effectively engaging your core while performing the hollow body hold, Castro suggests trying the dead bug exercise. When your core muscles are not properly engaged, your back will not make contact with the floor and extending your opposite arm and leg may cause discomfort. By incorporating this variation of the hollow body hold, you can develop the correct mechanics before attempting more complex variations. However, the dead bug exercise is not solely for beginners—it can also be advantageous to perform in between sets of heavy lifting. Castro explains, “If a client comes in and they’re doing a heavy deadlift or a heavy squat, I typically will include a dead bug to ensure a proper reset, maintain a healthy back, and effectively engage their core. It’s a great way to prepare for their next set.”
A. Lie on your back with your face upward, assuming a reverse table-top position. Bend your knees at a 90-degree angle over your hips, with your shins parallel to the floor. Raise your arms toward the ceiling, aligning them with your shoulders.
Tuck coccyx and tilt pelvic floor muscles so lumbar region imprints into the floor to activate central muscles.
B. Keeping core contracted, exhale and slowly lower right arm and left leg towards the ground until fully extended.
C. Inhale, then gradually raise leg and arm to return to the starting position. Continue, alternating sides.
Hollow Body Hold to Level Up: Hollow Body Rocks
While executing this hollow body hold variation, envision your body as a rigid canoe that’s slowly swaying from front to back, suggests Castro. Incorporating this dynamic movement into the traditional exercise not only adds an element of enjoyment but also increases the stability challenge for your core, she explains.
A. Lie faceup on the floor in a reverse table-top position, knees bent at 90-degree angles over hips and shins parallel to the ground. Raise arms towards the ceiling aligned with shoulders. Tuck tailbone and tilt pelvic floor muscles so the lower back firmly presses into the floor to engage core muscles.
B. Keeping core engaged, lower arms towards the ground above the head, bringing biceps aligned with ears. Then, elongate legs towards the ground and swiftly lift shoulders and head off the floor.
C. Maintaining extended legs, swiftly drive legs up towards the ceiling and lower shoulders and head back to the floor, creating a “rocking” movement forward and backward.
Hollow Body Hold for Shoulder Discomfort: Hollow Body Hold with Head In Hands
Extending your arms above your head during a hollow body hold can cause neck and shoulder stress for some individuals, but gently resting the back of your head in your hands can provide much-needed relief, says Castro. “It’s not a position where it’s harmful to your shoulders, and now you can concentrate on breathing and your core working,” she explains.
A. Sit on the floor with knees bent at approximately 45-degree angles, feet together, heels resting on the ground, and hands positioned gently behind the head. Draw shoulders down and away from ears.
B. Contract your core, then slowly lower back to the floor, simultaneously extending legs out in front of the body.
C. Keeping the head and shoulders lifted off the floor and the sides of the feet pressed together, maintain this position.
Hollow Body Hold for Lower Back Discomfort: Hollow Body Hold with Knees Bent
If you’re experiencing lower back pain or struggling to keep the lower back area firmly against the floor, consider bending your knees during your hollow body hold, says Castro. This simple adjustment to your form may prevent any existing discomfort from worsening and can ensure that your core remains fully engaged, she adds.
A. Rest on your back on the ground with bent knees, feet positioned flat and at the same distance as your hips, and arms resting at the sides, palms facing down.
B. Elevate your knees towards the ceiling, bending them at a 90-degree angle over your hips so that your shins are parallel to the floor. Lift your arms towards the ceiling and raise your head and shoulders off the ground. Maintain this position.
Photography: Anthony CunananArt direction: Jenna BrillhartModel and fitness expert: Joanna CastroHair and makeup: Tee ChavezActivewear: Girlfriend CollectiveWorkout bench: Ignite by SPRI
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