You might not be a physique athlete chasing a six-pack, but even strength athletes need strong abs. A stable core will help you deadlift, squat, and bench press more weight. Like any other muscle in your body, you need to train your core for it to grow and get stronger. Of course, not all exercises are created equal.
The best ab exercises aren’t necessarily the frilliest. To help you sieve through all of the ab moves available, we’re diving deep into the benefits of ab training, how your core muscles function, and providing a list of the 20 best ab exercises.
Here, you’ll find ab exercises that target all of your major core muscles — that is, your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques. With these moves, you’ll be able to support your body through even the toughest grinding lifts.
Best Ab Exercises
- Ab Rollout
- Weighted Plank
- Hollow Hold
- Pallof Press
- Hanging Knee Raise
- Medicine Ball Slam
- Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
- Suitcase Carry
- Trap Bar Figure-Eight Carry
- Side Plank
- Side Plank With Rotation
- Stability Ball Stir-the-Pot
- Dead Bug Pullover
- RKC Plank
- Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row
- Renegade Row
- Banded Plank Pull
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
As the name implies, the ab rollout has you grip a barbell (loaded with round plates), an ab wheel, or an exercise ball to extend your torso toward the ground. Most ab movements, such as crunches and knee raises, flex the abs. The ab rollout strengthens the core by lengthening it, which targets what’s known as eccentric strength.
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Becoming strong in an extended position improves core stability and recruits muscle fibers that would otherwise be untouched. As a result, you’ll have a better-developed midsection.
How to Do the Ab Rollout
- Kneel down and grip a wheel or barbell, loaded with round plates, with your hands set shoulder-width apart.
- Extend your hips toward the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground. Avoid arching your lower back as you extend your arms above your head.
- Squeeze your lat muscles and pull yourself back to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: The farther forward you roll out from your body, the harder the move will be. So shorten your range of motion if need be.
Sets and Reps: Perform two to four sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Benefits of the Ab Rollout
- This move develops immense strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position.
- You’ll gain increased muscle development, as the exercise challenges you during both the lowering and lifting phases.
- The ab rollout will help you build muscle, control, and stability.
The plank is a classic core move that involves holding the top of a push-up position — either on your hands or on your forearms — for time. The tension created by flexing the abs to keep your back straight is immense.
The weighted plank is a more advanced variation that increases the difficulty by adding more downward force to the exercise.
How to Do the Weighted Plank
- Assume a plank position, with your hands or forearms on the floor.
- Align your hips and shoulders so that you’re as parallel to the floor as can be.
- Squeeze your glutes and quads, bearing down on your core from all sides.
- Have a spotter place a weight plate under your shoulder blades. Press your arms, hard, into the floor and hold this position for time.
Coach’s Tip: Continue to breathe steadily and as deeply as you can throughout your isometric hold.
Sets and Reps: Start with a small weight plate and practice weighted holds until you can perform them for 60 seconds or more. Progress up in weight as needed, performing two to three sets of 30 to 90 seconds.
Benefits of the Weighted Plank
- This move gives you more isometric strength, which helps keep the spine neutral during moves like squats, deadlifts, and snatches.
- You’ll gain a better ability to brace, by tightening your stomach muscles and lower back to stay rigid during heavy lifts. The weighted plank teaches how to brace harder and for longer.
- The weighted plank teaches better spinal positioning. The neutral position of a plank will carry over to your other lifts.
The hollow hold calls for you to balance on your butt, with your legs a few inches off the floor and your arms over your head. Extending the arms and legs away from the body (and the center of mass) decreases your stability so your abs must work harder to keep you upright.
Similar to the plank, the hollow hold builds isometric strength and anti-rotational strength, enhancing a lifter’s understanding and ability to create tension under load. Adding a rocking motion to it creates even more instability and therefore recruits more of the core. Master the hold first before trying the hollow rock.
How to Do the Hollow Hold
- Lie on your back with arms extended overhead and legs pressed together.
- Lift your legs and upper torso off the floor.
- Hold this position.
- To perform the hollow rock, simply rock back and forth in this position, minimizing movement at the hip and shoulder joints.
Coach’s Tip: When doing a hollow rock, move under control. Avoid letting momentum do the work for you.
Sets and Reps: Perform two to four sets of 15 to 45-second hollow holds. When adding hollow rocks, perform three to five sets of 10 to 20 rocks back and forth.
Benefits of the Hollow Hold
- You’ll build more anti-rotational strength, which will help prevent you from twisting while lifting.
- This move yields improved isometric strength, so the body can handle heavier loads.
- The core coordination you’ll gain from the hollow hold means you’ll be better at gymnastic-style moves like ring dips, muscle-ups, and handstand pushups.
The pallof press is as practical as a core exercise gets. You’re standing for starters, so the ab strength you build in this position has more carryover to exercises like overhead presses, cleans, and squats. The Pallof is done by holding a taut band at chest level and pressing it away from the torso. As you press the band, it will pull the torso toward the anchor point. Fight the urge to twist to improve anti-rotational strength.
You can perform this move standing or kneeling, and rotate with the band or press it overhead. The Pallof press will increase your core stability, anti-rotational strength, and improve postural positioning.
How to Do the Pallof Press
- Loop a light band around a pole or power rack at chest level.
- Stand perpendicular to the band, grab it in both hands, and take a few steps sideways until the band is taut.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and then extend your arms forward. Do not let your torso or hips twist.
Coach’s Tip: When selecting a weight, make sure it’s heavy enough to be challenging but not so heavy that you can’t keep your shoulders and hips level and stacked.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
Benefits of the Pallof Press
- It’s versatile and can be used in a variety of ways to prime your body to perform athletic and dynamic movements.
- You’ll gain increased anti-rotational strength, which will neutralize any shearing forces on the spine and mitigate injury during higher-intensity exercise.
- This move develops more postural awareness, as you focus on keeping your spine neutral and chest up during the move. This improved posture will carry over to all lifts and everyday life.
The L-sit is a popular gymnastic move that forces the core to stabilize the body as it’s suspended off the ground with the legs out in front. If you’ve never attempted these before, start slowly, and gradually your skills and strength will increase.
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It requires balance, strength, and patience. This is an advanced move that will require a truly full-body effort, so it’s both a test of core strength and a move that will dramatically improve core strength.
How to Do the L-Sit
- Sit between two dumbbells or kettlebells and place each hand on a handle.
- Drive your body off the floor and steadily extend your legs.
- Hold yourself up isometrically, keeping tension in the middle and upper back.
Coach’s Tip: To make the exercise easier, tuck your legs closer to your body. You can also tap your feet down to rest when you need to. To make the L-sit more difficult, raise your legs higher off of the ground.
Sets and Reps: Perform two to three sets to failure with at least a minute’s rest in between.
Benefits of the L-Sit
- You’ll bolster your full-body strength as you resist gravity and rotational forces.
- This move requires a great deal of isometric strength and stimulates tremendous abdominal strength and stability.
- The L-sit strengthens the core and prepares lifters and gymnastic athletes for more rigorous core strengthening and athletic movements.
The sit-up is a classic bodyweight exercise done by lifters of any experience level and with zero equipment. This move primarily targets the rectus abdominis (six-pack) and will help to grow the muscles for better definition.
It’s reliable, easy to learn, and effective. What more do you want from an exercise? Just make sure you’re moving with your legs rather than your hips flexors. And whatever you do, don’t yank up from your neck.
How to Perform the Sit-Up
- Lie flat on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your hands across your chest.
- Contract your abs to pull your torso up to your knees.
- Squeeze your core at the top and slowly descend back down.
Coach’s Tip: Truly contract your abs at the start of each rep. You want to avoid yanking up your neck or shoulders. Let your core, rather than your shoulders or neck, lead the movement.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 20 to 30 reps.
Benefits of the Sit-Up
- You can pump out many sit-up reps, so it’s an excellent choice for creating muscular tension and building up your abs.
- This is a relatively simple exercise to learn.
- It requires zero equipment to do a sit-up, so you can perform it anywhere you are getting a workout in.
Like the sit-up, the hanging knee raise is a beginner- and intermediate-friendly exercise that requires minimal equipment and is excellent for increasing the ab muscles’ size. It’s also very scalable — you can straighten your legs or hold a dumbbell between your knees to make the move harder.
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How to Do the Hanging Knee Raise
- Hang from a pull-up bar with a slightly wider grip than shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your shoulder blades back and down.
- Press your legs together and pull your knees up to chest height without using momentum.
- Unfurl and return to the starting position with slow control.
Coach’s Tip: To minimize swinging, maintain consistent tension in your core and upper back.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets to failure.
Benefits of the Hanging Knee Raise
- You’ll gain more torso coordination and overall body control.
- The hanging knee raise will build your grip strength along with your core stability, strength, and full-body coordination.
- It’s scalable. The hanging knee raise can be swapped for more challenging movements like the toes-to-bar, strict leg raises, and L-sit, as it requires a lifter to lift less of their body weight.
The medicine ball slam is an explosive core exercise that builds core strength, power, and stamina all at once. This exercise has a wide array of applications and can be done in various ways from a myriad of positions.
Generally, medicine ball slams are done before a workout, to prime the central nervous system pre-workout, or after a training session as a full-body finisher.
How to Do the Medicine Ball Slam
- Grab a rubber medicine ball, stand tall, and raise it overhead.
- Maintaining a tight core, powerfully pull the ball and toes downwards.
- Slam the ball into the floor.
Coach’s Tip: To generate extra power, rise onto your tiptoes as you bring the ball overhead before the slam.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Benefits of the Medicine Ball Slam
- This move will help you build dynamic core stability and power.
- The medicine ball slam combines core training with metabolic fitness for a powerful combination of core development and cardiovascular fitness.
- It’s an explosive way to develop power without the high impact of jumping.
The toes-to-bar is, far and away, one of the most advanced, explosive movements you can do to build your core. Instead of bringing your knees to chest level, this exercise has you — as the name implies — touch your toes to the bar.
To do so requires immense grip strength, core control, and core strength. CrossFit athletes may kip on this exercise to create momentum to get their toes up and over.
How to Do the Toes-to-Bar
- Grab a bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, and press your legs together.
- Pull your body backward away from the bar as you pull your knees and ankles upwards towards the bar.
- As your toes meet the bar overhead, stay in line with your midline and lower the legs in the same path.
Coach’s Tip: With many core moves, you want to avoid momentum — but you can embrace momentum here. Just make sure you’re using your core to initiate the movement and control the descent.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets to failure.
Benefits of the Toes-to-Bar
- This advanced core exercise challenges the rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexors to a high degree, making it a good movement for hypertrophy and strength.
- You’ll develop more midline stability, which is a must when performing both strict and kipping toes-to-bar.
- Aside from strengthening the core, the toes-to-bar can improve grip and lat strength due to the lifter having to secure themselves to the bar for long periods.
The stability ball crunch trains this ab flexion without a lot of lower back involvement — great news for isolating your abs. Performing crunches on a stability ball increases the activation of your core stabilizers, which can help provide greater resilience against injury. (1)
Adding weight further strengthens and builds muscle in your abs. The beauty of this exercise is that the difficulty can be easily turned up or down to prioritize strength or muscle growth.
How to Do the Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
- Lie on a stability ball with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The ball should be directly under your hips and lower back.
- Hold a weight at your chest for an additional challenge.
- Crunch your torso forward until your mid-back comes off the ball.
- Hold briefly at the top before slowly returning to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid cranking your neck or yanking upward with your shoulders. Focus on contracting your abdominal muscles to initiate the ascent and control the descent.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 25 to 30 reps.
Benefits of the Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
- This move trains flexion with resistance while keeping the low back in a neutral and safe position.
- The stability ball engages more ab muscles than performing crunches on the floor.
- This exercise helps improve your overall balance.
The suitcase carry has all benefits of farmer’s carries, but this version reduces grip imbalances between your hands.
When performing this variation, your obliques must work hard to resist your torso flexing to one side, making the suitcase carry an excellent choice for training anti-flexion in the trunk — something you need to both develop a six-pack and pull a heavy deadlift.
How to Do the Suitcase Carry
- Select a weight that’s about 25 percent of your body weight.
- Pick up the weight, squeeze the handle, and make sure your shoulders are not tilting to one side or the other.
- Walk slowly in a straight line, putting one foot in front of the other. Your opposing arm can be kept at your side or held out for balance.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure your shoulders aren’t hiking up or down and that your torso isn’t leaning to one side or the other. Checking your posture in the mirror is helpful here.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 30 to 45-second carries per side.
Benefits of the Suitcase Carry
- This move tremendously strengthens your grip.
- The unilateral load forces your core to engage and resist offset movement, which is hugely important for sports performance.
- Fighting the temptation to tilt from one side to the other will develop tremendous coordination along with that core strength.
Carries can take up a lot of space and some gyms don’t have room for you to carry heavy weights. This is where the trap bar figure-eight carry comes in.
Walking in a big “figure-eight” pattern allows you to get yards in a limited space, and the trap bar makes turns easier as it places less rotational torque on your lower back than dumbbells. With more loading potential than other carry variations, you’ll increase your grip, ab, and conditioning gains.
How to Do the Trap Bar Figure-Eight Carry
- Deadlift the trap bar to a standing position.
- Take slow and controlled steps in a figure-eight pattern and be deliberate and slow about your turns.
- Keep your chest up and shoulders locked back and down to maintain good posture.
- When you feel your grip failing, lower the weight back down to the floor under control.
Coach’s Tip: Take a moment to stabilize the weight after you stand up from your deadlift. This will set you up for success.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 30 to 45-second carries.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Figure-Eight Carry
- The trap bar allows for a much higher loading potential to further improve your grip strength.
- Your abs will have to work overtime to keep your body stable and centered in the middle of the bar.
- Performing a carry in this way allows you to maximize your work with minimal space.
This move might be a common addition to ab training programs, but don’t be fooled by its popularity. The side plank is tough to pull off. While it is certainly a more accessible exercise than others on this list, you might have to deploy some modifications to make it even more doable for you.
If you need to, stack one foot in front of the other instead of putting your feet on top of each other. In the instance that your arms are very long or your hands don’t tolerate direct pressure, you can opt to perform this move while resting on your forearm. Grab an exercise mat for this one.
How to Do the Side Plank
- Lean on your side and place one forearm or hand on the ground underneath the corresponding shoulder.
- Stack one foot on top of or in front of the other.
- Press your hips up toward the ceiling, maintaining a line between your shoulders and your hips as much as possible.
- Breathe slowly and deeply, holding the position for a set period. Switch sides and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid holding your breath and continually press your hips upward throughout the exercise.
Sets and Reps: Perform two to four sets of 20 to 45-second holds per side.
Benefits of the Side Plank
- This isometric exercise will train you to maintain your hip position under tension, which can translate into a much more stable core.
- You’ll strengthen your oblique muscles.
- The side plank will reveal and can help reduce any strength or stability imbalances between sides.
Side planks are great because they train the quadratus lumborum, a muscle that plays an important role in lower back health and support. But sometimes, you want to spice up your side plank.
Adding a rotational element makes the exercise more dynamic, increasing overall muscular recruitment. This dynamic aspect will challenge your balance even more, recruiting even more core stabilizer muscles to help keep you from tipping over.
How to Do the Side Plank With Rotation
- Set up in a side plank, forming a straight line from shoulder to foot.
- Extend your opposite arm up above your shoulder.
- Rotate your torso downward by reaching under your body, with your gaze following your hand. Repeat for reps.
Coach’s Tip: If necessary, stagger your feet with one foot slightly ahead of the other to form a more stable base.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
Benefits of the Side Plank With Rotation
- Side planks with rotation strengthen the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors, which play an important role in strengthening the spine and pelvis area.
- This move creates a more stable and stiffer core which is better able to transfer power from your lower to your upper body.
- Lateral core moves like side planks are great for stabilizing the spine if you’re recovering from a low back injury.
If you want to build ab strength, you’ll need to add instability to the mix. The stability ball stir-the-pot accomplishes this and more. It trains anti-extension, glute strength, and anti-rotation while in a plank position.
The stability ball recruits more muscle units without an increase in load due to greater activation of the core muscles. (2) That means that you’ll be getting a lot more bang for your buck.
How to Do the Stability Ball Stir-the-Pot
- Assume a plank position with your forearms resting on the stability ball.
- Create semi-circles with your arms for reps in one direction.
- Perform the same amount of reps in the opposite direction.
Coach’s Tip: Maintain a strong plank throughout this move. Do not allow your hips to sag.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps per side.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Stir-the-Pot
- Plank variations on the stability ball engage more muscles to stay balanced as opposed to planks on the ground. (3)
- This move trains anti-extension, anti-rotation, and glute strength in a single exercise.
- The stability ball stir-the-pot makes for a great accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.
The offset nature of the kettlebell combined with the dead bug movement places extra demand on your core, shoulders, and lats. The dead bug pullover lets you challenge your abs with progressive weight and time under tension.
How to Do the Dead Bug Pullover
- Lie on your back holding a kettlebell by the horns over your chest with arms extended.
- Lift your legs off of the ground and bend them at 90 degrees.
- Press your low back into the ground, taking a deep breath in before you start.
- Exhale while simultaneously extending one leg and lowering the kettlebell overhead until it gently touches the floor.
- Reverse the movement and then reset repeat with the other leg, making sure your lower back stays pressed into the ground.
Coach’s Tip: Press your lower back into the ground the entire time to maximize core activation.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 15 reps per side.
Benefits of the Dead Bug Pullover
- This move improves your body’s ability to stabilize your hips, abs, and lower back, which plays an important role in overall core function.
- Since you’re lying on the ground, you’ll largely prevent misalignment and encourage good posture.
- The dead bug pullover requires both isometric and dynamic strength, which is essential for building a powerful, stable core.
This is not your everyday front plank. The RKC plank looks the same as a regular plank, but with a few tweaks to create a swell of full-body tension. You’ll actively press your arms and hands into the floor, squeeze your quads, and pull your elbows and toes toward each other.
You should only be able to hold this plank for just 10 to 20 seconds when you’re performing it right. If you feel like you can go much longer than that, you’re probably not squeezing hard enough.
How to Do the RKC Plank
- Start in a plank position on your elbows.
- Clench your fists hard and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Squeeze your quads to lock your knees and your glutes to lock your hips as hard as you can.
- Contract your whole body as if you were trying to compress yourself into a ball.
- Take deep, measured breaths, and use them as your rep count. Hit five to start.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t rush your breathing to get through the movement faster. If you can only hold the position for a couple of breaths, that’s okay. Build up from there instead of rushing.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of five to 10 slow, deep breaths.
Benefits of the RKC Plank
- The entire core region works as a unit to create tension which improves your overall strength.
- This move strengthens the deep ab muscles that surround the spine and core which improves your ability to keep your spine neutral under load.
- You’ll learn to focus on breathing during intense muscular contractions, a skill that will carry over into big barbell lifts.
Kneeling is an excellent tool for developing core strength. You’ll have to balance on your knees, which is often a great deal trickier than standing on your feet with a wider base of support. Half-kneeling takes those advantages to a whole new level.
Although cable rows are typically considered a back exercise, this one warrants inclusion here because you’ll be performing it in a half-kneeling position. This makes for an excellent balance challenge that will recruit your core stabilizers and force you to resist rotation while preventing yourself from tipping over.
How to Do the Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row
- Assume a half-kneeling position by placing one knee on the ground and one foot out in front of you with both knees bent at 90 degrees. Face a cable machine.
- Grab a D-handle and reestablish a neutral spine with your arm extended, allowing the cable to pull you forward slightly. Keep your shoulders and hips level, resisting that pull forward and sideways.
- Take a deep breath in. On the exhale, row the handle toward your body.
- Slowly return the handle to starting position. Repeat for reps evenly on both sides.
Coach’s Tip: Focus on stability from all angles. Avoid leaning forward or backward, but also make sure you’re not shifting from side to side.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps per side.
Benefits of the Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Row
- By doing a row in a half-kneeling position, you’re requiring your abs to prevent you from rotating or shifting while also helping your body stay upright.
- Performing this move with one arm at a time forces your core to work overtime at keeping you from tipping over.
- Doing this move will also challenge your back, which is also an important part of your core development.
Performing a renegade row properly often looks easier than it is. It will be tempting to hike your shoulders up and back, leaning up and over to your left if you’re performing a row with your right arm (and vice versa). But the name of the game here is stability.
Yes, the movement is dynamic in that you’re performing unilateral rows. But the only thing that should be moving is one arm at a time. Your shoulders and hips should stay level and squared throughout your movement. This makes the renegade row a spectacular challenge for your core.
How to Do the Renegade Row
- Assume a push-up position while holding a pair of dumbbells underneath your shoulders.
- Squeeze your glutes and quads, making sure your shoulders and hips are in alignment. Your hips should be neither sinking nor shooting up toward the sky.
- With control and without shifting your shoulders, row one dumbbell. Slowly lower it down.
- Reestablish your starting position. You can complete all your reps on one side at a time, or you can alternate.
Coach’s Tip: Push down into your non-moving hand for added stability while you row. This will also increase tension throughout your body, which is precisely what you want here.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
Benefits of the Renegade Row
- Doing a renegade row requires you to stay in plank position throughout your reps, which increases your time under tension.
- With each rep, you’ll have to resist overcompensating and swaying to the opposite side. This helps build tremendous anti-rotational strength and control.
- The core stability required for this movement carries over into big barbell movements like squats and deadlifts.
Planks can be difficult enough. Adding a banded pull to the mix ups the ante and makes your core work harder than ever. You’ll be challenging your abs to resist both extension and rotation as you fight to keep your hips level and your shoulders from rotating with each pull.
You’ll also be giving your back and shoulders a bit of a workout, as they will be responsible for pulling and keeping your body in a stable position. Make sure you choose a lighter resistance band while you’re getting the hang of this movement. You’ll likely want to teach yourself the exercise without weight at first.
How to Do the Banded Plank Pull
- Attach and secure a resistance band around a low anchor, such as the leg of a squat rack or power rack. The band should be secured around where your shoulder height is when you’re in a push-up position.
- Assume a high plank or push-up position on your hands in front of your anchor. You should be far enough away that when you pick up the resistance band, there’s some tension (but not maximal tension) provided by the band.
- Grab onto the end of the resistance band with your arm extended. Slowly row the band back toward your body, stopping when you reach your full range of motion.
- With control, let the band return to starting position. Repeat for reps evenly on both sides.
Coach’s Tip: Imagine putting your elbow into your back pocket as you row. Keep your shoulders tucked down and away from your ears.
Sets and Reps: Do three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
Benefits of the Banded Plank Pull
- You’ll maintain a plank position throughout the exercise, adding extra time under tension.
- This move requires you to fight to maintain your postural integrity throughout the movement, increasing both your core strength and full-body coordination.
- The banded plank pull engages your upper back at the same time as your core, giving you more bang for your buck.
There are two dimensions to warming up your abs. The first is priming your core for compound movements like the squat and deadlift. To do that, integrate a few of these bodyweight exercises into your regular warm-up routine. While warming up to deadlift, for example, toss some light dead bug pullovers and side planks into the mix.
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The other aspect of warming up your abs is preparing yourself for a core-specific workout. While it might be tempting to dive into the full intensity of an ab workout right away, take your time easing into each exercise.
Think about ramp-up sets with the squat. Even if you can squat four plates, you’ll still want to perform warm-up sets with an empty barbell to solidify the movement pattern and signal to your body and brain what kind of work you’re about to do. Use a similar approach with your ab routine, as follows:
- RKC Plank: Perform one 30-second regular plank first to warm up and prepare your body for an RKC plank.
- Dead Bug Pullover: Do a 10-rep bodyweight exercise version of this movement first, followed by a 10-rep set with a lighter weight than what you will use for your working sets.
- Side Plank With Rotation: Perform a 20-second side plank on each side before adding a rotation to the mix.
- Renegade Row: Simulate the movement without weight for eight to 10 reps on each side before adding weight.
How to Train Your Abs
Working out your abs may seem like a straightforward endeavor. Get on the ground, crank out some sit-ups, and call it a day. You can do that, technically. But if you’re looking to maximize your gains, you want to be just as intentional with your ab training as you are with other aspects of your training.
Ab Exercise Selection
When you’re choosing which ab exercises to do, ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the goal of training your abs today? This question will dictate which moves you choose and how heavily to load them.
- Are you priming your core for bigger compound lifts? In that case, select exercises that favor stability in the face of instability, like the dead bug pullover and the Pallof press.
- Are you doing an ab-specific workout? Prioritize more difficult exercises first — which require more energy — just as you do with programming your regular strength training. RKC planks and toes-to-bar will come before the relatively less intense side plank or stability ball stir-the-pot, for example.
Ab Sets and Reps
In general, when you’re training your abs, you’ll work in higher rep ranges. Performing 10 reps of an ab exercise is generally on the low-rep end of the spectrum when an exercise is more challenging for you or you’re using a heavy load. With bodyweight exercises that feel more manageable to you, opt for higher rep ranges, sometimes exceeding 20 or 30 reps.
Use the way your body feels as a gauge for how many reps to do. If you’re not “feeling” it after 20 reps, consider progressing the movement with weight.
Many ab exercises emphasize time rather than a specific number of reps. In those cases, you can often perform movements to failure, or near failure. Start with lower periods (around 15 to 30 seconds) and build up from there. Add about five seconds per training session, depending on how your body is feeling.
Ab Training Tips
Training your abs isn’t only about doing crunches — although crunches can be a worthy part of a powerful ab routine. Here, learn how to maximize the potential of your core. The rest of your training will follow.
Prioritize Your Core
In many ways, working out your abs is just like working out any other muscle group. Not treating your abs that way is where many lifters go wrong. Instead of treating your core like an afterthought and tacking ab work onto the end of a tough workout, consider training them when you’re fresh or on their own day.
At the very least, ensure that you’re integrating significant ab training into your warm-ups. This will get your body ready for powerful core braces that will come in handy during heavy lifts. But it’s also useful for strengthening your abs for their own benefit.
Think in 360-Degrees
It’s not enough to just focus on flexion (as with crunches and sit-ups). Programming your core work while thinking about your abs from every angle is a crucial part of building powerful force transmitters in your torso.
Make sure you’re integrating anti-rotational moves like Pallof presses and suitcase carries. Incorporate rotations with side planks with rotation, and train anti-extension with all manner of planks. Pepper in plenty of isometric exercises to train yourself to breathe through tension in your core, and add weight wherever and whenever you can.
Add explosive movements — think medicine ball slams and toes-to-bar — to make your ab training shine.
Focus on Alignment
Sloppy form is where ab training goes to dwindle. With every ab exercise that you do, maintain a sharp focus on form. Consistently ask yourself if your hips are squared, if your torso is tilting to one side or the other, and if your shoulders are packed back and down.
In most cases, you’ll have to move slowly and with control. So make sure each contraction is coming from your abdominals, focusing on visualizing your ab movements instead of yanking your shoulders or hip flexors into position.
Benefits of Training Your Abs
Forging a strong set of abs isn’t just about a six-pack — though that might be important to physique-oriented athletes. Building up strength in your abs is also a highly functional addition to any strength training or functional fitness program.
Boost Spinal Stability
Squats, presses, pulls, and other loaded movements all require spinal stability to prevent the athlete from experiencing a severe injury like a slipped disc or muscle tear. A strong core allows an athlete to stay rigid under immense pressure from loaded barbells.
Of course, strong abs cannot guarantee an injury-free training experience. However, the more spinal stability you have, the more resilient your body is likely to be against injury while you’re training under heavy loads.
Strengthen Barbell Lifts
Yes, deadlifts and squats alone will improve your core strength. But if you want to bring your compound lifts to the next level to hit your next one-rep max, a core-specific workout routine is non-negotiable.
Athletes who want to heft heavy barbells have to develop strong abs. They will help you hold a strong, effective core brace and ensure that you’re transmitting force as efficiently as possible from your body through the barbell. That translates into more effective, heavier lifting.
Improve Functional Fitness
If you have a weak core, it’s going to be harder to go about your activities of daily living. Even going for walks requires your abs to be strong to help you maintain good posture and prevent unnecessary and potentially pain-inducing swaying.
Whether you’re looking to play with your kids or carry an uneven load of groceries into the apartment, a strong set of abs will likely make these activities a whole lot easier.
Anatomy of the Abs
Your core contains multiple muscles, and understanding what they are and how they work is important in obtaining a stronger, better-looking midsection. Here’s a breakdown of the major core muscles.
The rectus abdominis is often the core muscle most people refer to when they say “abs.” It visibly runs vertically up the front of the torso and is responsible for spinal flexion. This muscle group is often the most targeted when people train their core and can be very resilient to fatigue in more advanced lifters and athletes.
Obliques (Internal and External)
The obliques run diagonally (in both directions) along the torso’s sides and are responsible for rotational force output and resisting rotational stress on the spine. Movements like throwing, chopping, running, and even most conventional squats all require the obliques to stabilize the pelvis and spine.
The transverse abdominis is a deeper muscle group that helps to stabilize the core and spinal structures. These muscles can be targeted by planks, holds, and other total-body movements that require overall control and stability of the torso (loaded carries, total-body strength lifts, etc.). Developing a strong transverse abdominis can help increase your overall core strength and functionality in most movements.
Your spinal erectors are located on your lower back and balance out the other core muscles to create symmetry and muscle balance throughout the core. While not technically “abdominal” muscles, they’re intimately connected to training your abs, since they give your core a three-dimensional context and support.
More Ab Training Tips
Training your core is an essential part of any good strength training program. You’ll want to load up some lifts nice and heavy while keeping others all about manipulating your body weight and challenging yourself to hold an isometric contraction for as long as you can. A strong core will pay off in spades with your big barbell exercises.
Now that you have a handle on the best ab exercises to power up your core, dive into the nitty gritty of keeping your abs — and your overall program — as strong as possible.
- Core Training for Olympic Weightlifters and Fitness Athletes
- Should You Train Your Core Daily?
- The Best Bodybuilding Ab Workout for Your Experience Level
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