Do you want a stronger core and athletic-looking abs?
Crunches are the go-to ab move for most people, but they’re terrible for achieving a six-pack.
For one thing, crunches only train your abs in one dimension: flexion and extension (forward/back).
For another, people often rush through the movement without getting a proper abdominal contraction. Crunches are best done slowly, with control, and with a full exhale at the top of the movement. Even when done correctly, they’re not the best exercise for strengthening your abs.
Here are the top five ab exercises missing from your workout routine:
1. Plank-based bodyweight movements
Push ups, pull ups, and basic plank holds are amazing for core training. They’re a great place to start your ab routine because they teach you to contract your core, and to keep it contracted while moving your arms to pull/push your body weight.
To perform a proper push up: Set up in a high plank position, hands directly beneath your shoulders, feet together, abs and butt squeezed tight. Bend at your elbows, keeping them tucked, and lower your chest to the floor. Your chest should be the first thing to hit the ground. If your hips touch down first, you’ll know your back is arching. Correct this by pulling your ribs down and squeezing your glutes tighter. When your chest hits the ground, aggressively push the floor away and return to the starting position.
If you’re unable to work through the full range of motion (chest to floor), perform elevated push ups with your hands on a box until you build up strength to do them on the floor. If full ROM push ups are easy for you, try decline push ups with your feet on a box or bench
Pull ups are a challenging bodyweight movement: Begin by hanging from a pull up bar with active shoulders. This means you should pull down against the bar so that your shoulders do not shrug up to your ears. Squeeze your abs and butt, and point your toes. Initiate the pull up by driving your elbows down to the floor until your chin clears the bar.
If you cannot do a full pull up, secure a resistance band to the pull up bar and stand in it for assistance until you build up strength. You can also use an assisted pull up machine, but be sure to control the movement on the way up and down, and keep your core engaged throughout the movement.
2. Front squats
Yes, squats are a full body movement, not an ab exercise. But when you front-load the movement with weights, you force your abs to work to maintain an upright torso.
Start with goblet squats: hold a kettle bell or dumbbell against your chest, elbows tucked and pointed down, shoulders pulled down and back. Descend into the bottom of the squat while driving your knees out. Your elbows should be between your knees. Drive your heels through the floor and squeeze your glutes as you stand up straight.
Progress from goblet squats to barbell front squats once you’ve gained strength in the movement.
3. Stability Ball Ab Rollouts
You’ve seen the “Ab Roller” on late night infomercials, and while the commercials (and product) are cheesy, the exercise itself is not. It involves maintaining a strong abdominal contraction to resist spinal flexion and extension. In laymen’s terms, you want to fire your abs to prevent your back from rounding or arching as you extend your arms and pull back yourself back to the starting position
There are a ton of variations of this exercise, but my favorite starting point is to use a stability ball to learn proper technique – and the ball will catch you if you fail a rep, preventing you from smacking your face on the floor.
Set up kneeling on an exercise mat to protect your knees. You should be in a “tall kneeling” position with you knees, hips, and shoulders lined up directly over each other. Squeeze your abs and butt tightly. The stability ball should be close to your body, with your hands placed on top, palms facing each other, elbows bent at ninety degrees and tucked close to your sides.
All set? Great. Lean forward, leading with your hips. Roll the ball ahead of you as far as you can with control, and use your abs to pull yourself back to the tall kneeling position without sticking your butt in the air. If you feel this exercise in your lower back, you aren’t squeezing your abs and glutes enough. Reset yourself and try again.
The diameter of the stability will dictate the difficulty of this exercise: a larger diameter is easier because you don’t have to lean as far, while a smaller diameter is more difficult. Progress this exercise to a TRX fall out, barbell roll out, or actual ab wheel roll out when your abs are strong enough.
4. Farmer Carries
This exercise is basically a walking plank. Pick up two of the heaviest weights you can hold, and walk as far as you can with them. Sounds simple, and it is! But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute. As you walk, you should maintain military-like posture. Keep your chin tucked, shoulders pulled down and back, a proud chest, tight core, and avoid swinging the weights at your sides.
Progress this exercise by holding the weight on one side. The “suitcase” carry requires even more core stability to avoid leaning over as you walk.
There are a plethora of variations of loaded carries you can test out to challenge your core in fun, new ways. Head to my Youtube channel and search “carry” to see more demo videos.
5. Anti-Rotation (Pallof) Press
The Pallof press is an anti-rotation exercise. This means that your core will be working to resist twisting as you complete the pressing movement.
Set up a band or cable pulley at chest height, grasp the handle, and step to the left or right so that your feet are parallel to the line of pull. Keeping your weight evenly distributed between both feet, square up your hips and shoulders, bend slightly at your knees, squeeze your core, and press the handle straight out from the middle of your chest without letting the band/cable pull you out of alignment.
Complete two sets of 10-12 reps on each side. A note on weight selection: you should feel the band/cable pulling you, but don’t go so heavy that you’re unable to press the handle in a straight line. This isn’t about the weight you move, but about controlling the movement.
There you have it, the top five exercises to strengthen your core and build abs of steel.
Keep in mind that “abs are made in the kitchen,” though – no matter what exercises you do, or how strong your abs are, they’ll never look their best when covered up by excess body fat. Add these exercises to your routine alongside a healthy diet for washboard abs. You can read more about the best diets for fat loss here.