9 Exercises To Unlock Your Abs
Ab Exercises: Good, Better, Best
They’re used by thousands of lifters to reach one of the fitness world’s most coveted prizes—a six pack. Gym-goers gobble up the newest ab exercises faster than creative exercise enthusiasts can make them up.
And everyone’s chasing the same thing. That special brand of burn that comes with a good ab routine and the eventual flat stomach that brings. Can the world ever have enough ab exercises? Look around at any gym and it seems impossible. But it’s an unequivocal yes. In fact, we don’t just have enough, we have way too many.
Getting Back to Basics
My good friend and fellow fit pro, Eric Bach, says this: “Success lies in ruthless execution of the basics.”
This couldn’t be more applicable to your abs. Sorry, that weird crunch variation your buddy in high school showed you isn’t really the secret to a six pack.
The real secret to success with your abs lies in ruthless execution of the basics. When it comes to ab exercises, those basics can be summed up in a single word—stability. A strong core gives you a lot more than confidence when you take your shirt off at the beach. It serves as a support system for your entire body—giving you the stability you need to look, feel, and perform your best. When people get carried away trying to do what looks cool, they stray away from the things that really gets results. The basics don’t look cool and aren’t sexy. But you know what is cool and sexy? Having a core that does more than crunches and looks amazing. And I’m about to show you a bunch of ab exercises to make that happen. But first…
There’s More to Your Core
The rectus abdominis is your six pack muscle.
It’s merely one of several muscles that make up your core, but it gets all kinds of special treatment. Countless programs, products, and infomercials focus on this one muscle.
Why does it get so much attention? Because it’s sexy and it sells. It’s the muscle you see on the cover of magazines or in the bathroom mirror. It’s the muscle you want to feel burn when you crush abs at the gym. And it’s a universal sign of fitness. Or is it? Really, all visible abs mean is that you’re lean enough to see your rectus abdominis. For some people, that happens without stepping foot in the gym, doing a single crunch, or even eating veggies. Yet we still view six-pack abs as a sign of fitness. It’s not. Having a six pack doesn’t mean you’re fit. Having a six pack doesn’t mean you’re healthy. Having a six pack doesn’t mean you’re strong. Without proper core training, you’ll never be as fit, as healthy, or as strong as you could be. Your full potential lies beyond narrow-minded ab routines. Those neglect crucial parts (read: muscles) that make up the whole. There’s more to your core than your rectus abdominis. A proper program knows this and uses it to your advantage.
TL;DR: If you’re not executing the basics and training your entire core, you’re leaving gains on the table.
Here’s what you need to fix it.
The Foundation of All Ab Exercises
Think of all these exercises as a jumping off point.
This is where you’ll train your body to use the right muscles at the right time, creating habits that’ll propel you forward. But before we get ahead of ourselves, you must master the basics. And nothing is more basic than breathing.
You’ve been breathing your entire life. But somewhere along the line you’ve probably managed to completely mess it up. It’s okay, though. Everyone does. I’ve spent hours in the gym training people on proper breathing technique. I do it because it makes a big difference. It’ll help you properly activate your core, alleviate back pain, and even relieve stress.
The key is to breathe with your diaphragm.
The problem is that most people don’t. Here’s how I like to think of it—breathe deep into your belly, not your chest. How can you tell? Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. (Seriously, follow along while you read this.) As you breathe, pay attention to which hand moves. Is it the hand on your belly? Awesome. You’re breathing with your diaphragm. Does the hand on your chest move? No worries. That means you’re in a prime position to get a ton out of these ab exercises. The key is to perform them with proper breathing and bracing. Inhale deeply to initiate tension in your core and use that tension to stabilize your entire body during the following exercises. (Note: the same principle applies to these and every other exercise. Creating tension and a solid base will instantly make you stronger.)
Good Ab Exercises
Lay flat on your stomach, resting your forehead on the back of your hands. Take a deep breath in and focus on pushing your belly button into the floor. As you inhale, pay attention to how it feels. If you’re doing it correctly, your belly will expand, push against the ground, and your lower back will rise. Exhale powerfully, yet controlled, through pursed lips. Pay attention again as you breathe out. Feel the muscles around your stomach tighten as you exhale as much air as possible. Take 15–20 deep breaths per set.
These are listed together because they are basically the same exact thing, just on opposite sides. For Deadbugs, lay on your back with hands in line with your shoulders and knees bent to 90 degrees directly above your hips. (Think 90-degree angles at the hips and the knees.) Take a big, diaphragmatic breath in. While breathing out through pursed lips, move your opposite arm and leg down until your heel and fingertips touch the ground. (Important note: straighten your leg as you descend. Your leg should be straight at the bottom of your deadbug.) Continue breathing out while you reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Be sure to keep your lower back from arching during deadbugs. Think about keeping it flat on the floor the entire time. Perform five repetitions before switching sides. I usually recommend three sets on each side.
For Bird Dogs, get into a quadruped position (on all fours with your hands right below your shoulders and your knees right below your hips). A bird dog is essentially the same movement as a deadbug. Take a big, diaphragmatic breath in. While breathing out through pursed lips, move your opposite arm and leg up until they are in line with your body. (Again, straighten your leg as it rises. Your leg should be straight at the top of the bird dog.) Continue breathing out while you reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Be sure to keep tension in your core to maintain stability during your bird dogs. Perform five repetitions before switching sides. I usually recommend three sets on each side.
Get into a quadruped position (on all fours with your hands right below your shoulders and your knees right below your hips). Take a diaphragmatic breath to create tension. Exhale as you slowly bring one hand across the body to tap the opposite shoulder. Continue breathing out while you return to the starting position. Focus on creating tension and moving slowly. To progress the movement, float the knees. Set up in the same quadruped position. But instead of having your knees on the ground, have them hovering just above the ground and support your weight on your toes. Be sure your floating knees remain below your hips (remember, 90-degree angles). Having your knees off the ground will increase instability, causing your core to work that much harder. Again, go slowly and focus on creating tension in the core to keep your hips from rotating during the shoulder tap. Perform 5–10 repetitions on each side. I usually recommend three sets.
Better Ab Exercises
High Tension Planks
Odds are you’ve heard of planks before.
Maybe you’ve even given them a try. They’re one of the most popular ab exercises out there. But high tension planks are a bit different (and super effective).
The set up is much like a conventional plank. You’ll be face-down, supported by your forearms and toes. But instead of having your elbows directly below your shoulders, I want you to move them up a bit. (The higher they move, the harder the plank will be. Because science. So find your sweet spot.) Then, create tension. Squeeze your quads and glutes, take a tension-building diaphragmatic breath, and think about trying to pull your elbows and toes through the ground. Those feels? That’s tension and a lot of it. It’s also exactly what we’re looking for. Hold this for about 20 seconds with maximal effort. Then rest. Do 3–5 sets.
Crawling is a lot like shoulder taps, but you move. Set up in your quadruped position with knees on the ground. Take a diaphragmatic breath and create tension. Then, while you exhale, slowly and simultaneously move opposite hand and knee forward. Switch sides and crawl forward ~10 yards. Then, go backward. Try to exaggerate how slowly you move and how much tension you maintain during your crawl. Avoid looking back when you go in reverse—keep your eyes forward for the entire movement. This is a child’s crawl.
To progress it, float the knees. Just like you would during shoulder taps, float your knees in a quadruped position. Then, take a diaphragmatic breath and slowly move opposite hand and foot to crawl forward. Again, go slowly, create tension, and crawl for ~10 yards before you go in reverse. Make sure you keep your knees low and your back flat. Also, don’t let your body rotate. Create stability with your core. This is a bear crawl. Perform one continuous minute of child’s crawls followed by one continuous minute of bear crawls.
I see Russian twists all the time.
They’re a fantastic core exercise when performed correctly. But most of the time they’re not done effectively.
Remember, the core is there to stabilize, not mobilize. Here’s how to fix your Russian twists: The set up is essentially identical. While holding a medicine ball or weight close to your chest, you’ll balance on your tailbone with a straight back and bent knees. Usually, you’ll see people twist back and forth to tap the medicine ball on the ground. Don’t. Instead, quickly move the medicine ball back and forth. Keep the movement quick and small (no need to go wider than your knees). Think of it almost like sprinting in place. The quick movement of the weight creates instability, which requires core activity to stabilize. It’s more effective, takes less time, and keeps your lower back happier than the traditional twist and tap method. It’s also a great exercise for metabolic circuits. Because it’s hard to count reps with such a quick movement, I recommend timed sets. A few sets of 20 seconds are a good place to start.
Best Ab Exercises
Offset Weighted Carries
Weighted carries—and their many variations—are right near the top of my favorite exercises list.
In general, weighted carries require an active core. That core activation gets kicked into high gear during an offset weighted carry.
To do it, you’ll set up like a normal farmer’s walk. Deadlift your weights off the ground, brace the core, and squeeze the weight like you mean it. Slowly walk forward, slightly pinching your shoulder blades, keeping chest tall, and eyes forward. (I like thinking about trying to touch the top of my head to the ceiling.) But instead of carrying equal weight in each hand, use weights that vary by ~5–10 pounds. So maybe you’ve got 60 pounds in your right hand and 50 pounds in your left hand. To make up for the imbalanced weight, your core has to work extra hard. Make sure you brace hard, keep your shoulders square, and avoiding leaning while you walk. Don’t forget to switch sides each set to keep everything balanced. With sets of weighted carries, either go for a specific distance or time. Perform 4–6 sets and keep it even on each side.
The first time I saw these I chuckled to myself about at how easy they looked.
When I did my first set, I stopped chuckling. And hollow rocks quickly became one of my favorite ab exercises.
Setting up starts from your back. Lay down and press your lower back into the ground by tightening your core. Maintaining that tension, bring your shoulder blades and legs off the ground. Your lower back should be your only point of contact with the ground. Keep your legs straight and arms extended above your head. This is the hollow body position. Holding a hollow position is an ab exercise in and of itself. But wait. There’s more. After getting set up, you’re ready to rock. Keeping your body in the hollow position, rock forward and backward in a controlled fashion. When you rock forward, your heels should come as close to the floor as possible without touching. And when you rock backward, your shoulders should merely kiss the ground. It’s important that your body stays rigid as you rock. Brace hard and use your core to keep perfectly still. Rocking forth and back is one rep. Shoot for a few sets of 10–20 depending on your strength level.
If Rocky did it, it must be good, right?
(Except for maybe chugging eggs. Because salmonella.)
Dragon flags are, hands down, the most difficult on this list of ab exercises. The tension is insane. The stability required is ridiculous. And feeling like you’re the Italian Stallion training in a remote corner of Russia is awesome. But they’re hard and, if performed poorly, could bother your lower back. Let’s avoid that. It all starts with a good anchor. I’ve used poles, support beams, squat racks, and even small trees. You need anything that isn’t going to move. Set up lying down on your back with the anchor above your head and grip it like you mean it. Using the anchor for leverage, keep your shoulder blades planted and get your the rest of your body vertical. That’s your starting position.
Bending at the knees or hips is fine as you get set up, but once you’re up, it’s time to create tension. Point your toes, extend your knees, keep the glutes tight, and brace the core. Think of trying to create a straight line from your toes to the ground. Maintain that straight line while you slowly lower your body. Get as low as you can without touching the ground—your shoulders should be the only point of contact. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. This is where it gets hard. Don’t let your form break down on the way back up. Use your core to maintain stability as your body appears to defy gravity. Rinse and repeat.
Because dragon flags are so difficult, don’t try to be a hero and bang out all of the reps. Start with low volume and work your way up as you get stronger. And don’t do them at all if you can’t maintain proper posture during the movement. That’s asking for back trouble. Start with 2–3 sets of 1–3 reps and add more over time. (Side note: I’m completely wrecked after a few sets of 5–8. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I don’t see a need to do much more volume than that.)
Ruthlessly Execute These Basic Ab Exercises
It’s time to level up.
It’s time to simplify your training and maximize your results. It’s time to get stronger and look better.
It’s time to ruthlessly execute the most basic of ab exercises and supercharge your success. Simple doesn’t always mean easy. But it does mean effective. Your core (and abs) are worth so much more than a six pack. A strong core will be like the PF Fliers Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez wore in Sandlot—guaranteed to make you run faster and jump higher. And I’ll even toss deadlift heavier, squat deeper, and look better at the beach in there as well. Get back to basics and start getting better results.
About the Author
Ben is a writer, fitness coach, entrepreneur, and founder of BENTRAINED. Simplifying the world of strength and conditioning, Ben has worked with everyone from athletes, bodybuilders, and world record-holding powerlifters to average Joes and Janes. His coaching focuses on using simple strategies to achieve optimal performance both in the gym and in life. Connect with Ben on Facebook.