Build your abs so they’ll show even if your body fat percentage creeps up. Bonus: These exercises will nail your core to boost athleticism.
When it comes to abs, diet goes a long way. But if you want visible abs that stay visible even at a higher body fat percentage, you need to build stronger, more muscular abdominals.
Some lifters don’t train their abs like other muscle groups, then wonder why they don’t see results. You don’t need 1,000 crunches per day, just like you don’t need 1,000 curls per day. And like any other muscle, you can’t just throw in a random exercise at the end of a workout and hope to get results.
What you need is ironclad ab training that hits the three core components of muscular hypertrophy:
Here are five exercises that get the job done:
A popular gymnastics move, this is an effective exercise for improving core strength and stability. It scorches the muscles of the abdomen and helps to support the spine, increasing strength and flexibility while training lower back anti-extension. In addition to demolishing your abs, holds work the glutes, hamstrings, and hips, helping to improve overall muscular coordination. Hollow body holds look simple, but they’re one hell of a challenge.
The exercise’s ability to train all these different muscles and functions makes it a great addition to your ab training.
Note: Engage your core and keep your body in a tight, hollow position throughout. Avoid arching your lower back or allowing your legs or arms to touch the ground. The longer you hold the hollow body position, the more advanced the exercise becomes.
Toes to bar raises are a next-level challenge. While often performed rapidly in CrossFit competitions, it’s more effective as an ab exercise to go slow and under control, increasing the time under tension and overall tension.
This exercise trains your entire rectus abdominis through a full range of motion. It particularly targets the notoriously difficult-to-hit “lower abs” with a hard contraction. Plus, it’ll increase core strength, improve shoulder stability and range of motion, and improve grip strength. Good for posture, too.
Note: Don’t swing or lose eccentric control on the way down. Keeping your upper body stationary and stable is what helps activate your abs. If you’re allowing your body to swing or moving too quickly through the exercise, you’re losing the tension that makes this such an effective movement.
If these are too difficult, regress the exercise by doing standard hanging leg raises.
If you’re struggling with toes to bar, program 20 hanging leg raises as part of a daily warm-up. Add 5 raises per week. After 6 weeks, your grip strength, shoulder mobility, and abs will be exponentially stronger.
As the functional folks never tire of preaching, one goal of core training is to prevent unnecessary movement through your spine. Your core must provide a stable base to transfer force between the upper and lower body. Preventing unwanted movement is crucial, as is the ability to rotate and generate force when needed.
Your core must provide a stable base to transfer force. To do that, you need anti-movements.
This exercise builds core strength but also smokes your lats and upper back. It’s also great for shoulder stability. Any ab wheel will do, like this one 190.
Note: Only bring the wheel back until it’s underneath your shoulders while keeping your core engaged. If you shift your weight back on your heels, you’ll lose tension and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.
Too easy? Progress by starting the movement from a standing position:
Suitcase carries are a brutally effective anti-lateral flexion exercise that smashes your obliques and deep stabilizers, like your quadratus lumborum.
One benefit to training your obliques with the anti-movements? You train them isometrically instead of with high-volume flexion and rotation training. This builds strong, defined obliques without building a blocky waist.
Think of this as a one-armed farmer’s walk. The form cues are the exact same, but with suitcase carries you have the added focus of not letting the offset weight create lateral flexion of the abdominals.
Suitcase deadlifts are not only a great exercise for training anti-lateral flexion, they’ll also train the hamstrings, glutes, lats, and upper back. Depending on your grip strength, mobility, and stability, you can use a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. In the video, I’m using a dumbbell, but a barbell with bumper plates is usually superior due to the height of the bar.
The dragon flag will set your abs on fire like Dragon’s Landing in the season finale of The Game of Thrones. Luckily, the pain isn’t for naught. Dragon flags build your abs, obliques, and lower back. They’ll improve your posture, balance, and stability. They also strengthen the core muscles that help support your spine and protect it from injury.
The downside? Dragon flags are very advanced. You’ll need to train them like a compound lift, using low reps and plenty of rest.
Remember, this program emphasizes your core, which means most of the exercises are going to be targeting the abs.
Split your workouts into upper and lower-body sessions. Do 3-4 big compound movements each day.
Upper-Body Days: End your workout with the three anti-movements. Start with rollouts, then dragon flags, for 3 sets of 6-10 each. (If you can’t get 6 reps yet, just do more sets of fewer reps, like 5 sets of 3.) Finish with suitcase carries for 3 sets of 30 seconds per side or do suitcase deadlifts for 3 sets of 6 reps each side. The goal to train these exercises heavier than normal ab work, hence the 10 reps or less.
Lower-Body Days: End your session with hollow body holds (3 sets of 30 seconds) and toes to bars or hanging leg raises. Since these are bodyweight movements, train them in the higher rep range if you can: 4 sets of 10-15 reps each.