You’ve heard the desperate tactics in those late night infomercials. The crazed fitness models who tell you to do endless crunches on useless gizmos to get the abs of your dreams.
You’ve gone to the gym and heard “hardcore” lifters insist that you don’t need an “abs workout” at all, and that a steady diet of compound exercises like squats and deadlifts will do the trick. Still, others say you can simply plank your way to abdominal greatness.
With all of the conflicting theories out there, it’s no wonder you are still searching for a clear answer on how to design an abs workout that will actually work for you.
What you want seems simple: a sturdy core that allows you to live the life you want…and it doesn’t hurt if you also look good shirtless on the beach. But it’s hard to know what to do when you spend so much time filtering through misinformation, outdated methods, and marketing hype from a fitness industry that knows everybody loves a six-pack. No one could blame you for feeling overwhelmed, hopping from program to program, or even giving up entirely.
Learning to train correctly will help you perform better, avoid back pain and other injuries, and be stronger in everything that you do—whether you’re squatting seriously heavy weight, shoveling snow, or picking up your child. You can learn how to do all of that and also drop unwanted belly fat, while finally answering the question, “what’s the right abs workout for me?”
What People Mean When They Talk About “Abs”
Your abs are really just one muscle—the rectus abdominis (RA).
The RA is what gives people that six-pack (or eight-pack) look. But functionally speaking, the muscle is just one part of a larger web of tissues often referred to as “the core.” Your RA works along with your obliques (you have both internal and external ones), a bunch of deep internal muscles like the transverse abdominis, quadratus lumborum, and multifidi, and even the lats, which play an important (and underappreciated) role in supporting your back.
Do you need to know all these names? Not unless you’re a fitness pro. But what you should know is that these muscles are like the cables of a suspension bridge keeping that all-important center column—your spine—in alignment. They also make it possible for you to stand upright, swing a golf club or baseball bat, chuck hay bales with a pitchfork, and do so many of the other cool things you can do as a uniquely awesome human.
Maintaining an appropriate balance of strength among these stabilizers is crucial to your health and performance. Every muscle matters, which is why most abs workouts are inherently flawed.
Training your abs directly through a movement like sit-ups or crunches (not the best bang-for-your-buck exercises) won’t accomplish what you want. Creating a great abs workout means progressing through 3 different phases. Follow the steps, and everything will function (and look) the way you want. Take shortcuts, and — well — you probably have a good idea of how the more basic approach falls short of expectations.
The 3-Phase Approach to Abs Workouts
It sounds funny, but you need to make sure that all of your core muscles are awake and not asleep at the switch. That’s why there’s a progressive approach, which puts you in control of your abs. Think of it like math. If you skip to calculus before you learn addition and subtraction, odds are you won’t be very good. But when you build up to the more difficult stuff, that’s when you really see great results.
Phase 1: Injury prevention
Here’s where you reinvigorate tissues that are often deactivated by your lifestyle. This is a way bigger deal than you think.
To understand why, look no further than your typical workday.
Your commute begins with you sitting in your car for 15 to 30 minutes (or waaaay longer if you’re one of 3.6 million “megacommuters” out there doing an hour and a half or more each way).
From 9 to 5 the routine is more of the same: You’re in a seat. You shoulders are rounded forward. Your back and spine hunch toward your screen. When all of the TPS reports are filed, it’s time for the drive back home.
Rinse and repeat this for eight to 12 hours per day, 260 or so workdays per year.
When you spend this much time sitting, deep core muscles like your transverse abdominis weaken from inactivity. Even very big, very visible muscles like your glutes can essentially shut off and stop working as they should (a condition the world’s leading spine health researcher, Dr. Stu McGill, calls “gluteal amnesia”). The result is bad posture, worse gym performance, and far greater risk of back pain. Let’s prevent that, shall we?
With the help of exercises that train the core functionally, you’ll re-engage those underused muscles and build a better balance of baseline strength. You’ll find these exercises in the section “Core Training for Injury Prevention,” below. You can include these movements as part of your warmup before a workout, or it can be a targeted program for 4-8 weeks if you find that these exercises are very difficult (because your small stabilizers and glutes are “turned off”).
Phase 2: Training for performance
Once you know you’ve brought all your core muscles back online and protected your body from the demands of the daily grind, you’ll kick things up a notch. Here you’ll work on exercises that will help you be stronger in the gym, play better
Once you know you’ve brought all your core muscles back online and protected your body from the demands of the daily grind, you’ll kick things up a notch. Here you’ll work on exercises that will help you be stronger in the gym, play better in any sport, and more able to carry heaping piles of grocery bags in a single trip. You’ll find these movements in “Core Training for Performance,” below. Follow this phase for another 4-8 weeks.
Phase 3: Training for aesthetics.
As we’ve discussed, building a shrediculous set of chiseled abs is the icing on the cake. (And yes, you can still eat cake and have abs.)
Here’s where you’ll re-integrate some of the ab-specific work that most people overdo. Rather than endless sit-ups or crunches, you’ll perform far more potent (and safer) moves. You’ll also learn some techniques for getting a leaner look that will help those abs really pop.
Note that element here builds off the previous one. You can’t just skip down to the third section of this article, do those moves and voila! 8-pack.
Be patient. Trust the process. You will wind up with a core that feels, performs, and yes, looks way better.
Core Training for Injury Prevention
Back injuries can be debilitating. A hurt back can make it difficult to stand up from a chair, much less train with the proper intensity to change your body. So the first goal of any good abs workout must be injury prevention.
Your dose of prevention takes place at the front of your workouts. Before you lift, you’re going to do what’s called core activation work. Core activation is essentially a series of core exercises that “wakes up” all of the muscles in your trunk by asking them to perform the type of tasks they actually do.
Your abs workout injury prevention focuses on the three “anti-’s”:
Anti-Rotation: One of your core’s main jobs is to prevent you from toppling over when you move in one direction, or an outside force acts on you. Think about how often someone accidentally bumps into you, and the next thing you know your back is in tremendous pain. Or when you rotate and something feels “off.” You can prevent these aches and pains. Anti-rotational exercises help you develop stability from the ground all the way up your trunk. Some of the moves we like here are pallof presses, half-kneeling iso-holds, and half-kneeling chops. Compound exercises like a single-arm dumbbell row also fit the bill.
Anti-Extension: When it comes to your spine, the term “extension” refers to a rounded back (think: the “cat” position of cat-cow). Anti-extension exercises train your core to resist this extension —something that will come in handy when you do an exercise like a deadlift, where “don’t round your lower back!” is a commonly heard cue. Try front planks, ab wheel rollouts, and stability ball rollouts.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: That’s the scientific way of saying “resisting sideways bending.” The quadratus lumborum and obliques are the key muscles responsible for this action. To train it, perform side plank variations, single-arm farmer’s carries, and carrying your groceries all in one hand.
There’s one other crucial factor here: Glute engagement. Your glutes are the biggest muscle in your body. They’re responsible for driving hip extension—the main muscle action for moves like sprints, jumps, deadlifts, and squats. Don’t do those exercises? It’s still important because you need hip extension for the simple act of standing up straight.
The only problem, as we mentioned earlier, is that most of us sit on our glutes all day, which leads them to effectively “forget” how to work (hence McGill’s term “gluteal amnesia”). When this occurs, your body can still manage to achieve hip extension, but it does so by compensating with your lower back. Improving glute activation is far and away one of the best things you can do to reducing back pain, improving performance, and building a strong, resilient body.
To activate your glutes, try quadruped hip extensions, frog pumps, clamshells, lateral band walks and x-band monster walks. For strengthening your glutes, go with compound exercises like squats, hips thrusts, deadlifts, and lunges with a focus on full hip extension and a glute squeeze at the top of a movement.
The above list should give you plenty of options for compiling a core and glute workout or warmup. But we’ve taken things a step further for you and built a couple of examples you can use before an upper-body or lower body workout. Try these before your next strength session:
Sample Abs Workout (Before Upper Body Workout)
1a. TRX Fallout, 2×10, rest 30 seconds
1b. Side Plank, 2×45 seconds/side, rest 30 seconds
1c. Hip Thrust, 2×10, rest 30 seconds
Sample Abs Workout Before Lower Body Workout
1a. Half Kneeling Pallof Press, 2×10/side, rest 30 seconds
1b. Lateral Band Walk, 2×10/side, rest 30 seconds
Core Training For Performance
Dr. McGill will tell you that “proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism.” Translation: When your core is strong and you can make it as stiff as a board, you can move your arms and legs faster and more powerfully. That means a stronger push off the ground when you sprint, a harder throw when you hurl a baseball, and a better ability to leap from the ground to snag rebounds at your local YMCA.
Why? Think about the difference between walking across concrete and walking across a row of pillows. The hard surface allows you to push off forcefully, while the soft one causes that force to be deflected in a bunch of competing directions. That lost force is known as an “energy leak” in biomechanic terms, and it will occur at any point in your body that lacks sufficient strength and stiffness. A weak core is a big energy leak. (But with the help of this article, you won’t have that problem.)
There are three components of training your core for better performance.
First, activate deep muscles with the “anti-movements” we discussed above. They’ll help you resist unwanted movements, button up any energy leaks, and prepare your body to perform.
Second, integrate total body compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, overhead presses, lunges, and weighted carries. Upper body pressing exercises like push-ups and pulling exercises like rowing are also your friends. They develop power and strength and help you develop core stiffness that won’t buckle under load. Your core should remain braced as you move, providing a rock-solid foundation that holds your spine’s position and doesn’t buckle during exercise. In other words: a great abs workout means doing more than just abs exercises.
When it comes to weighted carries, there are almost limitless options. Heavy dumbbells, a trap bar, or (if your gym is really cool) farmer’s walk handles are some the best tools for building a strong, high-performance core.
Whatever type of carry you use, brace your abs for the entire set. You want to stand tall and pretend like you’re about to take a punch to the gut. Hold this position, stay tall, and breathe into your stomach for the set. The carry will force your deep intrinsic core muscles to stabilize your hip and spine with every step. The muscles of your back lower back and abs tighten to prevent unnecessary movement in your spine.
Third, add sport-specific core strength movements. If you’re an athlete who trains for a specific sport, you need to train movements that are similar to those that you’ll perform in the sport that you play. For example, if you play golf, tennis, or baseball, you’ll want to work on your rotational strength, since that’s what powers your swing.
Athleticism requires muscles, joints, ligaments, and nervous system must work together as a complete unit to be strong and powerful. One of the best ways to develop this power is with a medicine ball. It allows you to train the movement patterns specific to your sport at full speed, which helps you achieve the best-possible training response. Here are four rotational strength-building exercises that use a medicine ball:
Rotational Scoop Throw, 3 sets x 5 reps per side
Stand perpendicular to an open area or a solid wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. From this position, while holding the ball to your back hip, shift your weight to the back leg before explosively shifting your weight to the front leg and throwing the ball as hard as possible. Repeat for three sets of five reps per side.
Medicine Rainbow Slam, 3 sets x 5 reps per side
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a medicine ball overhead with your arms extended. Rotate and slam the ball outside your opposite foot. Catch the ball and reverse the range of motion for three sets of five reps per side.
Overhead Medicine Ball Slams, 3 sets x 5 reps per side
The overhead medicine ball slam builds incredible power through your shoulders and lats while preventing flexion through your spine. Stand up tall with your feet hip-width apart. Hold the medicine ball in both hands. Raise the ball overhead, then slam it as hard as you can on the ground. Catch the ball on the bounce and repeat. Try the overhead medicine ball slam before doing upper body lifts like shoulder presses or chin-ups.
Medicine Ball Back Tosses, 3 sets x 5 reps per side
The medicine ball back toss builds explosive hip extension power, such as exercises like jumps and cleans but with less joint stress. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, holding a medicine ball overhead with your arms straight. Start the rep by squatting down and lowering the ball between your legs. Then explode upward to jump out of the squat while you raise your arms overhead to throw the ball behind you. This explosive movement works best to build explosive hip extension power and works well before lower body training lifts like a squat or deadlift.
Designing a Better Abs Workout
Now that you’ve earned your way to phase 3, it’s time for an abs workout that will prepare your core for the display case. To do so, you need a combination of two things:
You need to be lean. Men will start to see the outline of their abs around 12% body fat, while women will notice definition when around 17-18% body fat. For reference: magazine cover model types are often at 5-7% for men and 14-15% for women.
You need well-developed, muscular abs. Without a certain level of lean muscle, your abs won’t push through remaining body fat and give you the dense, toned look you’d like. So here’s where some of those “icing on the cake” exercises that emphasize the rectus abdominis come in handy (although, as you’ll see below, you’ll still be using safer and more functional moves than sit-ups or crunches).
Losing Fat to Reveal Your Abs
At the most basic level, creating a caloric deficit is the only thing that matters for fat loss. Despite what supplement companies or sketchy infomercials might tell you, research shows you can’t “spot reduce” and tell your body to only lose fat on that annoying spot just below your belly button. But what you can do is “spot enhance,” or build a muscle in a specific area while you lose fat throughout your entire body.
There are a lot of ways one can create that needed caloric deficit. The by-the-numbers approach is to determine the daily caloric intake required to maintain your body weight, then eat a few hundred calories fewer. (You can do this on your own using a body weight calculator, or under the guidance of a coach who can help you specific targets based on your wants and needs.) Assuming you’re moderately active and working out three or four times per week, a reasonable ballpark figure is a reduction of about 500 calories per day for men and 300 calories per day for women.
Don’t get carried away here. While most of us want to ditch fat in a hurry, those “lose weight fast” plans are deceptive. Despite what the latest diet fad will tell you, research shows the maximum rate of “healthy” fat loss is about 1-2% body weight each week. (That said, the more weight you have to lose, the quicker you can lose it.)
Another tricky factor here: The leaner you are, the slower your rate of fat loss will be. Using the percentages above, you can see how someone who weighs 250 pounds may be able to drop up to 5 pounds per week, while someone who’s 180 pounds may struggle to drop one.
For almost everyone, fat loss feels like it’s taking place at a rate that’s slower than you would like. But it’s better to go slow and sustainable than try and do it fast and then crash. (Some studies show that the average person spends 6 weeks sticking to a strict diet—then spends 14 weeks off of it.) So if you have a vacation 12 weeks from now and want to lose 20 pounds so that you look hot in your new bikini or when you’re standing shirtless at the beach, the time to start is now.
The Ultimate Abs Workout (AKA looking good without a shirt)
Your abs are like any other muscle—they need time under tension, metabolic stress (that nauseating yet delightful burn you’ve felt during sets of crunches), and muscular damage (something that sounds bad, but actually just refers to the process of creating microtears in muscle tissue so that they come back stronger) in order to grow.
Here’s how to make all of that happen:
First, you’ll continue to lift weights three to four times per week with compound movements. These big movements like squats, rows, and deadlifts build strength from head to toe, stimulate your abs, and provide the training response necessary to transform your body.
Second, keep doing “anti-movements” in your training to build a strong, stable and injury-resistant core.
Third, you’ll add in exercises that specifically target your abs to create the deep muscular separations needed for visible abs.
But as you’ve read over and over again in this article now, sit-ups and crunches aren’t your best options for achieving point #3. Why? Because those movements wind up bending your spinal discs over and over again, which McGill describes as a “potent injury mechanism.” So instead, here are five better exercises that focus on your abs without putting you at risk, which will help you build lean muscle for beach season:
1. Hollow Body Hold
A gymnastics move by nature, the hollow body hold teaches you to brace and hold neutral spine while contracting your entire rectus abdominis muscle.
Lie flat on the ground, looking up. Flatten your lower back and flex your knees, pointing your toes away from you. Straighten your legs while you lift your arms so that they’re perpendicular to your torso. Keep your back flat on the floor and lift your head and shoulders off the ground. Aim to do these twice a week.
2. Hanging Leg Raise
The hanging leg raise is a popular exercise for targeting your lower abs. By keeping your elbows slightly bent and shoulders retracted (i.e. held down and in, rather than creeping up toward your ears), you’ll also stretch the lats, build a stronger grip, and develop more muscular forearms.
Grab a pull-up bar with a double overhand grip, squeezing the bar as tight as possible and keeping the elbows slightly bent. Retract your shoulders, as if tucking them into your back pocket and holding them there.
From this position, lift your legs up just past 90 degrees, forming an L shape with your body. Pause at the top for two seconds, then lower with control. Too tough? Then try them with your knees bent, lifting and holding for 5-10 seconds if possible.
If you struggle to hold on to the bar, feel free to use the Roman chair version in which you’re supported by your elbows and upper body.
3. Stability Ball Rollout
Stability ball rollouts are a great way to build strong abs while preparing your body for a greater challenge: the ab wheel rollout.
To start, kneel on the floor (it may be helpful to place an Airex pad or yoga mat beneath your knees) and face a stability ball with your arms extended in front of your body. Your hands should sit atop the ball. Brace your abs to prevent your back from arching, lean forward, and roll your arms over the ball as far as possible, so that your entire torso lowers toward the floor. Then reverse the motion and pull your arms and torso back until you return to the starting position.
4. Ab Wheel Rollout
Ab wheel rollouts are an absolute killer for building strong, dense abs. Beyond building muscle, they force you to resist unwanted extension in the lower back.
Kneel down and hold the handles of the wheel with your arms locked out beneath your shoulders. Brace your abs and roll the wheel as far forward as possible without shifting your hips or arching your lower back, then roll back.
5. Cable Crunch
Remember the day when crunches and situps were all the rage? There are still effective ways to perform the crunch (see McGill curlup), but this is another variation that puts you in a position where you are less likely to hurt your back and you can add some load to increase the difficulty. Just like any exercise, progressive overload (adding weight) can help you build stronger abs — that pop.
Kneel facing the pulley and hold the ends of a rope attached to the high cable along the sides of your face. Bend forward, aiming your chest at your pelvis. Return to the starting position, then repeat the movement.
Here’s how it looks when you put all of those exercises together into a single workout.
Sample Abs Workout Routine
Perform this sample routine 2-3 times per week for 4-6 weeks.
- Ab wheel rollout OR stability ball rollout, 2 sets x 8-12 reps, rest 90 seconds
- Hollow Body Hold 3 sets x 45 seconds, rest 45 seconds.
- Hanging Leg Raise 3 sets x 12-15 reps, rest 45 seconds.
- Cable Crunch 3 sets x 15 reps, rest 45 seconds
Think “core” before you think “abs.” Focus on anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, anti-rotation, and glute activation exercises first. This helps prevent injury.
Next, comes performance. You’ll develop core strength along with full-body strength by performing compound lifts with your core properly engaged. Train rotation and other movements as needed for the sport of your choice.
Finally, build show-worthy abs by adding in some level of direct ab training while also continuing to develop the core’s ability to prevent movement. Follow a gradual approach to fat loss that helps you reveal your hard work to the world with a lean, defined midsection.
Above all else, you need a well-balanced training approach to build your best looking and best performing body.
Eric Bach is a personal trainer who works directly with clients in Denver, Colorado and around the world online. Eric specializes in helping busy men eliminate nagging injuries, get stronger, leaner and more athletic without living in the gym. To access his FREE five-day fat loss challenge, join by clicking here.
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- Spaniol, Frank J., EdU. “Developing Power to Turn.” NSCA Strength & Conditioning Journal 34.6 (2012): n. pag. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.
- McGill, Stuart, PhD. 5th ed. Waterloo: Backfitpro Inc, 2014. Print.
- Ramírez-Campillo, Rodrigo, David C. Andrade, Christian Campos-Jara, Carlos Henríquez-Olguín, Cristian Alvarez-Lepín, and Mikel Izquierdo. “Regional Fat Changes Induced by Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27.8 (2013): 2219-224. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.
Tags: abs, abs workout, core training, fat loss, injury prevention