Best Exercises for Abs
The best exercises for abs don’t just help burn calories, but rather strengthen the core muscles which stabilize the entire body. The Internet is rife with lists of workouts claiming to build supermodel abs in a matter of seconds per day, but everyone knows that nothing of value comes easy. Most lists of core exercises focus on bodyweight drills designed to accompany a cardio workout. But if one understands the structuring of the muscles involved, they’ll quickly understand how barbell and resistance movements can also play a role in strengthening that entire zone.
To that degree, the best abs exercises each typically isolate one area of the core and abdominal muscles and are then used as a series to work the entire region: Upper, middle, lower, sides. Much like a chest workout might include incline bench press, cable crossovers, and pullovers, a good ab workout will feature exercises which address the area from different angles. It’s actually nigh impossible to perform any exercise without engaging these muscles, hence the term core. Every workout hits them somewhat, and this means that strengthening those muscles not only makes for a hot set of abs, but also increases overall strength and decreases the likelihood of injury.
At the Core of the Matter
Whether for looks, function, or both, the entire zone in question is part of the larger core. An interconnected series of muscles extending from the spine to the pelvis, the core runs beneath, betwixt and between, the entire abdominal area. Whether rowing, walking, or performing barbell squats, there’s simply no getting around these muscles. The best exercises for abs can be broken down into which area they seek to target.
Lifters understand the terms compound exercises and isolation movements, and it may be helpful to apply these to the abs and core. A compound exercise is one which works multiple muscle groups at once. An example would be the barbell squat, which requires the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, shoulders, and yes, the entire core as a stabilizer. An isolation movement primarily targets one muscle, such as with a leg extension, which hits the quadriceps. Compound exercises leave one tired. Isolation movements earn the burn by way of lactic acid.
The same is true of exercises for the abs. A Landmine Rotational, such as is described below, would be considered a compound movement which targets all of the abdominal muscles, as well as the hip flexors, and upper and lower bodies combined. Bicycle crunches, also described below, target the abs as isolation movement although there is some minor hamstring work.
Known as the abs, the rectus abdominis muscles are a pair of long, straight muscles that flex the spine and tighten the inner walls, rising up from the symphysis pubis and the pubic crest, inserting on the linea alba and at the fift. The best exercises for abs can be broken down into those targeting the upper, middle, and lower. The obliques are actually two distinct groups, the internal and external. Located on the sides of the abs, they run from the hips to the ribs. The internal lie beneath the external.
The larger core region includes the upper abs, the internal obliques, the pelvic floor, the multifidus (a group of triangular muscles deep within the lower back), and the transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominis is a muscle layer of the front and side abdominal wall deep along the internal obliques. This is the horizontal layer of muscle that envelops what’s known as the six-pack. Wrapping fully around the torso from front to back, from pelvis to ribs, it is the anatomically deepest abdominal muscle and helps with respiration, breathing, and spinal support.
Best Bang for the Buck
Below are five of our favorite exercises for the abs, obliques, and core, which bring the most benefit in the shortest amount of time. If one is looking to devote an entire workout just to the abs, then a series of isolation movements might make sense. But for many folks, the abs and core work goes into their normal routine. These exercise also score highly in terms of building functional strength and increasing work capacity. Fitness fans can perform one or more of these every day, or all together as part of a program. The great thing about abs is that as a smaller muscle group, they tend to recover quickly.
According to a study completed by the American Council on Exercise, the bicycle crunch is the No. 1 ab exercise around. In addition to direct emphasis on the rectus abdominis, this exercise does a great job with the obliques during the cross-crunch. It also hits the transverse abdominis as the legs are held up. What makes the bicycle crunch great is it can be performed without equipment, any time, anywhere. To perform this maneuver, lie on the floor or a bench with the lower back pressed to the ground and knees bent. Feet should be on the floor with the hands behind the head. Squeeze the core muscles and draw in toward the abdomen to stabilize the spine. With the hands behind the head, pull the shoulder blades back and raise up the knees to a 90-degree angle with the feet up. The motion resembles the pedaling of a bicycle, as the feet are extended one at a time with a cross-crunch as the elbows alternate to touch the opposite knee, and the entire torso twists.
- Isolation movement: Rectus abdominis, obliques.
- Recommended Sets/Repetitions: A traditional 3-4 sets with higher reps, like 12-20, work well with this exercise.
- Best Day: This is an ideal movement for a dedicated ab day, or it goes well with any other split, Upper or Lower.
- Equipment Needed: Yoga mat or bench. To see our review of the benches on the market, check here.
Barbell Floor Wipers
A compound movement, the Barbell Floor Wipers can be performed pretty much anywhere and require only a barbell. As one would expect, the more weight one loads onto the barbell, the more of a compound movement this becomes with perhaps less emphasis on the abs themselves. To really accentuate the upper, middle, and lower abs, as well as the obliques, use a lighter weight or just the bar, and emphasis on the squeeze. To perform the motion, lie down onto the back and hold the barbell up as it bench pressing it. Lift both legs up and towards the left end of the barbell, and attempt to touch the end with the toe. Lower both legs down to the central position, then lift both legs toward the right end of the barbell. Return both legs to the central position, and this constitutes one full repetition. The motion should replicate the movement of windshield wipers.
- Compound movement: Obliques, rectus abdominis, gluteal muscles, shoulders, triceps
- Recommended Sets/Repetitions: Shoot for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps if using a light weight. If core strength is the goal, increase the weight used and lower reps to perhaps 6 to 8.
- Best Day: This exercise works well as part of a dedicated abs day, or as a finisher to an upper body day matched with chest and triceps exercises.
- Equipment Needed: Barbell and floor mat. To see our review of the best gym flooring and mats, check here.
Another compound movement, the Suitcase Carry is a great core and abs movement that can be performed anywhere. In addition to the abs, it’s one of the best forearm and grip exercises around. To maximize the emphasis placed upon the abs, use a lighter barbell load and feel the squeeze, tightening the abs, focusing on posture. If an Olympic barbell is unavailable, the same movement can be replicated with a dumbbell or kettlebell. The value to the longer Olympic barbell is that the length requires more core stabilization on one side of the body while walking. Just as with any muscle group, the muscle is strengthened by meeting against resistance, and so bodyweight fans would recognize this feel from perhaps the plank hold from a side.
- Compound movement: Obliques, rectus abdominis, shoulders, forearm, trapezius, lats, and hand
- Recommended Sets/Repetitions: For this movement, think in terms of Time Under Tension (TUT). Whether measured with a stopwatch, or by way of distance walked, strive to increase the poundage balanced and time held. Shoot for 2 to 3 sets.
- Best Day: This exercise also works well as part of an abs day, although it’s probably best as a finisher to a workout focusing on arms or shoulders.
- Equipment Needed: Barbell and perhaps weight plates.
It’s impossible to watch landmine rotational and not see the abs at work from all directions. Technically a compound movement as it does incorporate a bit of the arms into the mix, by using a landmine attachment such as the Rogue piece, one can hold the barbell at its end and steer it like the sun from rise to set up across the horizontal plane. The entire abdominal set will be tightened during this movement as the obliques do their thing, from inner to outer. For folks seeking that V-shaped body, this movement is key. Those who’ve ever performed a Stir-the-Pot ab movement using a Bosu Ball will recognize this concept from a standing position.
- Compound movement: Obliques, rectus abdominis, spinal erectors, shoulders
- Recommended Sets/Repetitions: A traditional 3-4 set approach with 10-12 repetitions is ideal here, although one can go a big heavier with lower reps if seeking strength gains.
- Best Day: This exercise works well with any workout day, although if not part of a dedicated abs day then it’s probably best matched with deadlifts or shoulders.
- Equipment Needed: Barbell and landmine attachment.
Fans of the World’s Strongest Man games have most likely seen the Farmers Walk performed with any variety of implements. We’d recommend a trap bar, or Hex bar, as it allows the user to stand within the frame and carry the load safely. One can use two Olympic barbells for what would be a double suitcase carry, but that puts more emphasis on the grip muscles as they try to balance the load. The advantage to the trap bar is one can focus on keeping those abs tight for the duration of the carry. The entire core will be engaged in this movement from start to finish, with extra benefits to the trapezius muscles down to the hands. This is a great total body movement which will also spike the metabolism and help burn calories.
- Compound movement: Rectus abdominis, obliques, spinal erectors, trapezius, forearms
- Recommended Sets/Repetitions: Think in terms of Time Under Tension (TUT), as opposed to repetitions. For this maneuver, one might use 2-3 sets for a specific number of seconds or distance walked.
- Best Day: This is definitely a movement one would incorporate into an upper body day, particularly one geared toward shoulders or upper back.
- Equipment Needed: One can use anything heavy to hold while walking, but we’d recommend a Hex Bar.
Honorable Mention – The Ab Wheel and Barbell Roll-Out
Any fan of the abs knows the Ab Wheel, but they might not know its barbell-movement equivalent the roll-out. For a review of the best ab wheels on the market, read here. By placing one’s hands on either the ab wheel, or palms-down on the barbell with Olympic plates on either side to elevate it, the user rolls the mechanism forward and back on the ground, while essentially planking and un-planking the body. This move, in theory, takes the body from a — shape to a /\ shape and back. The barbell movement affords advanced users the extra weight to be pushed and is a much harder movement.
Our analysis is that this movement warrants a Top 5 ranking IF and only IF the exerciser can actually do it correctly. A compound movement, this drill works the rectus abdominis, obliques, spinal erectors, as well as lats and shoulders. It’s really a total body movement and, if done correctly, adds to the mix all the benefits of an isometric hold. Unfortunately, the movement itself requires so much core and upper body strength to actually perform it, our experience in the gym has been that most people just wind up rolling around the ground like grunting toddlers learning to walk. A compromise is the modified kneeling ab roll, where the user starts from a kneeling position and then rolls out. This takes a good deal of stress off the upper body, but winds up becoming more of a yoga-like torso stretch.
Beach Body or Barbell-Bender?
If folks are after abs as part of a beach body look, then keep in mind that nutrition is key. Powerlifters and football players do in fact have powerful cores and abs, but their bodyfat percentage might be too high to actually see them. In terms of actual core strength and the muscles involved, there’s no question that resistance training is necessary. As society has become more sedentary over the years, too many people spend their days hovering over a keyboard instead of walking upright. The problems associated with a weak core are numerous and include lower back problems. Studies are clear that to help the back, one must strengthen the abs and core.
If weight loss is part of the goal, then consider a complementary exercise like rowing. Our review of the best rowers and an explanation of the different types can be found here. The best rowers on the market today also come with interactive apps that feature solid core drills. Rowing also requires a great deal of abdominal strength, and as one of the top calorie burns out there, it certainly deserves an honorable mention when discussing the best exercises for abs. Whether seeking to have a beach body or be a barbell-bender, there’s no question a strong set of abs is essential.