Most people miss the mark when it comes to training their abdominals. They either do countless sit-ups and crunches, putting their lower backs at risk of injury, or they ignore core training altogether because they think compound exercises like squats and deadlifts will get the job done.
Both camps need to reconsider their approach and directly target the abs with the right mix of exercises. A stronger set of abs will enhance your appearance and strength, which makes everyone happy.
To optimize your ab workouts, make sure to hit your midsection with exercises that target each of the four functions of the core:
1. Flexion: bending the spine toward the feet
2. Anti-Extension: preventing the spine from arching
3. Anti-Lateral Flexion: preventing the spine from bending to the side
4. Anti-Rotation: preventing the spine from rotating side to side
Why no rotation? Aren’t some of the best ab exercises rotational in nature? Sure, exercises like Russian twists can create a good “burn” in your abs, but the lumbar spine (lower back) isn’t mean to rotate very much, and frequent rotation from the lower back may lead to pain or injury. Instead, focus on ab exercises that resist movement to get strong and stay pain-free.
With four movement categories, we’ve hand-picked our favorite exercise from each one. We’re confident almost anyone can do these, but just in case, we’ve included a regression of each exercise to make it a bit easier.
Flexion: Reverse Crunch
The two most common flexion-based ab exercises — sit-ups and crunches — are actually pretty lousy for training the abs. Sit-ups primarily target the hip flexors, while crunches are notorious for making slouched-shoulder posture worse.
Instead, try the reverse crunch, which puts the spine and pelvis in the perfect position to target your entire midsection.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 6–10 reps
Progression: Lower yourself down slower, and use a lighter counterweight
Regression: Core-Engaged Dead Bugs
If reverse crunches are too hard, even when holding on to an immovable object as your counterbalance, try core-engaged dead bugs. Do 3 sets of 5–8 reps per side, making sure to exhale fully.
Anti-Extension: Ab Wheel Rollouts
Perhaps the only late-night infomercial fitness product that actually works, the ab wheel challenges the core by forcing the abs to resist arching the lower back. Rollouts give you immediate feedback on proper technique because if you do it wrong, you’ll feel tension in your lower back right away.
Set and Reps: 3 sets of 6–10 reps
Progression: Exhale fully, and pause before pulling the wheel back, or do them standing
Regression: Stability Ball Rollouts
The ab wheel can be a bit too challenging for some people. Using a stability ball to do the same movement limits the range of motion for an easier variation.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: 1-Arm Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk
Instead of working your obliques with side bends, try training your entire core to do what it was designed to do: resist bending to the side. What’s the simplest way to do this? Pick up something heavy, and carry it.
One-arm dumbbell farmer’s walks test your strength and coordination by forcing your abs to stabilize your spine as you walk. Just grab a dumbbell in one hand, brace your abs and go for a stroll.
Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 20–40 yards per side
Progression: Heavier weight and/or longer distance
Regression: Dumbbell Suitcase Holds
Farmer’s walks are about as simple as they get, but if it’s too tough to balance and walk at the same time, try the dumbbell suitcase hold. Simply pick up a dumbbell in one hand, brace your abs and hold for 10–30 seconds per side.
Anti-Rotation: Pallof Press
Named after the world-renowned physical therapist John Pallof, the Pallof press works wonders for posture and core strength by challenging the spine to resist rotation. The variations are endless, and all you need is a band or cable machine.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8–12 reps per side
Progression: Heavier weight/more band tension, exhale fully at extension
Regression: Hold the band at arm’s length for 5–10 seconds, and work on increasing that time
Don’t Ignore the Core
Hitting the midsection from all angles based on the four main functions of the core is the best way to get stronger abs. Try these four exercises or their regressions in your next workout and kiss the endless sit-ups goodbye for good.