This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts. This week we give our view on the top 5 best exercises for abs.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
What are abs?
You’ll have heard the term, but what are ‘abs’? They are the muscles in your abdomen, your abdominal muscles. Usually the Wikipedia entry is a nice simple summary, but in this instance it’s a little complex. Instead, I’ll provide an alternative description.
Think of the abs as being composed of 3 sets of muscles.
First, the transverse abdominis is a deep muscle that forms a corset around the abdomen. When you tighten it, you tighten the corset and this pulls your stomach in. Functionally, it stabilises your core to provide a solid foundation against which you can move your limbs more efficiently.
Second, the obliques – both internal and external, rotate your torso and help with lateral flexion. They enable rotational movements in everyday activity and sports. Can you think of a sport that doesn’t involve rotation of the torso? There aren’t many!
Third, the rectus abdominis moves the rib cage closer to the pelvis. This is the muscle that works hardest when you do abdominal crunches. This is your six pack.
You’ll note that the movement function of the rectus abdominis and the obliques correspond to the movement capabilities of the spine – rotation, lateral flexion and forward flexion. The transverse abdominis is more associated with stabilisation.
Well-developed abs can look great. But if you want to see your six pack then you really need to be quite lean. We’ve all got one, but stripping away the fat is the only way you’re going to see it. Once you’re lean enough, you’ll also be able to see great definition in the obliques and other muscles of the torso.
The abs shouldn’t be confused with ‘the core’. The core is a broader term that includes the abs, muscles of the shoulder girdle, pelvic girdle and any muscles in between. They are all associated with good spinal and pelvic stability, appropriate movement and internal integrity. That said, the abs are a crucial part of the core musculature. Well-developed abs and a good mind-muscle connection will help with posture and movement, as well as aesthetics.
Training the abs
When it comes to training, you’ll need to develop a strong mind-muscle connection. That’s harder than it sounds. With the muscles on the limbs it’s easy. You can see the muscles, you can tense them and flex them and you can see the resulting movement. The abdominals are ‘inside’, their movement capability is less, they tend to, or should at least, fire automatically.
But with our modern lives that involve so much sitting, they can easily atrophy and become weak. Other muscles end up doing more work than they should to help us move, and poor posture exacerbates that. Getting that mind muscle connection back can be quite a challenge.
Once you have the connection you should be able to train your abs thoroughly and well. Accurate execution and time under tension are critical factors. You’re going to need to be prepared to work hard, to puff away, to grunt and screw your face up. An intense abs session can have you clutching your stomach as the burn hits maximum intensity. But it’s worth it. Well developed abs will not only help you look great, they will help make all your other lifts stronger. That can only improve your physique even further.
So, with that introduction, on to our top 5 best exercises for abs.
Hanging Leg Raises
First up in our top 5 best exercises for abs are hanging knee raises.
If you’ve ever done reverse crunches, you’ll know they are hard enough. This is a similar movement, but here gravity is pulling directly down when the abs are at their most engaged, making this a great abs developer.
Here’s how to perform it:
- Hang from a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and using a pronated grip (overhand).
- Slide your shoulder blades down creating a space between your ears and shoulders to stabilise your shoulder girdle.
- Pull in your lower abdominal muscles.
- Lift your knees as high as you can above horizontal then straighten your legs below you.
- Progress this exercise to target the obliques by raising your knees diagonally, lifting them towards each armpit.
It is important to ensure that your shoulder blades are depressed so that your shoulder girdle remains stable and strong throughout the set.
Note that the first part of the move is hip flexor dominant. The rectus abdominis gets really involved at the top of the movement as the pelvis tucks under and gravity is full-on.
If you begin to tire and lose form, take a rest-pause before finishing the set.
Of all the abdominal exercises we do with our clients, this is the one that seems to produce more abdominal soreness than any other. To avoid the hip flexors taking over, you’ll need to make sure you have the mind-muscle connection with the rectus abdominis before you start. Once you have it, you’ll be able to give the abs a really intense workout.
Here’s the execution:
- Begin in a ¾ plank position, slide your shoulder blades down to stabilise the shoulder girdle.
- Hold the ab wheel beneath your chest and pull in your abdominal muscles.
- Roll the wheel away from your body. Your hips and torso will move towards the ground as your arms extend overhead.
- Ensure you avoid arching your back or raising your hips in the air.
- Your aim is to extend your arms completely overhead with your shoulders depressed, your elbows locked and abs tight as you hovering only a few inches above the floor for a second before returning to the starting position with control.
The further you roll out, the harder the exercise becomes. Begin with a partial range of movement, rolling further as your abs become stronger and your form is perfected. This is a challenging exercise which requires good form and a strong core.
The ab wheel is one of our many pieces of supplementary and functional kit.
Oblique-Focused Cable Woodchop
There are plenty of exercises that rotate the torso, but this is our choice for a couple of reasons. First, it’s great for really focusing on the obliques, especially if you slow the movement down and put your mind in the muscle. Second, it’s an easy one to progress – you just put the weight up!
Here’s how to perform it:
- Set the cable pivot at your shoulder height and stand hip-width apart on a diagonal line from the cable pivot point so that your arms are fully extended to reach the handle.
- You should be rotated through the torso at the start of the exercise to ensure a full range of movement.
- Depress your shoulder blades to stabilise them and secure a strong shoulder girdle position.
- Power the rotation of the torso by engaging your oblique muscles as your arms move in an arc of approximately 160 degrees.
- At the end range of the movement, contract the obliques (‘squeeze’.
- Return the starting position with control.
- Repeat using your other set of obliques.
This exercise is most effective when performed slowly and with control – time under tension. In the video we have speeded it up to twice the speed and it still looks slow!
Try not to use the shoulders and upper back to create momentum for this exercise. You’ll need to stabilise them, which makes this exercise additionally useful for training shoulder stability. In terms of ab development however, you’ll get great results from focusing on the obliques as the powerhouse and going for maximum time under tension.
This is a ‘must-do’ exercise that you’ll find in nearly all yoga and Pilates classes. It’s a classic ‘core stability’ exercise that works the transverse abdominis particularly well. That’s great for posture and stability.
Here’s how to do it:
- Ensure your elbows are directly below your shoulders with forearms flat on the floor. Toes pulled towards the shins.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles as you ‘lift’ them off the mat, keeping your back flat.
- Lift the hips off the mat and straighten the knees.
- Continue to pull the abdominals in towards the spine. Do this along their entire length from just above the pubic bone, all the way through the belly button to the diaphragm.
- Do not let the back sag or ‘take over’.
Planks can be done on your hands or on your forearms. As your abdominal muscles become stronger to support your body weight, there is less weight for the shoulder girdle to support. The plank can be progressed with single arm and leg manoeuvres which challenge you to hold the position with only three points of contact on the mat. You’ll see these demonstrated in the second half of the video.
You may know these as ‘deadbugs’. We call them beetles! We like these because they train the body to work in the right way – with a stable core whilst moving the limbs. People who spend a long time sitting develop stiff hips, stiff upper back and weak abs. Their lumbar spine ends up becoming too mobile to compensate. This move helps retrain the body to lock the core and develop flexibility in the thoracic spine and hips – just what your body should do!
This is how you do it:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. Pull in your transverse abdominal muscles before raising one bent leg then the other so that your calves are parallel to the floor.
- Slide your shoulder blades down to stabilise your shoulder girdle and raise arms your arms above your shoulders with your hands pointing towards the ceiling.
- Push the ribs downwards towards the pelvis to create a hip-rib connection.
- Keeping the abdominals tight so that the back is pressed firmly into the mat, extend the right leg and left arm away from your body. Then return to them to the starting position.
- Pull in the abdominals before extending the left leg and right arm away from your body.
- Ensure that your abdominals are engaged before moving your arm and leg and do not let the back arch away from the mat.
- Hold the non-working limbs in the starting position – knee above the hip and arm above the shoulder.
Try not to hold your breath as this will create intra-abdominal pressure which will put pressure on your pelvic floor. Again, a time under tension strategy is a great approach. The slower the movement, the harder your abs will need to work.
So, there you have it, our top 5 best exercises for abs. Together they hit the transverse abdominis, obliques and rectus abdominis in equal measure.
None of these are easy. You’re going to need to be prepared to work hard, be persistent and patient. But it’ll pay off. You’ll look great, have better posture and improve your lifts and your sporting activities.
So, what are you waiting for, go out there, get grunting develop those abs!