Even if having a ripped six-pack doesn’t matter to you, a strong core will help you deadlift, squat, and bench press more weight. Like any other muscle in your body, you need to train your core for it to grow and get stronger. Of course, not all exercises are created equal.
The best ab exercises aren’t necessarily the frilliest. A Copenhagen plank may sound fancy, but if you can’t execute it then what’s the point? To help you sieve through all of the ab moves available, we dive deep into the benefits of ab training, how your core muscles function, and provide a list of the nine best ab exercises. These include:
Best Ab Exercises
- Ab Rollout
- Weighted Plank
- Hollow Hold/Rock
- Pallof Press
- Hanging Knee Raise
- Medicine Ball Slam
- Toes to Bar
Below are nine of the best ab exercises for overall core development, strength, and aesthetics. In addition to outlining these basic tried-and-true movements, we also provide more advanced variations to try.
In this list, you’ll find core exercises that target all of your major core muscles — that is, your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques. We also elaborate on the muscles of the core to help you better understand its function and how a strong core can benefit your training.
As the name implies, the ab rollout has you grip a barbell (loaded with round plates), an ab wheel, or an exercise ball to extend your torso towards the ground. Most ab movements, such as crunches and knee raises, flex the abs. The ab rollout strengthens the core by lengthening it, which targets what’s known as eccentric strength. Becoming strong in an extended position makes improves core stability and recruits muscle fibers that would otherwise be untouched. As a result, you’ll have a better-developed midsection.
Benefits of the Ab Rollout
- More strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position.
- Increased muscle development, as the exercise challenges you during both the lowering and lifting phase.
- More abdominal muscle (or hypertrophy) control, and stability.
How to Perform the Ab Rollout
Get on your knees and grip a wheel or barbell, loaded with round plates, with hands set shoulder-width apart. Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground. Don’t let the lower back arch too much. The farther forward you are, the harder the move will be, so shorten your range of motion if new to the exercise. Squeeze the lat muscles, and pull yourself back to the starting position.
The plank is a classic core move that involves holding the top of a pushup position — either on your hands or on your forearms — for time. The tension created by flexing the abs to keep your back straight is immense. Maintaining this rigid position creates core stability and teaches you how to brace more effectively and prevent thoracic twisting, which can lead to injury. Improving this ability can translate to movements requiring core stability, such as squats, deadlifts, and loaded carries. The weighted plank is a more advanced variation that increases the plank’s difficulty by adding more downward force to the exercise.
Benefits of the Weighted Plank
- More isometric strength, which helps keep the spine neutral during moves like squats, deadlifts, and snatches.
- A better ability to brace, by tightening your stomach muscles and lower back to stay rigid during heavy lifts. The weighted plank teaches how to brace harder and for longer.
- Better spinal positioning. The neutral position of a plank will carry over to your other lifts.
How to Perform the Weighted Plank
Assume a plank position, with the hands or forearms on the floor. The spine should be nearly parallel to the floor, with the belly button pulled in. Have a spotter place a weight plate under your shoulder blades. Press your arms, hard, into the floor and hold this position for time.
The hollow hold has you balance on your butt, with your legs a few inches off the floor and your arms over your head. Extending the arms and legs away from the body (and the center of mass) decreases your stability so that the abs must work harder to keep you upright. Similar to the plank, the hollow hold builds isometric strength, anti-rotational strength, and enhances a lifter’s understanding and ability to create tension under load. Adding a rocking motion to it creates even more instability and therefore recruits more of the core. Master the hold first before trying the hollow rock.
Benefits of the Hollow Hold
- More anti-rotational strength, which will help prevent you from twisting while lifting.
- Improved isometric strength, so the body can handle heavier loads.
- The core coordination you’ll gain from the hollow hold means you’ll be better at gymnastic-style moves like ring dips, muscle-ups, and handstand pushups.
How to Perform the Hollow Hold
Lay on your back with arms extended overhead and legs pressed together. Lift your legs and upper torso off the floor. Hold this position. To perform the hollow rock, simply rock back and forth in this position, minimizing movement at the hip and shoulder joints.
The Pallof press is as practical as a core exercise gets. You’re standing for starters, so the ab strength you build in this position has more carryover to exercises like overhead presses, cleans, and squats. The Pallof is done by holding a taut band at chest level and pressing it away from the torso. As you press the band, it will pull the torso towards the anchor point. Fight the urge to twist to improve anti-rotational strength. You can perform this move standing or kneeling, and rotate with the band or press it overhead. The Pallof press will increase your core stability, anti-rotational strength, and improve postural positioning.
Benefits of the Pallof Press
- It’s versatile and can be used in a variety of ways to prime to the body to perform athletic and dynamic movements.
- Increased anti-rotational strength, which will neutralize any shearing forces on the spine and mitigate injury during higher intensity exercise.
- More postural awareness, as you focus on keeping your spine neutral and chest up during the move. This improved posture will carry over to all lifts and everyday life).
How to Perform the Pallof Press
Loop a light band around a pole or power rack at chest level. Stand perpendicular to the band, grab it in both hands, and take a few steps sideways until the band is taut. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and then extend your arms forward. Do not let your torso or hips twist.
The L-Sit is a popular gymnastic move that forces the core to stabilize the body as it’s suspended off the ground with the legs out in front. It requires balance, strength, and patience. However, learn it, and you’ll gain a stronger core and more upper body muscle.
Benefits of the L-Sit
- Bolstered full-body strength, as you resist gravity and rotational forces.
- More isometric strength and abdominal development, for reasons similar to the plank and hollow hold.
- The L-sit strengthens the core and prepares lifters and gymnastic athletes for more rigorous core strengthening and athletic movements.
How to Perform the L-Sit
Sit between two dumbbells or kettlebells and place each hand on a handle. Drive your body off the floor and steadily extend your legs. To make the exercise easier, tuck the legs closer to your body. To make the L-sit more difficult, raise the legs higher off of the ground. While in the L-sit, keep tension in the middle and upper back.
The sit-up is a classic bodyweight exercise done by lifters of any experience level and with zero equipment. This move primarily targets the rectus abdominis (six-pack) and will help to grow the muscles for better definition. It’s reliable, easy to learn, and effective. What more do you want from an exercise?
Benefits of the Sit-Up
- You can pump out many sit-up reps, so it’s an excellent choice for creating muscular tension and building up your abs.
- There’s virtually no learning curve so anyone can do a situ-up.
- It requires zero equipment.
How to Perform the Sit-Up
Lie flat on the floor with knees bent at 90 degrees and hands across chest. Flex the abs to pull the torso up to the knees. Contract the core at the top, and slowly descend back down. That’s one rep.
Like the sit-up, the hanging knee raise is a beginner-friendly exercise that requires minimal equipment and is excellent for increasing the ab muscles’ size. It’s also very scaleable — you can straighten your legs or hold a dumbbell between your knees to make the move harder. As a bonus, hanging from a bar will seriously boost your grip strength which will help with exercises such as deadlifts, farmer carries, and pullups.
Benefits of the Hanging Knee Raise
- More torso coordination and overall body control.
- This exercise can often be done in higher volumes (may be limited by grip strength if hanging from a bar), making it a good option to build muscular endurance and hypertrophy.
- It’s scalable. The hanging knee raise can be swapped for more challenging movements like the toes to bar, strict leg raises, and L-sist, as it requires a lifter to lift less of their body mass.
How to Perform the Hanging Knee Raise
Hang from a bar with a slightly wider grip than shoulder-width apart, and shoulder blades squeezed together. Press legs together and pull your knees up to chest height without using momentum. To minimize swinging, keep tension in the core and upper back.
The medicine ball slam is an explosive core exercise that builds core strength, power, and stamina all at once. This exercise has a wide array of applications and can be done in various ways form a myriad of positions.
Benefits of the Medicine Ball Slam
- More rotational power, which will help enhance athletic movements like swinging a bat or golf club. A medicine ball can be slammed vertically, laterally, or diagonally–and these angles can help to increase core strength and power across a broader range of motion.
- The medicine ball slam combines core training with metabolic fitness for a powerful combination of core development and cardiovascular fitness.
- It’s a safe and healthy way to let off a little steam.
How to Perform the Medicine Ball Slam
Grab a rubber medicine ball, stand tall, and raise it overhead. With a tight core, powerfully pull the ball and toes downwards, slamming the ball into the floor. This is the downward slam variation, which builds the rectus abdominis and obliques.
At first glance, this may seem near-identical to the knee raise, but the toes to bar is more advanced. Instead of bringing your knees to chest level, this exercise has you — as the name implies — touch your toes to the bar. To do so requires immense grip strength, core control, and core strength. CrossFit athletes may kip on this exercise to create momentum to get their toes up and over.
Benefits of the Toes to Bar
- This advanced core exercise challenges the rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexors to a high degree, making it a good movement for hypertrophy and strength.
- More midline stability, a must when performing both strict and kipping toes to bar.
- Aside from strengthening the core, the toes to bar can improve grip and lat (back) strength due to the lifter having to secure themselves to the bar for long periods.
How to Perform the Toes to Bar
Grab a bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, and press your legs together. Pull your body backward away from the bar as you pull your knees/ankles upwards towards the bar. As your toes meet the bar overhead, stay in line with the midline and lower the legs in the same path, and repeat.
All About the Core
The biggest misconception about the core is that it’s the same as the abs. The abs, or rectus abdominis, are what make up the coveted six-pack. The primary function of the six-pack is to flex the torso forward and backward.
Anytime you swing a golf club, bend over to pick up a dumbbell with one hand, or throw a bag over your shoulder, you’re twisting side-to-side. Rotation is a crucial function of the core, and it involves more muscles than just your rectus abdominis.
In 2003, a certified strength coach name Juan Carlos Santana Published an essay in the Strength and Conditioning Journal on the Serape Effect. He wrote that your core is made up of linked muscles that run up and across the front of the body, behind the neck, and back down and across the front of the torso.
This pattern resembles a Serape, a traditional Mexican garment worn behind the neck and crossed in front of the body and tucked into one’s belt. The Serape muscles connect the opposite shoulder with the opposite hip and create force through the rotation. These muscles include the rhomboids, the serratus anterior, the external obliques, and the internal obliques.
Ensuring that your core workouts include an aspect of rotation is vital for achieving a fully efficient core.
Your core contains multiple muscles, and understanding what they are and how they work is important in obtaining a stronger, better-looking midsection. Here’s a breakdown of the major core muscles.
The rectus abdominis is often the core muscle most people refer to when they say “abs.” It visibly runs vertically up the front of the torso and is responsible for spinal flexion (sit-ups and leg raises, etc.). This muscle group is often the most targeted when people train their core, and can be very resilient to fatigue in more advanced lifters and athletes.
Obliques (Internal and External)
The obliques run diagonally (in both directions) along the torso’s sides and are responsible for rotational force output and resisting rotational stress on the spine. Movements like throwing, chopping, running, and even less dynamic movements (squats) all require the obliques to stabilize the pelvis and spine.
The transverse abdominis is a deeper muscle group that helps to stabilize the core and spinal structures. These muscles can be targeted by planks, holds, and other total-body movements that require overall control and stability of the torso (loaded carries, total-body strength lifts, etc.). Developing a strong transverse abdominis can help increase your overall core strength and functionality in most movements.
Your spinal erectors are located in your lower back and balance out the other core muscles to create symmetry and muscle balance throughout the core.
Why Train the Core
While we believe everyone should have a strong core, the reasons for having one vary based on the population and type of athlete. As discussed throughout this guide, a strong core makes you more stable, allows you to brace harder for safer lifts, and is aesthetically pleasing. The reasons that one person trains their core may be different from another person. Below, we breakdown the benefits of core training in diverse populations.
Squats, presses, pulls, and other loaded movements all require spinal stability to prevent the athlete from experiencing a severe injury like a slipped disc or muscle tear. A strong core allows an athlete to stay rigid. Strength athletes should remember that compound movements already engage the core to some degree. So, they may not need as much direct core work. You can still select a couple of the exercises from the list above and perform them at the end of your workout to bolster core strength and stability.
Increased muscular endurance and core strength can translate into improved aesthetics (only if your diet is on point), enhanced performance in some sports, and athletics that require core strength (swimming, CrossFit, running, gymnastics, etc.), and improved stability.
Less active people can still benefit from training “core-specific movements,” however, many of them should also integrate a wide array of exercises to promote overall fitness and health. Typically, compound movements such as squats, presses, and other compound exercises can be regressed and taught to new lifers, making them a much more time-efficient and beneficial movements to perform in limited training times than merely doing something like sit-ups or knee raises.
It is important to note that beginners and everyday populations will benefit from doing most forms of fitness. Core-specific training has its place in these types of programs (often in correctives and primer segments). With that said, everyday populations should emphasize a fitness regimen that focuses on total body movements and compound exercises first, rather than zeroing in on single-point and highly specific body part training (for overall efficiency in training).
Aging Individuals and Desk Bound Folks
Aging individuals and those who live a sedentary lifestyle may come into training with core instability, injuries, and other issues that will limit their ability to train some of the more advanced movements on this list. First, it is essential to understand why they cannot (strength limitations, bodily control, pain, etc.), and then determine the best route to develop core strength within those parameters.
Movements like holds, planks, and Pallof presses are good places to start as they allow a lifer to stabilize themselves quickly and do not require wide ranges of motion. Note: Many individuals will resort to performing sit-ups, which may or may not be the best for these types of individuals (for the lumbar spine).
More Core Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best ab exercises to strengthen your core, you can also check out these other helpful core training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes!
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