Dinner with the in-laws, taxes, and core work — there’s really no escaping certain obligations. Some people love ab workouts and others need them subtly woven in like vegetables in a spaghetti sauce. Regardless of where you fall, there’s a specific style of ab workout that’s best for you — whether your goal is hypertrophy, strength, you have little to no equipment, or you’re painfully trying to avoid “training abs”.
Regardless of which category you fall into, you should train your abs. Stronger abs grant you a better ability to brace during heavy lifts. And for those who are trying to cut down, bigger ab muscles create that rigid blocky appearance most people covet. That said, here are five ab workouts for specific training goals.
- Best Ab Workout for Muscle Mass
- Best Ab Workout for Strength
- Best Ab Workout for Beginners
- Best Bodyweight Ab Workout
- Best Ab Workout for Those Who Hate “Training Abs”
Note: The notation prescribed in these routines is (sets) x (reps).
Training for hypertrophy means training for increased size or definition of the abdominal muscles. While planks or other isometric exercises may seem like the cornerstone of a good ab workout — you need to train movements that contract your core muscles to bring on the gains. And because ab movements can be tricky to load, you can accumulate more stress and tension by either increased repetitions or, when applicable, increased load.
To benefit the most from abdominal hypertrophy training, you’re going to want to hit the most superficial muscles. The rectus abdominis (six-pack), external obliques, and the serratus anterior compose the most visual muscle groups of the core. Training them within mid-range repetitions while getting close to muscular fatigue is your best bet.
You can perform this workout two to three times per week. Rest for about 30 to 45 seconds between sets.
- Sit-Up: 3 x 10-15
- Oblique Crunch: 3 x 10-15
- Serratus (Scapular) Push-Up: 3 x 10-15
- Abdominal Vacuum: 4 x max time
Coaches Tip: Start with bodyweight variations and begin adding external load or weighted machine versions when you require greater challenge.
Stronger abs can help facilitate stronger lifts as they let you brace more effectively during any exercise. During deadlifts, you’ll brace your abs to prevent spinal flexion, extension, and rotation. Even in the midst of a set of biceps curls, flexing your core allows you to keep other muscles still as you isolate your biceps.
Because the goal here is to strengthen your abs to allow for stronger lifts, you’ll focus mainly on isometric exercises — meaning your muscles will remain tense in a static state. These isometric movements will essentially replicate bracing, and so they serve a functional purpose where strength gains are concerned.
To strengthen your abs with mostly isometric movements, you want to fully fatigue your ab muscles by reaching isometric failure within 30 seconds (either with your own body weight or with an external load).
You can also supplement your workouts with dynamic exercises, which will challenge your body’s ability to remain stable and neutral while in motion (as many exercises and everyday activities such as running and jumping demand).
Beginners need a range of challenges to really grow into whatever goals they ultimately want to pursue. Having a solid foundation of strength can act as a springboard for progress down the line as one continues to advance into more intermediate programs.
Starting with the “McGill Big 3” — a series of movements popularized by Dr. Stuart McGill, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo and the Chief Scientific Officer for Backfitpro.inc — and some select additions is a good spot to start for almost every single beginner. The McGill Big 3 develops baseline skill and strength while a couple of additions will cover the gap once beginner trainees start to advance beyond the absolute baseline.
Do this workout twice per week with 45 seconds of rest between movements.
McGill Big 3
Sometimes you’re stranded without a gym and desperately need to get an ab workout in. (Or maybe you’re a fan of bodyweight training.) Combining strength, hypertrophy, or foundational abdominal exercises can provide a great punch to the gut without all the barbells and whistles.
This Bodyweight ab workouts hit the core using isometric holds and high-repetition sets. Intensify the challenge by adding time or repetitions while squeezing as hard as possible. Perform this routine three times per week with 30 seconds of rest between movements.
- Front Plank: 3 x 1 minute
- Side Plank: 3 x 30 per side
- Dead Bug: 2 x 10 per side
- Shoulder Tap: 2 x 20
- Sit-Up: 2 x 20
Coaches Tip: Mix and match the most important exercises for you. Strength, hypertrophy, or foundational volume can be added or removed as needed.
Believe it or not, training abs can be the bane of some trainee’s existence. It burns, it’s tedious, and it takes up valuable biceps curl time. Really though, some people just hate the idea of dedicated abdominal training and benefit from having it woven into their pre-existing exercise selection, training with tempo, pauses, or by using more advanced techniques.
Use front-loaded squats, heavy carries, and unilateral exercises to offer a beefy challenge to the abs without feeling like you’re spending too much time on the floor doing crunches. Pausing or tempo can help emphasize core engagement and further light up the abs.
Work this routine into your existing program twice per week for best results. Rest one minute between sets.
- Tempo/Paused Front Squat: 3 x 6
- Heavy Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry: 3 x 30 steps per side
- Quadruped Row: 3 x 12 per side
- Bear Crawl: 2 x 10 meters per direction (forward and backward)
Anatomy of the Abs
The abs are a unique group of muscles that are layered superficially to deep on the trunk. Their position and muscle fiber alignment provide synergistic benefits but also help us understand how exercise selection can target specific results.
The rectus abdominis is the quintessential abdominal muscle group. It is responsible for concentrically flexing the spine or isometrically resisting spinal extension. As one of the most superficial muscles groups in the core, the rectus abdominis is most popularly known as the six-pack.
The external obliques are another prominent superficial muscle group located alongside the rectus abdominis. The external obliques reside on either side of our midsection and help to draw the chest down when both sides contract at the same time. Since you have two external obliques, they also perform side-bending or rotation of the body depending on which is contracting – for example, the oblique crunch.
While not technically a part of the abdominals, the serratus anterior is another muscle group that visually contributes to the aesthetic of a jacked midsection. The serratus anterior helps stabilize and manipulate the shoulder blade but visually produces the finger-like muscles along the upper sides of the core. We can target the serratus by performing integrated core exercises such as serratus push-ups.
The internal oblique is a layer deeper than the other muscle groups, residing underneath the external oblique and having an opposite muscle fiber orientation. This means that the internal oblique, when contracted, also helps to flex the spine, produce side-bending, or stabilize against spinal movement when contracted simultaneously.
The transverse abdominis is another layer of tissue deeper than even the internal oblique. Primarily serving to laterally flex the spine or resist spinal movement when contracted, the transverse abdominis is most commonly associated with heavy core bracing such as planks.
Benefits of Ab Workouts
Beyond sporting more muscular abs (assuming your diet is on point) the ab workouts above offer more than just aesthetics. Here’s what you need to know.
A Ripped Midsection
Hey, can we assume that if you’re reading this article you may want visible abs? If you don’t, then keep reading. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a defined midsection. Abs are incredibly hard to get. You need to be meticulous about your eating and training for a long period of time before dipping into the 10-12-percent body fat range for men and 14-17-percent for women (which is roughly where you need to be to see your abs.
If you do want to whittle your middle, know that your abs are like any other muscle — meaning you need to train them like you would train your chest, shoulders, or back. Also know that you need to track your macros to ensure you’re consuming the optimal amount of food for fat loss.
A Stronger Core
Your abs refer to your rectus abdominis, a sheath of six (or in some people’s case eight) muscles that people identify as the “six-pack”. However, there are a handful of muscles in your core, all of which work in tandem with your “six-pack” to twist, flex, and draw your torso in. It’s hard to isolate just your rectus abdominis, and, really, why would you?
In the case of achieving visible abs and a stronger core, you can have your cake and eat it too. (But seriously, you can’t eat a lot of cake if you want abs.) More core strength means you can contract your ab and back muscles more effectively. These strong contractions create a strong bracing effect, which helps to keep your spine neutral during strength exercises such as the deadlift, squat, and bench press.
Ab Programming Considerations
The programs above will all help you achieve your ab training goals. However, when and how you train your abs is as important as how you train your abs. Keep these three points in mind before you hit the mat and get to crunching.
They’re Engaged in All Exercises
The abdominals are a resilient muscle group that contributes in some fashion to nearly every single workout. Depending on the exercises, implements, or machines you select, the abs are responsible for providing spinal stability to maximize your capacity to load other muscle groups.
For example, in the single-arm dumbbell bench press, the abdominals are called upon to resist the rotational forces of using only one dumbbell. Without them, we would not be able to train the pressing muscles at all.
Isolate Them With Intent
The abdominals can also be trained directly at the end of a training session or on their own specific day. Exercises such as the squat, deadlift, and weighted pull-ups are examples of heavy compound movements that can serve to pre-exhaust the abdominals which can then be complemented with direct core exercises like planks and sit-ups finish them off. Alternatively, standalone workouts such as those listed above can be prioritized all on their own.
Let Your Abs Recover
The most important consideration is to know how much the total impact of an entire training program will have on your ab’s ability to recover. Since the abs are involved in nearly every exercise to some degree, using multi-joint exercises such as the squat and deadlift to build up abdominal strength and endurance is a good idea before jumping head first into prioritizing full abdominal-focused training sessions.
How to Warm-Up Before an Ab Workout
When trained in major compound exercises, the abdominals get their warm-up from a properly designed training program. Escalating weight during squats for example also serves to ramp up our core engagement.
When trained in isolation, briefly breaking a sweat on some cardio and using some bodyweight variations of your planned abdominal exercises is a great way to refine your technique and get the most out of your working sets.
The Final Word
Whether trained directly or indirectly the abdominals will always have a place in our training programs. As a rule of thumb, aesthetic abdominal training should focus on concentrically contracting, whereas training for abdominal function should emphasize isometrically resisting – but let’s be honest, we all want the same thing.
A killer set of abs and a diesel core to drive the rest of our goals forward. Whichever of these methods connects with you, commit and bask in the gains.
Featured Image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock