The Problem with Ab Workouts
Most ab training is a smorgasbord of "functional" exercises or a hapless diet of crunches, side-bends, and sit-ups. Both mistaken approaches will bore you to death rather than get you jacked. No wonder you're left asking: "How come I can't see my abs yet?"
The truth is most ab routines out there are complete garbage. Yes, diet is a key factor to seeing your abs, but doing a half-assed ab exercise to wrap up each workout won't build the strong, chiseled abs you're after, either.
Building Brutally Strong Abs
If you want to build your abs up, you'll need to prioritize them. Use the following multi-faceted approach for at least 6 weeks to build strong abs that prevent injury, supercharge performance, and turn heads.
- You'll begin each workout with anti-movements. These are to prevent injury and reinforce a strong, stable mid-section.
- Then add high-tension movements, single-limb movements, and direct ab movements. These will build dense muscle through your abs.
1 – Prevent Injury With Anti-Movements
As the functional folks never tire of preaching, the goal of core training is to prevent unnecessary movement through your spine. And your core must provide a stable base to transfer force from the upper body to the lower body. In order to do that, you need anti-movements.
These resist extension of the spine. They include:
- Ab wheel rollouts
- Walkouts (shown below by Ben Bruno)
These build the ability to prevent your body from bending sideways. Deep stabilizers like the quadratus lumborum (QL) and external muscles like your obliques carry out this role. They include:
- Side planks
- Carrying all your groceries in one hand
- Suitcase deadlifts (coached below by Christian Thibaudeau)
These build resistance through the lumbar spine. You need the "anti" movements in your training if you want to maximize performance and prevent injury. The goal here is to stimulate and strengthen. Program these exercises first in your workout to boost performance and prevent injury:
- Pallof press
- Cable chop/lift
2 – High Tension Strength-Building Exercises
After doing anti-rotation movements, you'll program strength-building exercises. They're a much a better way to get a six pack than starving yourself. Build brutally strong abs with high-tension exercises that also build total body strength and power. These big lifts are the backbone of all good programs. You'll perform a steady dose of the following:
If you're new to front squats, adding in these puppies will obliterate your mid-section. Your torso battles to keep you vertical and prevent your hips from going into an excessive anterior pelvic tilt. This hammers your obliques, rectus abdominus, and spinal erectors. It prevents folding forward like an accordion and dumping the bar.
Double-Paused Front Squat
Front squats alone are a killer for your abs. Take them up a notch by adding in two pauses. First, pause in the hole of your squat, then pause above parallel in your sticking point. You'll create immediate tension during the lift and then hold it through the toughest part of the exercise.
Farmers walks require stabilization of your hip and spine with every step. Your ab and back muscles work in concert to prevent unwanted movement, building a dense, strong core that's as powerful as it looks. Posture dictates muscular function, so keep your spine tall and abs braced with each step.
Single-Arm Farmers Carry
Single-arm farmers carries have all the benefits of typical farmers carries, but the offset loading forces your quadratus lumborum and obliques to prevent lateral flexion.
Hang deadlifts are a full deadlift followed by a deadlift to the base of the knee before locking out. This ends up being a long time-under-tension movement, requiring you to reinforce trunk stiffness. Your core works in all dimensions to prevent flexion and transfer force. It all adds up to an incredible high-performance ab exercise.
Other useful high-tension strength building movements include cleans, chin-ups, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
3 – Single-Limb Ab Exercises
These force you to recruit more core muscles to stabilize the spine and transfer load in ways neglected by bilateral lifts.
One-Arm Dumbbell Snatch
Beyond building world-class athleticism and shirt-stretching traps, dumbbell snatches provide a missing component in most lifters' ab training – high-velocity movement. Using a total body movement like a single-arm dumbbell snatch requires your core to contract and transfer force. Your abs contract to stabilize the unbalanced weight overhead.
Split-Stance Dumbbell Row
A split-stance dumbbell row turns your dumbbell row into an excellent anti-rotation and anti-flexion core exercise.
With a heavy dumbbell in one hand, lock the opposite arm out on a bench and hold a flat back position. Keep the feet staggered and row the dumbbell in a "j-path" towards your ribcage while preventing unwanted rotation and flexion.
Single-Arm Overhead Press
All overhead presses are great core exercises, but single-arm varieties are even better. As you lift overhead, your core must stabilize to prevent unwanted hyper-extension through your spine. Taken a step further, single-arm dumbbell presses require you to prevent lateral flexion, training deep stabilizers like your quadratus lumborum (QL) and superficial muscles like your obliques. Here's what the push press version looks like:
Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Beyond attacking muscular imbalances from barbell pressing, single-arm bench presses force you to drive your feet into the ground to prevent you from corkscrewing off the bench. As a result, you'll bring up weak points in your upper body while hammering your obliques and QL.
4 – Building Muscular Abs
The mechanisms for hypertrophy are the same whether we're talking about biceps or abs. You'll need to combine high-tension exercises, create metabolic stress, and create muscular damage. The exercises listed above provide plenty of tension. Now your focus shifts to creating metabolic stress and damage through longer duration isolation sets to cap off your training.
These isolation exercises will maximize your muscle-mind connection, but abstain from hammering too many rotational-based exercises like side bends. Over-developed obliques leave you with the blocky abs look rather than a narrow, defined mid-section. The anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion movements described earlier provide plenty of stimulation for your obliques.
As with all isolation exercises, use a long time under tension to create metabolic stress. Take a one second pause at the top, three to five second eccentric (negative), a slight pause, and a two-second concentric (lifting phase). Stay focused and let your abs do the work rather than racing through these.
Stability Ball Crunch
Using a stability ball (yeah, can you believe it?), lie on your back with you feet pressed firmly into the ground. Your lower back should be centered over the ball. With your hands placed on the side of your head, lean back and stretch your abs before crunching forward, rolling your shoulders towards your hips and squeezing your abs.
Kneeling Cable Crunch
Kneel while holding a rope attachment on a pulley at eye-level. With the sides of the rope held next to your head, push your hips forward, extending your hips and stretching your abs at the top of the movement before flexing at the waist, squeezing your abs as hard as possible at the bottom.
Hanging Leg Raise
Grab a pull-up bar with a double overhand grip, squeezing the bar as tightly as possible and keeping the elbows slightly bent. Keep your shoulder blades retracted as if tucking them into your back pocket and holding them there. From this position, flex your quads and bring your legs up past 90 degrees, allowing your hips to roll up, forming an "L" shape with your body. Pause at the top range of motion for two seconds, lower under control.
Suspension Trainer Knee Tucks
Hook your feet into the straps of a suspension trainer and assume a push-up position. Bring your knees in towards your stomach while lifting the hips and crunching your abs. Extend back out to a full push-up position and repeat.
Remember, you're doing a program to emphasize the abs! Most of the exercises you do should be targeted towards your mid-section.
- Split your workouts into upper body and lower body sessions, but you only need to throw in a big movement or two to target the chest (bench press) and back (barbell rows) on upper body days and a big movement for legs (squats or deadlifts) on lower body day.
- The rest of the workout should consist of ab movements chosen from the 4 categories listed above: anti-rotation, high-tension strength building, single-limb ab exercises, and muscular ab exercises. Each workout should contain one or two movements from each category.
- Each week, follow the basics of progressive overload by adding weight to the bar and getting a little bit stronger from workout to workout. When combined with an aggressive fat loss diet, you'll have diamond cut abs.