The abdomen ( or more accurately the core) is essential for virtually all activities of daily living. As the bridge that connects and supports both the upper and lower body, it’s importance for function can’t be overstated. But beyond function let’s get real, most of us are interested in 6 pack abs. It can be hard navigating through the right exercises for abs, with so many different tools and products promising 6 pack abs, how does one find the best ab exercises?
A few things to understand about abs for a successful workout: abs are more than just 6 packs, there are multiple muscle groups that make up the abdominal region and the core as a whole. To build a well rounded core you have to develop all of these muscle groups, and the best way to do that is to find the most effective exercises for each.
A Hard Truth…
I feel the need to mention this disclaimer before working on your abs: Don’t use ab exercises alone to reduce abdominal fat specifically.
It seems like common sense– to lose fat in a certain area you just have to train that specific muscle group. I hear it all the time; “I want to lose these flabby arms” or “ I want to get rid of this gut” and many people take these concepts into workouts thinking it’s going to torch for instance their belly fat and create 6 pack abs. That’s simply not the case. Unfortunately spot reduction doesn’t work like that.
In a study investigating the effects of ab exercises on the abdominal region, researchers found that after 6 weeks of testing there were no significant effects of ab exercises on body weight, body fat percentage, abdominal circumference, or abdominal skin fold circumference .
You may be thinking “if this exercise isn’t burning fat, what’s the point?”. Well the good news is you are building “6 pack abs” with each ab workout, but ab workouts alone aren’t enough to reduce total body fat. The body doesn’t prioritize fat loss for one particular area; it’s the entire body or nothing at all. This means that abdominal work has to be one workout to a complete program that reduces body fat overall in order to reveal your 6 pack abs. I personally recommend a program with a solid balance of resistance training, cardio and strategic nutrition. If you have all of these factors I garauntee you will develop wash-board abs, but in the meantime here are some exercises that will develop a well-rounded core.
The “Best” Ab Exercises
According to a study from the American Physical Therapy Association, based on EMG (electromyographic) results, these three exercises had the highest muscle activation compared to other traditional and non-traditional ab exercises .
The ab wheel had the highest activation of the upper and lower rectus abdominis, internal oblique, latissimus dorsi based on EMG results. This comes as no surprise because the control and strength needed in your abdomen is off the charts! With the wheel out in front of you, allow it to glide further away from your body. A slow, steady pace is ideal as the wheel comes back to your body and return to an upright position.
Hanging Knee-Ups With Straps
According to a study by the American Council on Exercise this was one of the highest performing exercises for the obliques . With your arms in the straps simply raise your knees up towards your chest. Do your best to keep the movement as controlled and intentional as possible, getting your knees up as high as possible for every rep and slowly lowering them back to the starting position.
Reverse Crunches With 30 Degree Incline
This crunch variation stands out above the rest, causing more muscular activation in the rectus abdominis than any of it’s peers. The trick is to perform this exercise on an incline bench, rolling your leg up and past your chest, folding your lower body close to your torso. Try to make sure your legs get as little rest on the ground or base of the bench as possible to keep the intensity high.
Researchers found that these exercises not only the most effective exercises for activating abdominal muscles, they are also the most effective at activating extraneous musculature too.
Stabilize your body by resting your forearms on the pad, gripping the hand holds, and lightly pressing your back against the back pad. The starting position begins with your legs hanging below you, then slowly lifting your knees towards your chest. Be sure that the motion is controlled as you bring your knees and legs back to the starting position. To further target the oblique try raising your knees to either side of your body.
With your hands on your head, connect your opposite knee and elbow over your torso. The knee should bend at about a 45 degree angle and move in a bicycle pedal motion.
The starting position is similar to that of a push up with the body basically parallel with the ground. with the elbows against the floor, you’ll want to make sure that your legs, torso, and neck are all aligned without any dipping or bowing of the back. In order to keep everything aligned and stable, you’ll have to use your core to stabilize the body which is why planks are such a great ab exercise. Challenge yourself by lengthening the time under tension.
Some other points:
I would suggest training abs 3 to 5 times per week, the core is rarely fatigued to the point that it needs multiple days for recovery, so working it multiple times a week is ideal
Another way to get the most out of the workout is to switch up the tempo during the contraction (shortening, lengthening, static) of the abdomen. Unlike other body parts, not much weight can be added to ab exercises to increase the intensity, but nothing burns quite like slowing down the lowering phase of a crunch for a few sets.
Change Your Ab Workouts Periodically
Switching up the reps, sets, and tempo are all great ways to ensure an intense workout, but never forget: the body is the master of adaptation. It’s programmed to grow bigger, faster, and stronger to meet the demands placed on it, no matter how initially grooming the workout was. What was hard for you 3 weeks ago won’t maintain the same level of difficulty for you now, and it’s in those difficult reps that the magic (results) materialize. To prevent hitting plateaus in your growth try changing your ab workouts completely, altering the exercises, reps, sets — everything.
Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone For Exercise Selections
Abs are such a brutal muscle group to work, it’s tempting to just stick with the standard sit up or crunch in a subconscious attempt to avoid pain. But with abs there is such a deep and rich inventory of exercises, equipment, combinations, muscles, and painful contractions to explore; one can’t just stick with the surface level, dive deep into the possibilities. With so many muscle groups that make up your core, building a well rounded ab region may require you to practice some non-traditional exercises for the best results. Embrace the challenge, embrace the intensity and you will build abs that stand above the rest.
Do It Right, Do It Well
The lumbar spine (lower back) has to move in multiple directions to perform a well rounded ab routine (spinal flex ion, rotation, lateral flexion). It goes without saying that a lot can go wrong if exercises aren’t performed correctly or you already have a history of back pain. This is why, though common sense, this point can’t be emphasized enough— know the limits of your body and execute every exercise with proper form. This is not just for the health and longevity of your back, but developing world class abs is about being intentional with every rep, controlling every movement of the trunk to sculpt every intended muscle