No, you don’t have to do a thousand sit-ups a day for your abs. On the other hand, you will not get a six pack from purely indirect abdominal exercises. But what are the best isolation exercises for your abs?
FUNCTION AND ANATOMY OF THE ABDOMINAL MUSCLES
Your abs are the strong link between your lower body and upper body — or should be. Your rectus abdominis muscles are responsible for flexing your spine, i.e. moving your shoulders toward your hips and vice versa, which is essentially just a difference in perspective. Your obliques assist with this and are further responsible for rotating (turning about its axis) and flexing your spine sideways.
But your abs, both straight and oblique, have one job above all: to stabilize your spine, or to keep your torso upright. That is a good argument to train your abs statically as well. From a training perspective, you don’t really need to know more about the anatomy and function of the abdominal muscles.
WHAT ARE THE BEST ABDOMINAL EXERCISES?
From the large arsenal of abdominal exercises, with or without extra weight, we have made a selection of nine (we deliberately do not say ‘the nine best’). This is certainly not purely based on our own experience and preference, because we also examined some EMG data [ i ] [ ii ] [ iii ] [ iv ] . Also note that we only include isolation exercises in this list and therefore not compound exercises such as front squats, which, according to EMG data [ v ] , also make considerable demands on the abdominal muscles. The exercises are in random order.
1. AB WHEEL ROLL-OUTS
Although certainly not a beginner’s exercise, ab wheel roll-outs give you maybe the most bang for your buck of all abs exercises. The roll-out — the eccentric part of the exercise — is one big fight against gravity and puts your abs to the max.
The exercise is not entirely without risk — ‘dangerous’, some would say — as it becomes increasingly difficult to keep your back straight towards the end. A strong lower back is therefore a precondition for being allowed to do ab wheel roll-outs.
Beginners prefer to perform the exercise kneeling rather than standing. If even that is too hard for you, you can do the exercise while kneeling with the help of a Swiss ball (Swiss-ball roll-outs). You can also make the exercise easier by limiting the range of motion (ROM) and not fully extending. Do the variation that allows you to do at least 10 reps. Can you manage that, then switch to a more difficult execution.
When rolling out, make sure that your back remains straight. Stop the exercise if you notice that your lower back is ‘slumping’ too much! Check out the video below to see what we mean.
It is quite possible that you will also feel your triceps working during ab-wheel rollouts. However, be careful not to let their role get too big. You may be using your arms too much; initiate the movement from your hips as much as possible.
2. BARBELL PUSH SIT UPS
In barbell push sit-ups, you hold a (weighted) barbell above your shoulders while performing a sit-up. It is important to sit completely upright, otherwise you are in fact performing aggravated crunches.
Another point to consider is the position of the barbell; you have to push it up. In fact, it does not move further forward than your shoulders. You can perform the exercise on a flat or decline abdominal bench if you want to make the exercise more difficult. In principle, you can also use a medicine ball instead of a barbell.
Barbell push sit-ups specifically target your upper abs.
3. HANGING LEG RAISES
For the reason mentioned above, leg raises target the lower part of your rectus abdominal muscle, as they move your hips toward your shoulders. There are several variants of leg lifting. My favorite is the hanging leg lift, where you hold on to a pull-up bar or handles, and you don’t get any further support from armrests or a backrest, like with a power tower.
With the hanging leg lift, you want to think about crunching your lower abs in your upper abs together rather than simply thinking of lifting your legs up, which is most likely the hip flexors going to take over. Once you reach the top position reverse the range of motion by lowering your legs back down under control and if you focus on using your abs to control the movement rather than generating momentum by rocking your torso back and forth, your hips should remain pretty well stable and locked in position when you look from the side. You can make the exercise even harder by clamping a dumbbell between your knees or ankles.
An easier variant is the hanging knee lift, performed with bent knees, keeping your shins perpendicular to the floor. And as mentioned earlier, to make the exercise easier you can also perform it in a power tower.
Remember that exercises that move your shoulders toward your hips emphasize your upper abs, and exercises that move your hips toward shoulders emphasize your lower abs. ‘Emphasize’ is certainly not the same as isolating. The upper or lower part of your straight abdominal muscle (the abs) is simply not possible.
4. KNEELING CABLE CRUNCHES
The big advantage of kneeling cable crunches is that you can easily adjust the resistance. You just need to adjust the pin. This makes it easy to use an intensity technique such as dropsets with this exercise.
Kneeling cable crunches are performed while kneeling in front of a pulley station, with a (double) triceps rope attached to the cable. In principle, it doesn’t matter much whether your face points towards the station or away from it. For a correct execution, it is important that your hips remain in the same position during the execution and do not take over the work of your abs.
It is also important not to pull the rope with your arms and let your shoulders or triceps do some of the work; the position of your hands in relation to your head remains unchanged! For maximum contraction of your abdominal muscles, it is important that you arch your back. That is not an execution error this time, but a must!
5. CABLE ROTATIONS (OBLIQUES)
Cable rotations are the first exercise on our list that specifically targets your obliques. You can perform the exercise in a (single) pulley station, with the pulley slightly lower than shoulder height and a one-hand grip attached to the cable. You stand perpendicular to the station.
Rotate your torso and grab the handle with both hands. With your arms straight, bring the grip in front of the center of your chest over a 90-degree path. You do that by just rotating your torso; your hips remain in almost the same position.
6. (SPREAD-EAGLE) JACKKNIFE
With conventional jackknives, you bring your feet and hands together, just like closing a knife. This exercise combines sit-ups with leg raises.
With spread-eagle jackknives you do exactly the same as with regular jackknives, only now you spread your legs, so that you involve your hip flexors in the exercise. Your abs and hip flexors work together in complex exercises like the squat and deadlift as well as in everyday life.
We advise you to regularly train your abs and hip flexors together, such as with (hanging) hip/leg lifts. If you only train your abs in isolation, they ‘forget’ how to work together with your hip flexors.
7. BICYLE CRUNCHES (OBLIQUES)
You may have seen this exercise in an old aerobics video (VHS!) of your mom starring Jane Fonda. But don’t let that stop you from performing this great exercise!
With bicycle crunches you do not sit on a bicycle, but you lie on the ground with your torso and legs raised; only your behind makes contact with the ground. In this position, alternately move your left and right knees toward your shoulders. At the same time, twisting your torso toward the raised leg, try — for example — to hit your right knee with your left elbow, just like twisting sit-ups.
This all-round exercise actually combines several exercises and simultaneously targets your straight (both upper and lower) and obliques.
8. RKC PLANK
The plank is a static exercise for your core, your waist. But one plank is not like the other. Experienced strength athletes can better exchange the traditional plank for a much more effective variant, the RKC plank.
According to a study by coaches Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras (pdf), the RKC plank engages the upper and lower straight abs (the “abs”) four times as much as the traditional plank, and the obliques (the “obliques”) three times as much. The glutes also work much harder.
With the RKC plank you adjust the traditional plank on two points:
1. Move your arms slightly forward so that your elbows are almost directly under your eyes.
2. Raise your body by tilting your pelvis back (posterior pelvic tilt position – see picture). That means you have to work hard on your glutes, quadriceps and abs at the same time.
A good RKC plank puts your entire body under tension for just 8-10 seconds. The RKC plank is therefore not only more effective, but also more efficient (and less boring) than the often endless traditional plank.
9. BEAR CRAWL
The bear crawl is in a way the most dynamic exercise on this list, as it is the only exercise where you actually leave your spot and move forward. As the name of the exercise suggests, the bear crawl has you moving like a bear: on all fours, moving your left leg and right arm at the same time. This exercise calls on your entire midsection.
Abs are often trained in very high rep ranges. However, that is not necessary. To avoid central and cardiovascular fatigue, it is best to train your abs also in the range of 6 to 20 repetitions, just like you do with other muscle groups. Abs are like any other muscle and therefore does not require any special treatment.
- [ i ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16649890
- [ ii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20436242
- [ iii ] http://main.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/1418/Seven_Best_Ab_Exercises.aspx
- [ iv ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-ab-exercises
- [ v ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19417231