The Best Abs Exercise Workouts | How To Fit Core Strength Routines Into Your Training

How should you be training your abs and core? What are the best abs exercise workouts? Last week we talked about why training the abs directly is so important. Now let's go into some specifics of the exercises I recommend and how to fit core strength routines into your training.
 

The Best Abs Exercise Workouts | BIGGEST TAKE AWAYS

In case you don't read the entire article, remember these points when it comes to ab training:

  • Train your ability to maintain a great core position (i.e. static holds), and not your ability to flex, extend, rotate or side bend under load. In the long-run, your spine will thank you!
     
  • Work on building endurance first. Then practice some peak-tension drills.
     
  • Do direct ab work in your warm-ups to activate the muscles and practice the optimal positions. A few short sets work well so you don't cause too much fatigue which can limit performance in the bulk of your workout.
     
  • Also do direct ab work near the end of your workout to improve core strength. Pick at least one of the four functions of your abs to train and ensure that by the end of the week, you've done some hard training on all four functions.
     
  • Remember that nearly all exercises have a core component. Strive to maintain neutral posture with strong core engagement in your regular training. Practicing perfect positions consistently will make them become second nature, but it takes constant mental focus during training to avoid bad habits.

 

Static Holds & LOADED CARRIES Are Best Starting Point

Research on performance and injury prevention show that exercises like planks are better than moves like crunches. Why?

First off, repeatedly bending the spine under load has been shown to be a mechanism for disk injury. We can confidently say that doing thousands of crunches isn't a hot idea.

Second, our core's biggest job is to stabilize our trunk. In other words, it's supposed to prevent it from moving or bending. We almost never do anything that resembles a sit-up in most athletic movements. When we lift or run we (ideally) maintain a neutral posture while our legs and arms bend and extend to produce force. Our core muscles simply hold us in place to create a stable foundation for the rest of our body to move and do work. 

Static holds like planks or L-sit train the abs in this manner, thereby improving carry over to real-world activities. Loaded carries can almost be considered walking planks, since we're stabilizing our core under load and movement. 

 

Train Four Aspects of the Abs

We want to choose exercises that help us get better at preserving our neutral alignment and that improve our ability to avoid resorting to these 4 less optimal positions.

We want to choose exercises that help us get better at preserving our neutral alignment and that improve our ability to avoid resorting to these 4 less optimal positions.

Obviously the spine has a natural curve, but that's well beyond my artistic skill! Either way, everything from the pelvis up should be fixed into a stiff, neutral position during effective ab/core training. Some common mistakes are to over-extend in the plank and to flex the spine in a deadlift.

Obviously the spine has a natural curve, but that's well beyond my artistic skill! Either way, everything from the pelvis up should be fixed into a stiff, neutral position during effective ab/core training. Some common mistakes are to over-extend in the plank and to flex the spine in a deadlift.

The abs have four main aspects. They prevent us from flexing the spine too much, over-extending the spine, rotating too much, or side bending.  The stronger our abs are, the better we'll be able resist being pulled out of a neutral position across these four scenarios.

To train these aspects, we want to think about drills that challenge our capacity to resist flexion, resist extension, resist rotation, and resist side bending. The cool part is that even though there are so many different ab exercises, our main goal is always the same: resist getting pulled out of a strong position.

Here are some examples of effective exercises, starting with easier variations, and moving to more difficult ones.
 

Anti-Flexion Progressions:

  • Superman hold (make sure you can do at least 2mins). 
  • Weighted Superman holds, Weighted Hip Extensions on a GHD or 45 degree bench
  • Romanian Deadlifts, Deadlifts, Farmers Walks, Sandbag Carries
     

Anti-Extension Progressions:

  • Front Plank (make sure you can do at least 90sec) and hollow body holds
  • Dead bugs, hollow body holds with straight arm lat pull down, Weighted front planks, Jack Knife of Swiss Ball, Body Saw on Ball or on TRX/Rings.
  • L-Sit (while maintaining hold body position), Ab wheel/ab roller, double Kettlebell front rack carries.
     

Anti-Lateral Flexion (side bending) Progressions:

  • Side Plank (make sure you can do at least 90sec/side)
  • Single Leg Side Plank, Single Arm Farmers Walk, Regular Farmers Walks, Single Arm Deadlifts, side planks with weight vest.
  • Human flag
     

Anti-Rotation Progressions:

  • Rotating Planks, Plank Shoulder Touches, Palloff Press
  •  Single Arm Deadlifts, Landmine circles, Landmine Twists, Side to Side Medicine Ball throws
 
 

*If you'd like some more specifics for how to train each aspect and how to progress each one let me know via email. If it's a popular request, I'll put out another post and video series.
 

Train for Muscular Endurance First

When training the abs, start by building muscular endurance. Above all else, the abs are postural muscles. That means we always need them to work, even if we're tired. It doesn't help much if you can maintain good alignment for 30-seconds, but then tire out and slump into an ineffective posture.  

That means your training should include exercises where each set takes you between 75-120secs with about 60-90sec rest between sets. Once you've established a baseline of endurance, you can add drills that challenge your ability to produce maximal ab tension. These 'peak tension' drills are excellent for pre-workout activation. They're also a fantastic tool to practice the skill of generating as much stiffness through the core as possible.

 
 

The "super-plank" drill (shown here in this video) is an example of a peak-tension drill for anti-extension. Usually it's held for 20-30sec at a time for maximum intensity. 

 


Abs in Your Warm-up and Workout

Including some core work into your warm-ups helps activate to those muscles, improve your ability to generate more ab tension, and therefore enhances your capacity to stay in the best possible body positions during your heavier training.

For warm-ups, as I already mentioned, few peak tension drills work very well. Super planks, side planks or rotating planks are a few simple examples of excellent exercises. You don't need to fry your abs and go to near failure. A few 30-sec sets interspersed with the rest of your warm-up is sufficient. 

I also strongly recommend doing direct ab work near the end of most (or all) of your workouts. You wouldn't want to crush your abs prior to a heavy squat session since you need your abs to be as fresh and strong as possible. But after you've finished your most demanding exercises, devote a few sets to training at least one of the four jobs of your abs each session. This will go a long way to keeping you healthy and strong. If you've been lifting weights, the most demanding barbell exercises tend to tax your extension muscles the most. I've found that doing some anti-extension activities (i.e. hold body holds, etc.) at the end of your training can help reset your posture. Click here for my approach to this.

 

Is Every Exercise Is A Core Exercise?

Remember that most exercises have a core control component. We said at the start that our limbs are our prime movers. We target our legs, hips, shoulders and arms in most training regimes. But effectively training our limbs requires good core stability. 

In addition to doing direct ab work, also stay focused on maintaining a strong neutral trunk position in all of your main exercises, be it squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, chin-ups, and so on. 

If you forget to focus on maintaining proper core stability in the gym, you'll be limiting your potential on the long-run. Don't let butt-wink and other performance sapping technique problems slow down your gains. The simplest thing to remember while lifting is to maintain the 2-hand rule. 

 
 

 

 

Get Creative With Progressions

It can be difficult to progress some of our basic ab exercises. You can do weighted front planks, for example, but what about side planks? How do we progress our oblique training (i.e. anti-side bending?). You've got to get creative.

One of my favourite options is to include plenty of loaded carries, often combining them with a static hold. Here's one of my all-time favourite anti-side-bending workouts.