Most people tend to go completely overboard when it comes to abdominal exercises. It’s like everything anyone’s ever read about the myth of spot reduction goes out the window when they perform endless crunches while chasing an elusive six pack. I shake my head every time I see a trainer putting an overweight client through some kind of ridiculous ab circuit.
Abs are made in the kitchen! You have to get your diet in check before you can even think about seeing your abdominal muscles. Everyone has a six pack – it’s just a matter of whether you have a winter bulge covering it or not!
However, regular core training is beneficial as it will improve your compound lifts such as the squat and deadlift. Performing hundreds of crunches is largely ineffective as it only works the exterior superficial muscles, and does nothing for the deep inner muscles that are engaged during the compound lifts. Here are my favourite and preferred ab exercises:
Fix a D-handle to a medium height cable machine. Turn side on to the machine and reach across, gripping the handle with both hands. Take a step away from the machine so that you feel tension in the cable. Keeping your arms as straight as possible and your hips facing forward, pull the cable across to the opposite side of your body while rotating your torso. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for 10-12 reps before switching to the other side.
You can also perform this exercise as a low-to-high woodchop, high-to-low woodchop (pictured) and even kneeling with the opposite leg up. If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can use a medicine ball.
Attach a rope, D-handle or resistance band to a cable set at chest height. Stand facing side on and grip the cable close to your chest. Step away from the machine until you feel tension in the cable or band. Slowly straighten your arms in front of your body. Pause and then slowly return to the start.
Walks and carries
I love performing farmers walks for cardio. Using only one arm, which is known as a suitcase carry, makes this exercise a great core challenge. You simply carry a heavy dumbbell for a length or two of the gym, being careful not to lean to one side, drop your chest or shrug your shoulders.
You can also perform waiters carries holding a (much lighter!) weight above your head.
Single leg lowering
Lie on your back with your legs straight up in the air. Bracing your abdominal muscles, slowly lower one leg until it’s just a couple of inches from the floor and lift it back up. Alternate sides.
Ab roll out
You can perform these using a special ab wheeler, a barbell or a swiss ball. Kneel and grip the barbell/wheeler or place your forearms on the swiss ball. Brace your abs and slowly roll the ball or bar in front of you as you extend your arms fully. Roll out as far as you can without letting your hips to sag. Use your core muscles to return to the starting position.
Start in a push up position, but with your weight resting on your forearms rather than your hands. Make sure everything from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet is in one straight line. Hold for 30-60 seconds. There are a number of variations that you can perform such as a side plank, Swiss ball plank or one leg elevated plank.
I don’t think everyone should perform planks, however. Unless you have some foundation of core strength, performing a plank can be painful and hazardous. A good way to test whether planks are a suitable exercise for you is to hold a plank for as long as possible – if you start to feel it in your lower back first, your core is not strong enough to perform the exercise. They are not the best exercise for anyone who has ever had a lower back injury.
This is a great exercise for beginners who are learning to activate their deep core muscles for the first time. Begin on all fours. Raise one arm straight in front of you while simultaneously stretching the opposite leg behind you. Hold for 5-10 seconds, squeezing the abdominals.
I would recommend performing three to four of the exercises above once or twice per week for best results.
What is your favourite ab exercise?