Last summer, I was asked what my next goal in the gym was: my answer was quick and simple – shredded abs*. There are so many exercises you can use to work your core muscles, including many compound exercises that need a strong core to perform, like squats.
This is one of the key reasons why many people in the fitness industry don’t focus exclusively on their abdominal muscles very often (if at all), because many of their other exercises actually target their core muscles as well. It’s also true that, as the saying goes, abs are made in the kitchen; which essentially means that, if your body fat percentage is too high, or you store too much fat around your mid-section, you are unlikely to see the six pack underneath.
However, if you do fancy training your abs a couple of times a week, there are a great selection of exercises that will help you isolate and challenge those muscles. Here are a few of my favourites for working all of them; your rectus abdominus (the muscles to the front of your stomach), you obliques (side muscles) and your erector spinae (which runs down the length of your spine).
1. Hanging leg or knee raise
One of the single best abdominal exercises you can use: but it is also one of the hardest. The hanging leg raise really does require some pretty strong abs to begin with. Using a chin-up bar (or handles), slowly raise your legs up, keeping them as straight as possible. The aim should be to touch your toes to your fingers at the top. You should attempt to remain as controlled as possible throughout the move, as swinging will lessen the amount of work your abs get and could also put too much pressure on your back and shoulders. If you find this exercise too hard, switch your straight legs for bent legs and bring your knees towards your chest. Make sure your knees come high enough to properly engage your lower abdominals, as otherwise, your hip flexors could be taking the majority of the work. A step between both of these exercises would be to grip a light dumbbell between your feet and then bring your knees towards your chest. If this doesn’t get your abs hurting… well… do some more!
2. Kneeling cable crunch
My all time favourite ab exercise is the kneeling cable crunch: it’s super easy to set up and very effective in building strong abdominals, but it is also relatively easy to get wrong. Using the rope fitting on the cable machine – and making sure the pulley is in the high position – kneel on the floor (on an exercise mat) and, gripping one end of the rope in each hand, slowly lower this towards your head. To start the exercise, bring your face down towards the floor, and your chin and your elbows towards your knees. Make sure that you aren’t using your arms to pull the cable down, and that you are curling from your spine, rather than simply hinging at your hips. To help with this, imagine your abdominal muscles getting shorter throughout the movement; remember, this is a ‘crunch’. Once you have lowered your elbows to your knees, return to the starting position and repeat. This really is one of my favourite ab exercises. In fact, for four months I didn’t do anything else. It really is effective, as it allows you to really crank up the weight, which, in turn, promotes really great strength gains and muscle development.
3. Side bend
Search ‘side bend’ in google and you’ll most likely be delivered a ream of articles explaining why they are useless. To be fair, it’s the same with a lot of exercises. You will find people who are pro and against most movements. One article I read said you should avoid side bends because they are too ‘easy’. Huh? Why should you exclude an exercise because it’s easy? Bicep curls are easy, but that doesn’t stop bodybuilders using them. I use side bends as a core part of my training to really focus attention on the internal and external obliques (the muscles at the side of your abdomen). To perform the movement, place feet a shoulder width apart, grasp a dumbbell in your left hand and place your right hand on your waist. Slowly lower the dumbbell down the left hand side of your body, bending laterally as far as is comfortable, then slowly return to standing position, crunching ever-so-slightly over to the right, as far as is comfortable. Repeat this for as many reps as you feel necessary (depending on the weight you have chosen). Take a rest before switching hands.
In 2018, a former US Marine, George Hood, set the new planking world record – staying in position for 10 hours, 10 minutes and 10 seconds. That’s 10 hours and 6 minutes longer than my record. But don’t fret, you won’t need to come anywhere close to this record to feel the burn. The plank is one of the easiest core exercises to perform, and one of the best for overall core strength. It might not be the best for six pack definition, but it will help you build strength in your internal stabilising muscles – such as the erector spine – which will help with your posture, and will also help strengthen your back – great if you experience lower back pain. To perform a plank, position yourself on the floor, elbows directly under your shoulders. Raise yourself onto your toes and forearms, keeping your body as straight as possible. Try not to let your bottom dip or rise; you should be aiming to look as much like a plank of wood as possible. Hold the position for as long as you can. One minute is great. If you get close to 5 minutes, serious kudos to you, and if you get anywhere near 10 hours … you could be in for a record!
*I didn’t actually use the word ‘shredded’. But, because it sounds better, let’s pretend I did.