Here’s what you need to know:
- Yes, training abs directly is important for a strong injury proof low back
- Yes, training your abs is important for having a six pack.
- No, you can’t have a six pack and also drink alcohol/soda 6 days per week.
- Most ab exercises you see at the gym are a waste of time.
Ab training gets a bad rap because most of the time people spend the majority of their workout doing silly ineffective fluff exercises like crunches and cable rotations. And for those in-the-know who train the ANTI movements (anti rotation, flexion, extension) their workout might only include a plank or two.
Here’s a list of the most effective ab exercises that you can do that involve just bodyweight. Sub these in for your normal ab exercises, or try the 15 minute workout included at the end of the article.
I included links to all of the exercises.
[If you’re looking for a full program, you can grab My Home Bodyweight Program HERE, or skip to the bottom of the article to see the core program]
Crunches – If you’re still doing sets of 25+ crunches, c’mon! There’s a million other exercises that are better, and let’s be honest, if you’re able to do 25, you’re doing neck-ups, not good crunches anyways.
Machine Abs – Literally any machine that is supposed to be targeting your abs is dumb. The worst offenders? The twisty ab machines. Please don’t do those if you’re interested in having a long term relationship with your spine.
Whether you’re just getting into working out, or coming back from an injury, here are 3 essential core and ab exercises that you should be doing. I stole these from Dr Stuart McGill, the worlds leading spine expert. He calls these his “Big 3”.
McGill Curl Up – Lay on your back with one leg extended and one knee bent. Put both hands under the small of your backand lift the elbows. Now “curl” the shoulders up off the ground very slightly while squeezing the abs hard.
Make sure you’re not cranking on the neck as you lift up.
Bird Dog – Start in a quadraped position. Keep the core flat and stable like you’re trying to balance a cup of water on the booty.
Extend the left arm in front at the same time as you extend the right leg behind. Keep core engaged and no movement through torso. Repeat all reps on one side before moving on.
Side Plank – Single elbow and feet on the ground, while the hips are lifted and the core is engaged.
Make sure that your posture is good, and make it look easy!
Dead Bug – Not one of the “Big 3”, but a great exercise. Basically an inverted bird dog, where you’re laying on your back on the ground with knees at 90 degrees and arms reaching to the ceiling.
Extend one arm overhead at the same time as you extend the opposite leg. Switch every time, without letting your low back arch.
Now we’re getting into some tougher stuff. These aren’t just remedial exercises, they involve active core stabilization, and can be used to train core stability as well as a redic 6-pack.
Hollow Body Rock – Lay on your back on the ground and squeeze your abs tight to get a good amount of core tension. Extend the legs in front and the arms overhead.
If your low back arches, you might not be strong enough for this one, or you can make it easier by bringing your hands and feet closer to each other. (the closer the easier it gets)
Rock forwards and backwards, while holding the core tight and not letting hands or legs hit the ground.
Plank Shoulder Taps – Hold a strong plank here with feet slightly wider than your hips and hands closer than shoulder width.
Reach up one hand and tap the opposite shoulder. Make sure the hips stay level – remember the water test from the Bird Dog exercise. If you’re swaying side to side, you’re not focusing enough.
Leg Lift with Hip Press – Grab something behind your head, a bench, or something sturdy. Lift your legs up until your heels are pointing at the ceiling. Now drive those heels even higher by pressing hips and butt into the air.
Reverse the process slowly and under control. Don’t let back arch as the legs come down, and don’t touch your feet to the ground.
Sprinter Sit Up – Lay on your back, and lift both feet off the ground a few inches. Higher is easier.
Now, quickly sit up and bring one knee in, while the other leg stays straight. The opposite hand from the knee that came in should come up like a sprinter, while the other hand stays down near the hip.
Lower slowly and do the other side.
Only do these exercises if you can successfully do 10 of each exercise in the medium category. These are reserved for those who can knock out 2 minutes of planks easily.
Toes to Bar – Hang from a pullup bar, and with legs as straight as possible, bring your toes up to the bar. Lower under control for best results. A slightly easier version is Knees 2 Elbows which, much like the name sounds, involves bringing the knees up to touch the elbows.
These are easier if the arms are bent slightly.
Weighted Quad Plank – Get into a quad position like the Bird Dog exercise, and then lift the knees up 1″ off the ground. Have a partner (or stranger or whatever) put a weight plate on your low back and hips.
Hold for 30-60 seconds. Squeeze abs tight and don’t cry.
Anti Gravity Oblique – Grab a bench, preferably one that’s heavy. Sit on the very back of the bench with your feet on either side. Then turn to one side so your hip is on the end of the bench.
Hook the ‘bottom’ foot onto the bench with the heel, and the ‘top’ foot to the bench with the toe, so your torso is leaning off the bench, and you’re holding on with both feet. From here, extend the arms in front so you’re pressing out in the same direction as the bottom foot is pointing. Squeeze abs, and add weight to increase difficulty.
(Note: Why did I include silly music in half my videos? No idea)
Around the Worlds’ – Lay on your back with your hands wide, next to your hips. Bring your legs up on the left side of your body and around your head and back down the right side of your body. The feet should trace a rough ‘circle’.
Repeat in the opposite direction, making sure the hips come off the ground every rep.
Self explanatory. These are not only extremely difficult, they’re also skill moves that take practice and patience to master. I include them as something you can strive for.
Dragon Flags – A Bruce Lee special, dragon flags are a total body move. The best way to learn to do them is by starting with a Leg Lift to Hip Press, and when you get to the top of the move, lock your whole body together by squeezing your glutes and abs.
Now lower the whole body as one unit, slowly. Only go to the point where you can still reverse and get back up, and do 4-6 reps.
Slowly work on getting lower and lower, until you can do them from the ground.
Standing Ab Wheel Roll Out – Yea, I know this involves a piece of equipment, but it’s too insane to not include.
Make sure you can do kneeling ab wheel roll outs first, and then start by getting in a pushup position with both hands on the ab wheel, right under the shoulders.
Lock the whole body together by squeezing glutes and abs, and then slowly extend the arms from the shoulders. Only go to the position you can reverse from, or use a band to help out like in the video.
Front Lever – Grab a pullup bar, and lift the whole body as one unit, rotating at the shoulders and lats.
Sound hard? Good, it’s brutal. Start by lifting both knees till they’re right under the bar and then extending one leg at a time, trying to keep the core in line with the rest of the body so your butt is at the same level as your shoulders.
The Ultimate Bodyweight Core Workout
Do these in order – start with A1 and A2, and do sets of those until they’re completed. Then move to the B exercises.
If you like these exercises, grab my full Home Bodyweight Program HERE – I’ll send it to your email.
A1) Bird Dog x 40 sec alternating sides
A2) Dead Bug x 40 sec alternating sides
B1) Plank Shoulder Taps x 40 sec alternating
B2) Sprinter Sit Up x 40 sec alternating
B3) Leg Lift with Hip Press x 40 sec
C1) Weighted Quad Plank x 30 sec
C2) Toes to Bar (or Knees 2 Elbows) x 30 sec
C3) Anti Gravity Oblique x 30 sec each side
This workout should take you 15-20 minutes depending on how much rest you need and how many sets. Don’t focus on the reps, but make sure the quality is there, and you’re feeling the core working hard, and not the low back.
- Core training should be a part of your program. Period.
- Train your core in different ways, not just doing flexion (crunches) but also the ANTI moves.
- Train your core 3x per week for best results. You can use this program for 4 weeks if you’re doing it multiple times per week, or you can use it once per week as a finisher.