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Best Abs Exercises

Want to hit those abs once and for all and give them the love and attention they deserve? A good set of abs will never go out of fashion. Strength Bible’s Ben Hardman has put together this go-to guide for the very best abs exercises to make sure you cover all those crucial areas.

mens abs

Everyone loves a good set of abs. As a visible area, they often act as a proxy for general health and fitness. But your abs are also way more than just for the looks.

They’re a highly functional region of your body and comprise a main part of your central core. Your abs are involved in almost every torso movement and play a key role in protecting your spine. We know that a strong core provides the foundation for better weightlifting, as well as other everyday activities. 

So, good abs are crucial for aesthetics and functionality. For these reasons, we want to make sure we’re training them properly. 

Let’s take a look at the best abs exercises to chisel out definition whilst building a solid, central platform. 

10 Best Abs Exercises

Here are my top 10 abs exercises that will hit all areas of your abs – upper, lower and side, plus the underlying transverse abs. 

1. Knees Up Crunches

Primary target: Upper abs

Knees up crunches are an excellent beginner exercise for targeting the upper abs. I remember starting off with these back in the day to burn up my abs.

To perform this exercise, lie flat on your back and raise your knees bent so your shins are parallel to the floor with your toes pointing up.

Place your hands to the side of your head and tighten your abs as you lift your shoulders and upper back off the floor. Crunch up towards your knees, remembering to round your back to contract your rectus abdominis correctly.

2. High Pulley Rope Crunch

Primary target: Upper abs

The high pulley rope crunch hits your visible abdominal area, targeting your upper abs primarily. It’s a great exercise as it contracts your abs in a full and lengthened range of motion.

Attach a rope to a high pulley and kneel in front of the cable machine. Grab the rope with both hands in a neutral grip. Your head should also be in a neutral position, facing forwards and down. 

Bring the rope down by using your abs to bring your sternum (breastbone) towards your pelvis. Keep your hips and arms in the same position – don’t use your arm muscles to actively pull the rope down. 

As you rise back up to the starting position, be sure to engage your spinal erector muscles. 

3. Decline Bench Sit-Ups

Primary target: Lower abs

man doing bench sit-up in gym

Decline bench sit-ups are an effective exercise for targeting both the upper and lower abs, but slightly favour the lower section. 

Set up a decline bench at a not-too-steep angle to start off with. Hopefully your gym has a dedicated decline bench where you can support your ankles under a pad. 

Lie back with your hands to the side of your head or positioned across your chest. Without using any momentum, engage your abs and bring yourself up by bending at the hips. Remember to breathe out as you crunch upward. 

A good tip is to imagine you’re bringing your pelvis towards your chest. This will make sure you’re getting a good contraction. Breathe in as you return to the starting position. 

If bodyweight decline sit-ups are feeling good, grab a plate and hold it against your chest for increased load. 

4. Knee Raises

Primary target: Lower abs

Knee raises are a brilliant exercise for working your lower abs and hip flexors. Most gyms will have a dedicated station for knee raises with pads and grips to hold on to.

Grab the grips and take your feet off the platforms so that you’re holding your body weight up. Focusing on your lower abs, raise your knees up from the hips and towards your chest, whilst being careful not to swing or use momentum. Slow and controlled wins the day here. 

If there’s no knee raise station, you can perform a similar move by sitting at the edge of a bench with your hands next to your hips for support. Extend your legs and lean back slightly. Lift your knees towards your chest while keeping your abs engaged, then lower your legs back down.

5. Hanging Leg Raises

Primary target: Upper and lower abs

The hanging leg raise is perhaps my favourite abs exercise. I should have moved it up the list really. It’s a challenging exercise that requires control and coordination from your hips and abs. It will work your full rectus abdominis region. The added benefit to the hanging leg raise is that you also get a dead hang in, which is brilliant for shoulder health and helps to decompress the spine.

To perform this move, hang from a pull-up bar with an overhand grip and your arms fully extended. Tense your abs and lift your knees as high as you can. Crunch your abs at the top to bring your knees in. Try to control the movement and not swing. Return your knees back down in a controlled manner as you breathe in. Keep your abs engaged at all times. 

6. V Sit-Up

Primary target: Upper and lower abs

The V sit-up targets the entire abdominal area. It’s an effective exercise for feeling the abs burn. 

Lie on your back with both your legs and arms extended, so you’re in a long line. Tense your abs and lift your upper body and legs at the same time to form a V shape at the top. Your back should be slightly rounded at the top – don’t arch your back. 

Lower back down to the starting position with your legs and arms stretched out, and repeat.

7. Russian Twists

Primary target: Obliques

Russian twists target the oblique muscles. Start by sitting on the floor with your knees bent, leaning slightly back and holding a weight in both hands (a weight plate, medicine ball or kettlebell is usually best). When performing the set, you can either keep your feet flat on the floor (easier) or increase the challenge by keeping your feet off the ground. 

From this V starting position, engage your core and rotate your upper body to one side. Return to the central position with control and twist to the other side. Don’t bounce the weight down as you rotate. 

8. Side Plank With Rotation

Primary target: Obliques

This exercise nicely targets the obliques and helps develop core stability. 

Start in a side plank position with your forearm on the ground underneath your shoulder and your feet stacked on top of each other. Your hips should be raised off the floor and your body in a straight line from your head to your feet. 

Rotate your hips down towards the floor and try to keep your chest facing forward. The goal is for just your hips to be moving. Return to the start position, then rotate your hips the other way towards the ceiling as far as you can go (which might not be that far). Complete a set and repeat on the other side.

9. Kettlebell Swing

woman doing kettlebell swing

Primary target: Upper and lower abs

Kettlebell swings are a superb exercise for engaging the whole abs area. It’s an underutilised abs exercise in my book. The kettlebell swing is primarily a hip hinge movement (not a squat) where your abs are working to move your torso.

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a kettlebell with both hands that’s dangling between your legs. Your knees will be slightly bent. 

Using your engaged abs, push your hips back, then swing the kettlebell forward until your arms are parallel to the ground. Control the kettlebell as you swing back down and repeat.

10. Unilateral Overhead Carry

Primary target: Obliques

I always like to include a functional movement in my workouts where possible. The unilateral overhead carry, also called the overhead suitcase carry, helps develop solid stability and strength in your core, obliques and shoulders. 

To perform this move you’ll grab one dumbbell or kettlebell and raise it overhead with a straight arm. Engage your core and slowly walk forward. Start off by walking 10-20m (around 20-30 seconds) to get a feel for the exercise and weight. Switch arms and repeat again.

Understanding Abdominal Muscles Anatomy

Located in the centre of the torso, the role of the abdominal muscles is to stabilise the spine, support good posture, and enable core movements.

Four major muscles make up the abdominal region and will benefit by focusing on these best abs exercises:

Rectus Abdominis

These are the typical ‘six-pack muscles’. The rectus abdominis (RA) runs vertically down the front of the abdomen. Structurally speaking, the RA connects the sternum and ribcage to the pelvis. Its primary role is to flex the spine and maintain posture.

External Obliques

These are the largest and outermost of the abdominal muscles. The external obliques attach to the ribs, pelvis and the midline seam (linea alba) of your abs. They appear almost at a diagonal angle. The role of the external obliques is to rotate and bend the trunk.

Internal Obliques

Found immediately below the external obliques, the internal obliques also run diagonally from the ribs towards the pelvis. Their function is to help with rotation, twisting and stabilising the torso.

Transversus Abdominis

The deepest layer of abdominal muscles. The TVA runs horizontally and wraps around the entire core area from the spine around the back to the front at the midline. The main function of the transversus abdominis is to add compression force to provide core stability and protection for the spine. Wearing a lifting belt mimics the precise job of the TVA.

Effective ab exercises will target one or more of these muscle groups. By gaining an understanding of their anatomy, you can plan out your workouts more efficiently to make sure you engage all the necessary muscles for a balanced, well-defined core.

Training your entire core across the week, including your lower back muscles and pelvic floor, helps to provide a stable base for daily activities and sports performance.

Top Tips To Train Abs

Your abs are made up from a group of different muscles, just like your back or legs. From this perspective, training your abs is just like training any other part of your body. 

But there are a few top tips to follow to make sure you’re training your abs effectively and getting the most out of your efforts.  

Focus On Form

When it comes to abs workouts, proper form is crucial. It’s essential to engage the core muscles correctly and not arch the spine. To work the rectus abdominis, you actually want to perform exercises with a rounded back.  

This advice goes against most other weightlifting form tips. For squats, deadlifts and other standing lifts, you want an arch at your lumbar spine to keep your discs in the correct position. 

With most abs exercises, when you flex the trunk forwards, a rounded back helps to contract the abs and decrease pressure on the lumbar spine.

In general, slow and controlled movements are best for your abs. Make sure your core and abs are contracted throughout the move and focus on the muscles that should be doing the work. 

Mix Up Your Movements

Variety is key to any effective abs workout. Targeting different muscles within the core region gives you a well-rounded, balanced workout. 

Be sure to include a mix of:

  • Upper and lower abs exercises – crunches and leg raises
  • Oblique movements – to hit your side abs
  • Stabilisation exercises – e.g. planks and holds
  • Functional exercises – e.g. walks and carries 

Rotating between different exercises and workout routines helps to prevent boredom, whilst hitting the different regions of your abs – win, win.

How Many Sets And Reps?

Choosing the appropriate number of sets and repetitions for abs exercises can be a matter of personal preference and ability level. 

abdominal muscle anatomy

A lot of people, including me, tend to throw a few abs exercises in at the end of the workout. This is fine as many other exercises, particularly compound lifts and standing free weights, will involve your core. But it’s always nice to put some focus work in on your abs too. 

Here are a few general guidelines for effective abs training:

  • 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 20 repetitions per exercise
  • 30- to 90-second rest between sets
  • 3 to 4 workout sessions per week or 8 to 10 working sets on abs per week

As you become stronger and more experienced, you can adjust the volume and intensity of your abs workouts to suit your specific needs and goals. 

Benefits Of Stronger Abs

A stronger core is essential for overall fitness. This area of your body provides fundamental support to everything else. 

Achieving a well-toned midsection can not only boost your confidence, but also benefit other areas of your training:

Better Posture

A strong core helps you to maintain a good, upright posture. It can have extra benefits to prevent slouching and rounding of the shoulders. In turn, this reduces stress on your lower back, neck and shoulders.

Lower Risk Of Injuries

Strengthening your abdominal muscles enhances trunk stability. This allows your body to keep better balance and withstand greater forces during physical activities.

Being antagonistic to your lower back, stronger abs will help reduce lower back problems. If you’re someone who does a lot of deadlifts, you might want to balance all of this lower back workout with some focus on rectus abdominis exercises too.

Improved Daily Activities

With a stronger core, you’ll notice an improved performance during various day-to-day activities too, such as lifting, bending and twisting.

So, training your abs isn’t just about the show of the six pack. A better set of abs will bring way more benefits to the table that will benefit your overall health, fitness and gym performance. 

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