A six-pack is at the top of many a fitness wishlist, but the benefits of performing the best ab exercises go far beyond aesthetics. Abs are part of the core muscles (opens in new tab) in your body, which are responsible for the bending and twisting of the spine, as well as protecting the internal organs of the upper abdomen. It makes sense then, that training your abdominals unlocks benefits for sporting performance and daily life. These include reduced back pain and the ability to lift more in exercises like the squat and deadlift.
You don’t need to fritter away funds on fancy kit to train your abs – though the best ab rollers (opens in new tab) may help add variety to your core sessions. Many ab exercises can be completed at home with minimal equipment.
To help you optimize your core workouts, Wahoo Sports Science’s expert strength coach Jeff Hoobler has shared his pick of the best ab exercises – according to science – and what makes them effective. All that’s left for you to do is unfurl one of the best yoga mats (opens in new tab) and feel the burn.
Jeff Hoobler is a cycling and strength coach with over 25 years of experience working with athletes of all levels from beginners to world champions. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. In addition, he is a MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, Foundations Training Instructor, and USAC Level 3 Cycling coach.
The best ways to train abs
Social media show-offs might suggest that advanced exercises are the best way to blast your core, but gymnastic mastery isn’t needed to train your abs. According to Hoobler, the reality is much simpler.
“One of the most important things you can do to keep your abdominal muscles healthy is move them,” he says. “By contracting and relaxing these muscles, you enhance circulation and nervous system activity. The easiest way to do this is to breathe deeply through your lower abdomen, often called belly breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing).”
However, if you’re wanting to put your abs through a rigorous workout, the seasoned strength coach has more detailed advice.
“You want to strengthen your abdominal muscles to support your spine, reduce back pain, pedal faster, lift more, etc. You’re thinking more crunches right? While this exercise is popular, and good, for engaging your rectus abdominus, it is not the be all and end all for abdominal training. To truly have a strong core you need to do exercises that engage your entire abdominal wall,” says Hoobler.
Exercises that will do this include things like squats or deadlifts, which force you to ‘load’ all of your abdominal muscles together, explains Hoobler. There’s still some value in training muscles in isolation, as this can help functional strength – but these moves shouldn’t form the entirety of your workout regime.
“Exercises that engage the entire abdominal wall, as well as the muscles of the lower back and pelvis, are better for everyone. Not only should the muscles of the abdominal wall be strong, they should also be able to regulate tension and turn on and off as needed to help with coordination and balance.
“When muscles are only trained in isolation, some of this ‘reactivity’ is lost in the abs. It is wise to include both specific exercises that target each area and add exercises that [engage] all of your abdominal muscles. “
The best ab exercises
Taking all of the above into account, these are the moves that Hoobler recommends doing.
This improves circulation, suppleness and coordination.
How to do it:
1) Sit in a comfortable position and place a hand on your stomach
2) Breathe deeply into your belly; you should feel it inflate as you suck in air.
Oblique leg lifts
This exercise targets your internal and external obliques, as well as the transverse abdominis, in conjunction with the adductor muscle helping to stabilize the pelvis.
How to do it:
1) Lie on your left side, with your left arm on the floor supporting you.
2) Squeeze your legs together and lift them off the floor as high as you can.
3) At the highest point of the leg lift, hold your position for five seconds before lowering back down.
4) Repeat the exercise on the other side.
Squat (or goblet squat)
Perhaps this is an unexpected entry, but Hoobler says a vertical load forces abdominal co-contraction and coordinates with breathing. You can add weights to these moves to make them challenging or do them as a bodyweight-only exercise.
How to do a goblet squat:
1) Start by standing straight, with your feet slightly wider than hip width apart.
2) If you are using a kettlebell or dumbbell, grip this to your chest for stability.
3) Engage your core and lower down into a squat position, bending your knees and keeping your chest high.
4) Push up and return to the standing position.
Diagonal wood chop
Perform this from high to low across the body with a light resistance. It can be done with a cable machine or one of the best resistance bands. Hoobler says: “This will engage the entire abdominal wall and work the abdominal muscles in a rotational movement, mimicking various sporting movements.”
How to do it:
1) Start with your feet shoulder width apart, holding your resistance equipment (band or cable machine) in your hands.
2) Bend your knees and rotate to your left, moving the resistance diagonally across your body and bringing it down to your left hip.
3) With control, uncurl and do the movement in the opposite direction, so that your hands move diagonally across your body until they’re extended above your head, behind your right shoulder.
4) Repeat the movement; then complete a set on the opposite side of your body, moving in the opposite direction.
“This exercise forces a co-contraction throughout the abdominal wall,” says Hoobler. “However, in particular, it ‘targets’ the low side in conjunction with the muscles of the hip.”
How to do it:
1) Lie on your side with one arm bent beneath you, forming a kind of kick stand.
2) Keeping your legs squeezed together, push up so that you’re elevated on just your forearm and the side of your feet. Your body should form one long line; try not to drop your hips.
3) Hold the position for 30 – 45 seconds, or longer if you can!
Swiss ball sits
This move teaches coordination and suppleness. But, make sure you have a clear space and soft floor.
How to do it:
1) Sit on a swiss ball large enough that you can raise your feet.
2) Moving around with your feet on the floor, draw circles with your hips in one direction then the other.
“These six exercises will give you coordination, suppleness, strength and stability,” says Hoobler. “They are not necessarily going to give you a six- or 10-pack – that’s another matter entirely.” If you are wondering how to get a six pack (opens in new tab), our handy feature on the subject will tell you all you need to know.
A 2020 systematic review into existing literature on core muscle activity during different exercises showed which movements could be most effective in activating different abdominal muscles. This was determined by measuring the electromyographic (EMG) activity of the core muscles.
The review, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (opens in new tab), found the greatest activation in the rectus abdominis and external obliques came from free weight exercises, such as kettlebell swings, deadlifts and shoulder presses. The Bulgarian split squat and back squat had the overall highest levels of EMG activity.
Meanwhile, the internal obliques were recruited during core stabilization exercises like V-sits. The front plank had the greatest impact here.
This article is not meant to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or healthcare professional before adopting any diet or exercise regime.