PLEASE NOTE: We are undergoing a name change. Unleashed Training is now Sprint Ninja. We still offer high quality strength and conditioning along with personal training, with our specialty being sprint training.
The best abdominal exercises are often the ones you don’t see in your
local fitness centre. The common things taught to most people by
inexperienced trainers really is often ineffective and sometimes
The abdominals are an important group of muscles. Most often they are viewed as simply a six pack and some obliques. The issue here is that the abs are always seen from a cosmetic perspective. Essentially the muscles you see are the ones people want to work. A vast majority of people don’t see the importance of the core as a functional piece of the body. I mean after all, the core is not like an arm that can pick up heavy objects or win an arm wrestle. The core to so many people is simply a section of the body that must look good on the beach.
Functionally the abdominal muscles are central to all physical activity. Without a strong core the rest of the body suffers and strength development in the extremities is compromised. Also, the core is not a muscle that often works in isolation, unless you have no arms. Force is most often generated from the ground by the legs, especially in athletic activities. From there the force is transferred to the core, where it is converted into useful force to be directed towards the activity. The core then transfers this force to the upper body, where it makes its final manifestation. So training the abdominal muscles in isolation such as using crunches and the like is essentially useless for any functional gain.
Worst Abdominal Exercises
So you’re looking to develop your abdominal muscles. Not only to look good with your shirt off, but also to provide some functional use in sports and day to day activities. Well an article on the best abdominal exercises would be nothing without first considering the worst abdominal exercises. Rather than compiling a long list in bullet points on what exercises to avoid, I will instead provide you with a bit of anatomy then explain how common abdominal exercises are not what they cracked up to be.
A while back I watched some guy perform the world record for most sit-ups. He was great at doing sit-ups, but evidently not a lot else. The shocking thing was that he had no sign of abdominal development. Now you would think the world sit-ups champion would have some pretty ripped abs, but nope, nothing. But why? Well because he was very good at sit-ups. He trained his body to efficiently perform the movement using the muscles that are strongest within that plane. Hence he had extremely strong hip flexors but very ordinary abdominal development.
The abdominal muscles during movements like the sit-up are used for only a fraction of the movement. At best they are there for a mild amount of stability. The movement is completed mostly by the hip flexors with a small angle in the middle that requires abdominal activation.
Now lets look at the crunch. Crunches are a modification of the sit-up. They were designed to isolate the abdominal muscles by taking the hip flexors out of the equation and perform the action of bringing the rib cage closer to the pelvis. Well done, what a fantastic oversimplification of abdominal function. The result of such an exercise? Highly developed rectus abdominus that serves little purpose. Even cosmetically this does not look great, and that’s without consideration of function. Excessive rectus abdominus development serves to unbalance the whole abdominal muscle collection and takes movement out of context.
Now what about rotation? Rotational and diagonal movements are the best way to develop the abdominals because this is how they are designed to move. So fitness centres and personal trainers came up with some ideas they thought were genius. They invented things like the torso rotation machine. But in typical exercise machine fashion they created another exercise out of context where the person simply sits in the machine and rotates against resistance. The problem here is twofold; first of all it is out of context as I mentioned. Secondly the torso rotation machine is dangerous for the spine in that it places rotational pressure on the lumbar vertebrae. This happens because the pelvis is locked into a fixed position and does not move with the spine.
There are so many other issues about misunderstood abdominal training that I could discuss but lets move onto the best abdominal exercises and how to develop a functional core that also looks awesome.
Best Abdominal Exercises
The best abdominal exercises are the ones performed by athletes. And no, I am not talking about the athletes that simply do crunches and sit-ups just to get their abdominal training out of the way to make way for their real training. I am referring to athletes that train their core often through indirect methods and in functional capacities.
Have you ever noticed the abdominal development of a gymnast? They must do a lot of crunches, sit-ups, side bends and the like right? Wrong! Gymnasts have phenomenal abdominal development as a result of their specific training. A gymnast moves in so many dynamic and static planes of motion. In order to control their body through space they need a strong core to keep their limbs from flailing. The gymnast’s core is the main secret to their strength and control.
Another example are field athletes such as shot putters and discus throwers. They have extremely strong abdominals yet they don’t do crunches. There are three primary functions of the abdominal muscles. The best abdominal exercises are the ones that cater to these movements. By training the abdominals in their correct context you are not only getting the best functional development, but you’re also going to allow for greater aesthetic value.
The three primary abdominal functions are…
1. Rotational and Diagonal Force Transference: As mentioned earlier, the abdominal muscles are utilised for the transference of force that is generated from the ground. The core is needed to resist and generate further force and convert it into a functional and directed movement.
2. Deceleration and Resistance of Force: One of the only times the core is required to work at high tension in the action of flexion of the spine is to decelerate during a dynamic movement. This occurs during actions such as a vertical or broad jump and throughout sprinting actions, among many other movements.
3. Stabilisation of the Spine: The core plays an important role in stabilising the spine. To be clear, the core consists of muscles that act on the rib cage, spine and hips. Without conditioning of abdominal muscles the spine is compromised. The abdominal muscles act to balance and maintain posture and keep the spine in a stable position throughout either a dynamic movement or during static action.
Taking the above points into consideration it makes sense that the best abdominal exercises are ones that adequately assist in the development of these functions. So lets look at some examples for each.
Best Abdominal Exercises for Diagonal and Rotational Force Transference
The best abdominal exercises for diagonal and rotational force transference are not necessarily isolated abdominal movements. The abdominals are often incorrectly seen as a separate part of the body in much the same way that bodybuilders train each part of the body on different days. For force transference we must mimic actions that are likely to occur in the athletic activity one is training for.
Woodchops can be performed on a cable, with kettlebells or with dumbells. Simply pull the weight dynamically from one side to the opposite diagonal side. There are many ways to perform woodchops, use your imagination. Go from bottom to top, top to bottom or using cables from one side to another.
The TORSONATOR is a unique innovation that I find simply awesome for abdominal development. It consists of a heavy iron platform with a universal joint and a slot for an Olympic bar or standard bar. Do a quick Google or youtube search to see what this great piece of equipment can do. This can also be done using a barbell weighted on only one side.
The Russian twist is the only non ground based exercise I will recommend for rotational abdominal development. Grab a weight plate, dumbell or medicine ball, sit back into a half sit-up, extend the arms out holding the weight and twist from side to side while maintaining the half sit-up position.
GYMNASTICS AND OTHER DYNAMIC TRAINING
To further develop the core in a functional capacity engage in dynamic activities such as gymnastics, throwing events or dynamic medicine ball work.
Best Abdominal Exercises for Deceleration and Resistance of Force
The best abdominal exercises for resistance of force and deceleration are often extremely dynamic and explosive in nature. So here I will not include isolated abdominal work. Instead I will provide exercises that are designed for other purposes that will best target the core.
Broad jumps are possibly the best way to train the abdominals in a dynamic capacity. Start in a standing position, squat down and jump forward as far as possible using your arms to gain momentum. Keep bounding in sets of three to five reps.
Burpees are great. They are not considered an abs exercise, however they are very effective for developing strong resistive force. Start in a standing position then jump down into a push-up, tuck back up onto your feet and jump in the air. Keep repeating for sets of as many reps as you like.
MEDICINE BALL THROWS
Medicine ball throws can be performed a number of ways. The ones I am referring to are ones that involve an overhead toss, such as in a soccer throw-in and ones that involve tossing backwards over your head.
Again, there are many other exercises for this sort of abdominal development, but hopefully this gives you some ideas and a good place to start.
Best Abdominal Exercises for Spinal Stability
The best abdominal exercises for spinal stability can often involve controlled movements that can be performed separately to the rest of the workout, unlike many of the exercises already mentioned. This is the only situation where I would recommend segmented abdominal development.
This is possibly one of the most common abdominal exercises. Simply bridge up on your elbows and balls of your feet and hold your spine straight. Hold for 30 seconds or more.
Same as the plank except on one elbow with your side facing the floor.
HOLLOW POSITION PLANK
From a standing position walk your hands out until you are struggling to keep your back from sagging. While in this position slightly tilt your hips towards your upper body and round your shoulders in.
Lying on your back pull your spine into an almost flat position on the floor. Holding the spine in this position lower your legs slowly until your back starts to arch then return to the starting position. Repeat for as many reps as you can do before your form begins to suffer.
HANGING LEG RAISES
Hang from a pull-up bar and raise your legs slowly as high as you can. If this is difficult then bend your knees to 90 degrees.
There are a lot of other spinal stability abdominal exercises but this is a good start and my personal pick of the bunch.
A final note on best abdominal exercises
The best abdominal exercises are nothing without at least a basic understanding of the way the abdominals are designed to function. We have discussed movement patterns and how they relate to activity, but now we will look at the nature of force on the muscles of the core.
The muscles of the core are often trained with high repetitions, grinding out dozens of crunches and the like. The truth is that the abdominal muscles are not designed to work this way. Abdominal muscles in reality are used for dynamic and explosive action except during spinal stability. Even then they are resisting high levels of force. Never will the abdominals be used in the common way they are trained in most gyms.
Keeping all this in mind, the core should be trained using explosive movements where applicable. In addition to high power output there needs to be considerable force applied to abdominal movements. This can be done by adding weight to an exercise, changing the leverage position etc.
Utilising Best Abdominal Exercises for a Greater Physique
Now even though my focus for all fitness training is function, I do understand that many people would also like to look ripped without a shirt on and impress members of the opposite sex. This is just a natural human want. This may prompt you to believe that the best abdominal exercises presented here are only for athletes and not for those just wanting to look better. Well think again.
The best abdominal exercises for function are also the ones that develop the best physical appearance. Why? Because they utilise the core in the way it is intended to move. This causes muscles to efficiently and more quickly develop and in more complete ways.
Apply the best abdominal exercises I have presented and you will be surprised at how your abs will begin to look. Take a look at a gymnast. They have abs that are truly amazing. Look at sprinters. They have great abdominal development that rivals most bodybuilders and they are only doing functional exercises. What about martial artists? Well they used to do crunches and all that rubbish, but with the introduction and growth of mixed martial arts competitions they are now working more functionally and the lighter weight athletes with less body fat have abs to die for.
Apply my best abdominal exercises for greater function, better appearance and overall full-body strength and power.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.