Building an Effective Abs Workout

Ab workouts the experts recommendThere’s a lot of confusion about the best abs workout and core training in general. Will ab exercises give you flat abs? Should you even train your abs separately, or is that an outdated idea?

To start with, you won’t get flat abs with any workout; that’s going to come strictly from diet. If you’re like most people, you have at least a little fat around the middle, and that makes it challenging to see any definition. Don’t believe the crap you read on Pinterest and elsewhere promising “flat abs” with an abs workout alone. You gots to lose the fat to be phat (ha!). If you’ve read my clean-eating articles you’re already ahead of the game. (if not, read up and clean up!).

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s focus on the exercise portion of the abs equation. Whether you want six-pack abs are just standout obliques and upper abs, you should focus on core strengthening, with a little supplemental resistance thrown in. However, core strengthening will build muscle too with the right program.

Core Strengthening Principles

All of us can benefit from strengthening not only the abdominal muscles but the back extensors, lumbar spine, quadratus lumborum (low back), psoas, glutes, and latissimus dorsi. Strengthening your core supports and stabilizes your spine as you rotate around in daily life and in exercise. A strong core increases your athletic performance, too, be it cycling and running faster or swimming longer.

When you stabilize your body against gravity or your own resistance, you are strengthening your core. A movement might be “small,” but if it causes you to activate your glutes or stabilizer muscles, it’s a good thing.

Will big lifts like squats and and standing overhead presses be enough to strengthen your core? Strength experts vary in their opinion. But since the majority of us sit all day and have weakened hips and low backs, I believe we could all use the strengthening that a focused abs workout provides.

The take-home? Train your core for movement and stability – that’s how our core is used. Anti-rotational, rotational, anti-flexion, offset, and power movements are most effective.

A note about crunches: Common consensus among experts is that crunches can be ineffective and unsafe.  The core muscles are best trained to brace and stabilize, not to flex the spine. You’re better off avoiding the rounded back position in core exercises and most other exercises, with only a few exceptions.

The Abs Workout Experts Recommend

A good abs workout shouldn’t take more than 10 to 15 minutes. Incorporate three or four of the following exercises as supersets/tri-sets at the end of your regular workout, do them as part of a circuit, or add them between sets. You only need to do an abs workout two to three times a week at most.

I’ve gathered the favorite ab exercises of strength and fitness experts I follow below. Keep in mind you can progress many of these to keep your abs workout challenging and effective!

 Mike Boyle

~ Boston based strength and conditioning coach who writes at

Stuart McGill

~Highly regarded professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a back-pain clinician (web site)

  • Side bridge
  • Bird dog
  • McGill-approved crunch: Lie on your back, one knee bent, and position your hands beneath your lower back for support. Do not press your back against the floor or suck in your belly button. Just gently lift your head and shoulders a little, hold for a second or two, and relax back down. Do 5 with each leg bent and work up to doing more.

Eric Cressey

~Author, founder of Cressey Performance, and highly respected strength and conditioning coach (web site)

 Jonathon Ross

~Two-time recipient of Personal Trainer of the Year awards (2010 IDEA & 2006 ACE), master TRX trainer, and Discovery Health Fitness expert (web site)

Bonus Exercises

Try these exercises too: Farmer’s walk, single-arm cable chest press, single-arm pushup, single-arm burpee. When your core is strong and your body fat is low enough to see your abs, you can add resistance to exercises like wood chops, hanging leg raises, and reverse crunches to build more muscle definition.


This article originally appeared on

28 thoughts on “Building an Effective Abs Workout

  1. Preach it!
    If I had a dollar for every client who listed ‘flat abs’ on her intake form, I’d be retiring instead of training!
    My favourite moves are plank variations; with the TRX, the ball, the Bosu and the cable and pulley machine. Anything movement that takes my mind off the clock!


  2. For my money I’ll take deadlifts and squats as two of the best functional ab exercises. Diet notwithstanding, genetics also play a huge part in this equation. Eat right, choose your mom and dad carefully, and f#ck crunches.



  3. You mean to tell me that all along it was diet and all those magazine covers were lying to me??? Yeah I know, I heard a long time ago that you could have great ab muscles, but if you didn’t eat right they would be under all the fat. Not sure that is a 100% true, but the right idea was there, work it out, but watch what you eat too. I’ve been doing planks pretty easily for a bit now, so the progression suggestions will come in handy, thanks!


  4. Suzanne, this post was ab-solutely fantastic! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) I appreciate the time you’ve taken to compile all of these great exercises and the timely reminder that ultimately flat abs are about your diet. 🙂


  5. I know I’m probably never going to “have abs” and I think that’s fine. I have noticed that doing deadlifts and squats made my core a lot stronger. I do some ab work between sets sometimes but for me personally it’s more for posture than anything else. Strong abs are a compliment to a strong back, right? I dread becoming a hunchback as I age!


  6. Great post! The problem with so many people is that they think working out without clean eating or clean eating without working out will get them to where they want to be. Its a combination of everything that brings true results.


  7. So many ways to train the core/abs but people still need to admit ti themselves that you have to eat clean to see them!! Like others, that question comes up ALL THE TIME! 🙂

    I admit I still do a lot of old school stuff mixed in with other moves – I like it that way! 🙂

    GREAT POST!!!!


  8. Most people are so utterly unaware that it only takes about 1/8 of an inch of body fat to hide to ridges in those tendinous intersections that create the “six pack”. And eight of an inch ain’t much! My favorite trainer saying is “Six packs are made in the kitchen.”
    As far as exercise selection, I’m definitely in the “the more full body the better” camp, so plank and the innumerable variations, anything using a TRX, even something as simple as walking in figure 8s while holding one kettlebell in rack position.
    I’m not, however, in agreement with the “no crunches ever” people. I totally disagree. Trunk flexion is a functional movement and I believe in training in as many functional actions as possible. So crunches occasionally are not only, fine, I teach them and recommend them. I honestly think many trainers are very bad at understanding crunches and teach them poorly (If I see one more trainer having their client spot on the ceiling, I’ll literally barf!), so the “experts” have suggested walking away from them completely. Now, doing nothing but crunches is a terrible idea and totally incomplete.
    I’m glad I found your blog.


    • I tend to you agree with you about the amount of body fat (or lack thereof) needed to see your abs. And it’s not altogether healthy, maintainable, or desirable. Like you, I also still use crunches from time to time. They provide a nice burn and variety! Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mike.


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