Good morning, gang! We hope and trust you all had a fun Memorial Day weekend. After all, it’s the sign that summer is upon us and that typically coincides with a larger number of people looking to lean out and get beach ready. In the spirit of summer drawing near we’re going to review the five best exercises to develop your core and reveal your abs as a common question around the gym is, “can we do more abs?”
Number one, weight training programming is not a radio station and this isn’t a request hour.
Number two, the reality is that sit-ups and all of their variations don’t do nearly as much for chiseling out a defined midsection as barbell and kettlebell loaded movements, so your real focus should be more on challenging yourself on the exercises included here today.
The crunch family are not bad exercises but they are nowhere close to the heavy hitters that actually train your core to stabilize, strengthen the chain and produce physical changes in your body while focusing on three important ab producing factors.
Real, grueling ab work is most typically performed with challenging weight either taking it overhead or stabilizing through a full range of motion and speeds.
Here are our five favorite movements for your core.
The lone “ab exercise” and non weighted exercise to make the list, planks are the leader of the pack of the traditional abdominal focused movements, which is actually a misnomer since it’s not really a movement. It’s an isometric hold.
Planks aren’t new but they are a phenomenal way to build all parts of your core. While a traditional sit-up works only the rectus abdominis, otherwise known as the six pack muscles, the plank demands that all seven groups of big core musculature fire to keep you upright.
You also get the added bonus of strengthening your quads and lower back in the process.
Planks can sometimes be treated as an afterthought by the advanced crowd who might they’ve moved past them. Hold them for longer, add a plate to your back, do them on one leg. There are many ways to continue to make planks challenging starting typically by simply holding with perfect form.
Plus, if you can’t hold them for 8 minutes then you might not be as advanced as you think. I thought my core was pretty strong until I tried to hold a max plank recently.
4. Overhead Squats
Few exercises challenge your core’s need to stabilize as much as the OH squat does. By keeping weight locked overhead, every muscle in your core is firing on all cylinders to keep your torso upright in both the concentric and more difficult eccentric portion. If you have a relative weak core, the overhead squat will expose it as we’ve seen 500# deadlifters struggle with 135 pounds up overhead.
The OH squat is not for everyone as it requires proficiency in both hip, ankle and shoulder mobility. It’s a very commonly butchered exercise in which we carefully assess one’s qualification prior to performing it.
Once the technique is mastered it is a great exercise to develop the core muscles as you can get good work in with as little as five reps due to the massive demands of stabilization. The snatch would fall into this family, as well.
3. Kettlebell Swings
While the effectiveness of both the OH and Russian swing are heavily debated, we’ve long said that we absolutely love both. After all, why choose just one? As a coach and as an athlete you need a full tool box to achieve your goals and one should think of kettlebell swings like a Swiss Army knife.
It’s one tool but within it carry many different variations that you can put to use depending on what you need.
Regardless of how you perform your swings, most any variation you perform will absolutely crush your midsection if you are performing at challenging weight and generating proper hip drive.
The Russian swing, when performed very heavy, will thrash your abs by mere overload.
The OH swing will do the same but through the act of deceleration and stabilization when overhead and then re-acceleration when in the bottom swing position.
Pick your poison.
Noticing a theme, here?
Any movement that takes the body through a full overhead position tends to place a lot of demand on the core and abdominal muscles.
2. Front Squats
Perform five sets of ten reps at a challenging weight on front squats and we can all but guarantee your abs will be sore in a way they’ve never felt.
Just the mere act of stabilizing the weight in a front rack position is challenging. You could simply perform rotated sets of isometric holds and get effective core training. Throw the act of squatting to full range of motion and the dependence on your core to keep you upright and stabilized is the best exercise on the market for training abs.
Front squats are much of a core exercise than they are a leg crusher, as most often one can front squat less than they can back squat due to the main stressor shifting from legs to core.
Empirically speaking, we find you get slightly more core work if you can hold the front position as opposed to arms crossed, but both will hammer your core.
1. Your Kitchen
Abs, first and foremost, are largely genetic. That’s a fact that a lot of coaches avoid but it’s the truth that you need to accept and embrace because you could be spinning your wheels chasing fool’s gold. While some people have a naturally more aggressive showing of Type-II fibers, it doesn’t mean you can’t reveal your own abs you are developing with the lifts above and this process is entirely accomplished in the kitchen. It’s an old adage and a bit cliched but it’s completely accurate and always bears emphasizing that you first need to shed the visceral fat from over top of your rectus abdominis muscles to truly reveal any definition.
This typically requires a lower carbohydrate cutting phase where your consumption is minimal and always clean. Junk, unless you are a genetic freak, is never going to get you abs. You can do all of the front squats and kettlebell swings in the world but they can’t overcompensate for poor diet.
Always remember to reintroduce carbs slowly after you go through a low carb cutting phase.
That’s a wrap, guys. Perform your complimentary work daily but never lose sight of the fact that real ab work is performed through compound lifting that requires stabilization, acceleration and deceleration.
Dave Thomas is co-owner of Performance360 certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Russian Kettlebell and USA Olympic Weightlifting.