The 14 Best Ab Exercises for a Rock Solid Core | Yuri Elkaim

The 14 Best Ab Exercises for a Rock Solid Core

The 14 Best Ab Exercises for A Rock Solid Core

What if I told you that the best ab exercises are not the ones you see in most magazines?

In fact, many of them are the worst ab exercises you could be doing, and most of them do nothing to burn belly fat. (1)

What if I also told you that most “old school” ab exercises, like sit-ups, impose greater stress loads on your lumbar spine that can cause low back pain? (2)

Well, that’s the truth and that’s why today I’m going to share some fitness tips on how to train smarter with the 14 best ab exercises that strengthen and tone your core without the side effects of hip-flexion dominant exercises like sit-ups and crunches.

In this post, I’ll show you how these ab exercises work which muscles, and which ab exercises are most effective for getting a rock solid core.

For reference, this anatomical image shows you some of the ab muscles will be talking about. Note: it doesn’t show your deeper core muscles.

The 14 Best Abs Exercises - Abs Diagram

But first, you may be wondering…

What Ab Exercises Burn Belly Fat?

If you’ve asked that question then let me give you the straight-up, no BS answer about abdominal exercises: There are NO ab exercises that burn belly fat!

And that’s because core strength exercises – like sit-ups – are small isolated movements that do nothing to elevate your metabolism (ie. generate heat) and thus do nothing to burn calories.

[Related: Why Sit-Ups Don’t Burn Belly Fat]

Sure you can use them to spot strengthen but you cannot spot reduce.

With that out of the way, let’s get into…

The 14 Best Ab Exercises

1. Pallof Press

Muscles worked: chest, shoulders, triceps, glutes, core

Although it’s somewhat “non-traditional”, this is one of the best ab exercises you’ll ever do.

It focuses on stabilizing your core while you move an external weight. And that’s really the major role of your core – stability before movement.

How to do it:

Using a cable tower, connect a standard handle and position the cable to shoulder height.

With your side to the cable, grab the handle with both hands and step away from the tower. You should be approximately arm’s length away from the pulley, with the tension of the weight on the cable.

With your feet positioned hip-width apart, glutes squeezed, and knees slightly bent, hold the cable to the middle of your chest. This will be your starting position.

Press the cable away from your chest, fully extending both arms. You core should be tight and engaged. Hold this position for 2 seconds before returning to the starting position. Do 6 reps, then switch sides.

2. Plank

Muscles worked: core (rectus abominis, transverse abdominis, obliques), lats, glutes, quads (if activated properly)

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Plank

The plank has been around for a while now, yet most people still do it incorrectly. That said, it’s still one of the best ab exercises there is.

The key to this exercise is activating ALL of your muscles. Doing so, forms a body-wide brace across all of your joints, making your body more stable.

It also makes the exercise much more challenging and beneficial.

How to do it:

Get into a pushup position on the floor, then bend your elbows 90 degrees and rest your weight on your forearms.

Your elbows should be directly beneath your shoulders, and your body should form a straight line from your head to your feet.

Tighten and draw your abdominal muscles in (as if putting on a tight pair of pants), squeeze your glutes and legs, and hold for 30 seconds or more.

3. Side plank

Muscles worked: core (rectus abominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, quadratus lumborum), lats, glutes, quads (if activated properly)

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Side Plank

The same rules apply as with the standard plank, but this simple modification makes this one of the very best ab exercises.

Full muscle activation is the key here and really focus on driving up the hips so that the side of your core closest to the floor is doing the work.

How to do it:

Lie on your right side with your legs straight.

With your right forearm directly under your right shoulder and abdominals contracted, prop yourself up so that all of your bodyweight is supported by your right forearm and your body forms a diagonal line. Rest your left hand on your hip. Hold for required time, then switch sides.

4. Single Arm Press Reverse Lunge

Muscles worked: core, shoulders, triceps, legs (glutes, quads, hamstrings)

(Here’s a version you can do with a kettlebell which makes it a little more challenging)

How is this one of the best ab exercises?

Well, remember that your core not only stabilizes your body against external forces, but it also integrates and transfers energy between your lower and upper body. This exercise a perfect example of that.

How to do it:

Stand tall and hold a lighter weight (to begin with) at your right shoulder. Take a large and controlled step backward with your left foot.

Lower your hips so that your right thigh (front leg) becomes parallel to the floor with your right knee positioned directly over your ankle. Your left knee should be bent at a 90-degree angle and pointing toward the floor with your left heel lifted.

As you lower toward the floor, press the weight above your head and hold for a second. Feel strong and connected from your wrist through your core and all the way down through your legs.

Return to standing by lowering the weight to your shoulder, pressing your right heel into the floor, and bringing your left leg forward to complete one rep. Alternate legs, and step back with right leg.

Continue alternating for 6 reps, then switch the weight into your left hand and complete 6 more.

5. Stability Ball Grasshopper

Muscles worked: core (all), chest, shoulders, triceps

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Stability Ball Grasshopper

In addition to being one of the best ab exercises ever, it’s also one of my favorites because it involves all of your core muscles. Plus, if you do it properly you’ll be sure to impress a few onlookers (not that that really matters, but for some it does).

How to do it:

To get the most benefit from this exercise, ensure your body is in a straight line from head to toes, your hips are square (parallel to the floor), and that your abs are tucked in and braced.

Your hips should not sink at all during the movement, especially as you return to full length from the knees-in position.

Another key point is to ensure that your shoulders are over top of your hands at all times so that your body does not rock back and forth, in which the benefit of this stability ball exercise is mostly lost.

If you have sensitive wrists, use a pair of dumbbells as your base for your hands and this will keep your wrists in a more neutral position and lessen their load.

6. Stability Ball Sprint Start Shuffle

Muscles worked: core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis), chest, shoulders, triceps

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Stability Ball Sprint Start Shuffle

This is basically the first phase of the stability ball grasshopper movement from above and it looks a lot like a sprinter in the starting blocks – hence the name.

How to do it:

Like with the grasshopper, to get the most benefit from this exercise, ensure your body is in a straight line from head to toes, your hips are square (parallel to the floor), and that your abs are tucked in and braced. Your hips should not sink at all during the movement.

Start with your left foot on the ball and your right knee hovering off the floor and tucked into your chest. Now, draw the ball into your chest so that your left leg is bent and your right leg kicks back and is straight and strong.

Hold for a second and contract all of your muscles (especially those of the straight leg that is kicked back), then cycle back and repeat for 6 reps, then switch feet on the ball.

7. Deadbug

Muscles worked: core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis), triceps

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Deadbug

If you’re looking for stability ball ab exercises, the deadbug is a great one to do. But here I’ll show you how to do it with nothing more than your body.

What I love about this exercise is that, if you focus on pushing your hands and thighs into each other, it’s an amazing ab exercise that hits the same muscles as sit-ups but without the negative impact on your spine.

How to do it:

Lie flat on the floor on your back. Contract your abdominals and raise your legs off the floor at a 90-degree angle so your lower legs are parallel to the floor.

Raise your arms and push your hands into your thighs. Simultaneously lower your left leg and right arm until they are just off the floor and pause for a second before returning to start position. Repeat for the leg and arm on the other side. Perform 12 repetitions.

8. Stability Ball Hip Thruster

Muscles worked: glutes, low back, hamstrings

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Stability Ball Hip Thruster

Not only is this one of the best ab exercises you can do, it’s also one of the best fat burning leg exercises for strengthening and toning your glutes – the “abs of your back” as I like to call them.

If you want to strengthen your core, then you should also focus on strengthening the back side of your body to keep everything well balanced. Plus, your glutes play an important role in supporting your hips and spine.

[Related: How to Strengthen Your Core]

How to do it:

Sit on the ground with your back against a bench (or ball), feet planted firmly in front of you and hip width apart.

Squeeze your glutes together and raise your hips off the floor so that your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees (parallel to floor), and then slowly descend back to the ground. Repeat for required reps.

9. Knee Drive Hold

Muscles worked: core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis), triceps, shoulders, chest

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Knee Drive Hold

This is a static (isometric) core training exercise that, once again, doesn’t look like much. Yet, when done correctly you’ll automatically know it’s one of the best ab exercises you could possibly be doing… you’ll feel it immediately!

This is an exercise I have all my athletes perform as it helps them better stabilize their pelvis and build greater abdominal endurance without hurting their backs.

How to do it:

In a push-up position, place your hands on a stability ball or fixed surface (chair, couch, etc…) as your base. Brace your abdominals, tuck your tailbone under to eliminate any low back curvature, and drive your knee into your chest.

Hold for 2-3 seconds and squeeze your abs while the supporting straight leg is fully activated. Return the start and switch legs. Perform 12 reps.

10. Ab Roll Out

Muscles worked: core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis), triceps, lats

The 14 Best Stability Ball Exercises - Ab Roll Out

This is one of the best ab exercises you can do almost anywhere with an ab wheel (more difficult) or a stability ball (easier).

The key to this exercise is ensuring your low back doesn’t droop. Instead, tilt your pelvis to eliminate any low back curvature. This will also fire up your abdominals more effectively.

How to do it:

Start kneeling on the floor and hold the ab wheel with both hands (or place your forearms on a stability ball) in front of you. Slowly roll the ab roller (or ball) straight forward, stretching your body out as far as you can go.

Be sure to contract your core muscles and eliminate any curvature in your lower back to focus the effort on your core muscles. After a pause at the stretched position, start pulling yourself back to the starting position as you breathe out.

Repeat for required number of repetitions.

11. Stability Ball Knee Tucks

Muscles worked: core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis), triceps, chest, shoulders

The 14 Best Stability Ball Exercises - Stability Ball Knee Tucks

Knee tucks are like sit-ups without the “crunching” of your spine. Thus, they’re one of the safer core training exercises you can perform.

Just be sure to keep your torso neutral as you bring your knees in towards your chest to avoid any unnecessary spine and hip flexion.

How to do it:

If you have sensitive wrists, I would recommend holding onto dumbbells at the floor to keep your wrists more neutral.

It’s a pretty easy movement—simply draw the ball into your chest, pause and squeeze, then return to straight legs.

The key is to keep your shoulders over your hands at all times (no swaying back and forth) and keeping your hips elevated at shoulder height – brace your abs to help with this. Perform 12 reps.

12. Plank with Feet on Ball

Muscles worked: core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques), triceps, shoulders, triceps

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Plank with Feet on Ball

This is the starting position of the previous exercise. Here, you’re just going to hold a straight plank. Remember to keep your hips at shoulder height and that your abs are braced.

To make it more challenging, point your toes onto the ball instead of having your feet flat on the ball. Activate all of your muscles and hold for 30 seconds.

13. Chair Hold

Muscles worked: core (all), entire upper body

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - Chair Hold

I’m saving the most challenging of ab exercises for last. The chair hold is a gymnastics-like exercise that you can easily do with a chair or stool that is firmly planted on the floor.

Not only will this exercise get all of your ab muscles firing, it’s a great isometric exercise that strengthens your triceps, shoulders, and your overall upper body.

How to do it:

Start by sitting in a sturdy chair. Place your hands on either side of the chair and prop your body up off the chair holding your legs at a 90 degree angle and off the floor. Hold this position for as long as you can while keeping your torso as tall as possible.

14. L Sit

Muscles worked: core (all), entire upper body

The 14 Best Ab Exercises - L Sit

If the chair hold wasn’t challenging enough for you then perform the same movement but straighten your legs this time. There’s your L Sit.

You can also perform this exercise from the floor using dumbbells as your base, which allow your body to come up off the floor more easily. Do your best to keep your torso tall and shoulders back (easier said than done). Hold for as long as you can.

So there you have the 14 best ab exercises that will help you create a rock solid core.

Remember, these targeted exercises won’t necessarily burn belly fat but they will strengthen your abs so that when you do shed that stomach fat, your toned abs will shine through.

Commonly Asked Ab Exercise Questions

And just before we wrap things up, I thought I’d take a moment to answer some common questions I’ve been asked about abdominal exercises.

When should you do ab exercises?

There’s really no right or wrong time to do your ab training. Just make sure you’ve done a good dynamic warm-up to get your body ready. You can build these ab exercises into an existing workout or add them on at the end of your workout.

If you are doing a heavy-lifting strength workout with big exercises like deadlifts and front squats, I would save your core exercises for the end of your workout.

That’s because your ab muscles are heavily recruited for these types of exercises and you don’t want them to be fatigued when you’re trying to perform a heavy, complex movement like the deadlift.

How often should you do ab exercises?

Generally, the smaller the muscle, the less time it needs to recover. Thus, you could technically train your abs on a daily basis.

However, all of my fitness programs incorporate just 3-4 workouts per week. Some are exclusively core-focused while others combine the ab exercises within a full body functional workout.

What ab exercises work the lower abs?

Here’s the thing to remember: your lower abs are still part of your 8-pack muscle called the “rectus abdominis”, which is innervated by the thoraco-abdominal nerves.

Thus, there isn’t a separate set of nerves for your lower abs, which means that any exercise that stimulates this muscle will work both the upper and lower abs.

Don’t be fooled by leg lift-type exercises which feel like they’re targeting your lower abs – they’re simply heavily recruiting your hip flexors.

Instead, focus on any of the ab training exercises in this post and you’ll be hitting your lower abs.

What are isometric ab exercises?

Isometric ab exercises are exercises that involve no movement. The plank and side plank are classic examples of this. When doing isometric exercises it’s really important to focus on fully activating all of your muscles, otherwise, you’re just hanging out and not doing much.

How to get toned abs?

Getting toned abs is a 2-fold process.

First, you need to burn belly fat so you can actually “see” your abdominal muscles.

Second, you want to perform smart ab exercises like the ones I’ve laid out here that will strengthen, tighten, and sculpt toned abs.

What are the best ab exercises that are safe during pregnancy?

Any isometric ab exercise – like the plank or side plank – where you are NOT lying on your body is fine to do during pregnancy.

Sit-ups and other “on your back” ab moves are not advised because the baby’s pressure can cut off circulation in your inferior vena cava (important vein that returns blood to your heart).

Enjoy This Article?

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