Ah, the abs. The gold standard for fitness. Our culture has wired in us that abs are what you need to look fit and healthy. Heck, I'll bet right now you can look back to high school and think of that kid that would walk in eating hostess donuts and somehow have a washboard under there. Point is, as vain as it can be, having a little bit of topography around the mid-section is something most people wouldn't turn down, even if there's a Planet Fitness article saying that the Dad Bod is a good thing (hey, I'll be rocking that come September!). But as we get into these warmer months and you'll be spending a lot more time with the tops popped (shirts, not summer shandies), this is always more relevant around these times.
So, what's the best exercise for abs? Here's the short answer: There's no single best exercise. To get abs you must gain muscle to build the tissue up, and lose fat so they're not covered. There are 3 rules for this:
Rule #1: Eat Right
Everyone has abdominal muscles. They just aren’t visible on a lot of people. Those who have visible abs generally have lower levels of body fat… and the right genetics don’t hurt, either. If you’ve heard the saying “abs are made in the kitchen,” I’m here to tell you that’s true. You can't outwork a bad diet. For abs to be visible, you’ll have to eat food that will support your training but not higher levels of body fat. A nutrition coach can help you figure out the best plan to bring out that six pack!
Rule #2: Do Full-Body Movements with Free Weights
Some styles of training help you develop a strong core as an “added benefit.” Others don’t. For example, when using machines for biceps curls, leg extensions or other movements, the working muscles are isolated and you don’t need to use your core much in most cases.
Full-body or “compound” movements with free weights force your core to work as you move a host of joints to stabilize the loads. This work is great for building core strength.
Think about it: pressing a set of dumbbells overhead while standing requires you to engage your abs and erectors to hold your spine rigid while your arms work. In a back squat, those muscles work hard to support the bar as your hips, knees and ankles move. This is why we do free weight compound lifts frequently.
.Compound movements often don’t seem like “core training,” but I promise you they are.
Rule #3: Do Specific Core Exercises
Just like you'd need to do bicep curls to get bigger biceps, you'll have to do some specific core stuff to get bigger abs. Most people think of crunches when they think about training the core, but I’ll give you a non-exhaustive list of great movements that work all parts of the core. Here we go:
•Planks (all variations, including side planks)
All these movements will help you create strong muscles in your core—you’ll definitely feel the burn if you do them.
So which exercises should you do? A coach can tell you exactly which ones are best based on your goals, but if you aren’t working with a coach, select a movement for the back of the body (like glute bridges), one for each side of the body (like side bends) and one for the front (like bicycle crunches).
Be careful not to overdo it! Here’s a very general starting point: Do 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps of each exercise 2 or 3 times a week, leaving a rest day between sessions. Balance that will regular full-body weight training and regular conditioning workouts with appropriate intensity. Then refuel with whole foods that are low in sugar and fat.
Remember: No one thing will give you great abs. But a coach can help you earn your abs with a strategy that involves nutrition and movement together.
If you have any questions or want to talk to a coach about your ab (or dad bod) goals, book your intro here.