The Top 10 Best Abdominal Exercises Part 1

Hugh Jackman AbsQuick Links:
10 Best Ab Exercises Part 1
10 Best Abdominal Exercises Part 2
10 Best Abs Exercises Part 3

With the prevalence of six-pack abs in the media by everyone from Hugh Jackman and Matthew McConaughey, to Janet Jackson and Beyonce Knowles, society as of late treasures that elusive flat defined stomach look. We can thank high resolution for our cultural transition from portly praise to abdominal admiration.

After all, before Hollywood got huge in the 1900s, as a culture we appreciated a little meat on our bones, because it represented comfort, success, and good health. Now that we get to feast our eyes daily on tough-guy actors, beautiful actresses, rock stars, and supermodels, we’ve come full circle into the Washboard Era.


Beyonce Knowles Abs
Beyonce Knowles

Also be aware that there are other great uses for strong abs other than showing off your flat stomach. Powerlifters, Strongmen, Olympic athletes, sport-specific athletes, mixed martial artists, and even novice athletes and recreational weightlifters have every reason to work their abs hard.

Rock solid, super-strong abs are responsible for keeping your spine and organs healthy and safe, and for moving large amounts of weight in various directions and angles.

Matthew McConaughey Abs
Matthew McConaughey

Building a solid foundation is the #1 most important rule for people just getting into weightlifting, or for experienced lifters who have plateaued due to a lack of ab conditioning. Intense resistance-based ab training, squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses are the exercises that will help you reach this goal most efficiently.

The Never Ending Journey

I constantly get questions and comments about getting a six-pack. My reply is usually to go to the local convenience store and pick up a 6er of Bud Light in bottles, but that is often not the answer they are looking for.


Recently I received an inquiry from a Project Swole reader named Fred that went something like this:

“I follow a clean diet and I’ve been working on my abs several days a week for the last three years, but I don’t have a six pack. Can you give me some advice on breaking my plateau?”

Janet Jackson Abs
Janet Jackson

Poor Fred has been working at this for 3 solid years and has yet to obtain the coveted washboard abs. This gives you an idea as to just how long folks will work at this lifestyle, in spite of countless failures, to achieve the condition they want.

More often than not, the problem is not in their dedication, it’s in their diet and training. They think they can do endless sets of crunches and hanging leg raises, and eventually those abs will start rippling. In many cases it’s not what they are doing, it’s what they are not doing that’s the problem.

The Immortal Myth of Spot Reduction

The #1 cause of a soft midsection is a result of a myth that just won’t die: if you exercise a certain muscle group you will be able to tone that spot on your body. This is FALSE, FALSE, FALSE!

I repeat: just because you exercise a muscle, does not mean you will begin to show cuts or definition in that area.

Your muscles in the target area will get bigger, stronger, faster, and better conditioned, but fat loss will NOT occur in that area unless it is simultaneously occurring everywhere else on your body. The only way you can do crunches and wake up one day to six-pack abs, is if your bodyfat is already under 8%.

The truth you need to know, is that flat six pack abs are difficult to get. To succeed in this quest, you need the right combination of exercises, diet, and genetics. There, I said it.

I personally have had a 4 pack on several occasions throughout my life. A six pack is just not attainable for me unless I get under that 8% bodyfat mark, and even then I don’t have great lower abdominal genetics. The four pack is maintainable by me year round, although it’s slightly harder to stay that lean during the winter.

What does this mean for you?

It means that a flat belly is achievable for you, just as it is for anyone.

It means that your body might not physiologically be right for displaying six pack abs, but that you should be able to show off some abdominal definition if your bodyfat is low enough.

It means that you need to follow a strict diet in order to drop enough bodyfat from your whole body, that your abs become visible through a wall of various abdominal tissues.

It means that you might not be able to drop that much bodyfat if your lifestyle doesn’t allow it, or if your body just won’t function properly at a low body fat percentage.

It also means that you need a wide variety of effective exercises to shape your abdominals from all angles.

What You Really Need for Flat Abs

Flat Abs ChickThe basics:

  • good genes
  • discipline
  • commitment
  • determination
  • intensity
  • time
  • and knowledge

Most of the basics you can either control or manipulate, and by now you are already guessing at what you can do to get flat abs regardless of your physiology:

  1. A healthy diet, on which you burn more calories than you consume.
  2. Cardiovascular exercise. I recommend high intensity interval training (HIIT).
  3. Full body strength training 3 times per week with a focus on abdominal training.
  4. A list of the 10 most effective abdominal exercises known to man.

I can’t tell you what will work best for you, because I don’t know anything about you. However, I can tell you what works best for me and my clients, and let you take the knowledge and run with it.

Lets start by examining the anatomy and physiology of the abs so we know how they work.

Anatomy of the Abdominals

Located on the front and sides of the lower half of the torso, the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, and the external and internal obliques make up the abdominal muscle group. These muscles attach at the pelvis and originate along side the rib cage.

When talking about the six-pack you are referring to the rectus abdominus, whose strips of connective tissue give the impression of deep cuts between the 6 most-visible heads of the muscle.

The deepest core muscle is called the transverse abdominus. This muscle is underneath the rest of the core muscles; it wraps around the entire abdominal area. A strong transverse abdominus is useful for developing strong intra-abdominal pressure when lifting.

Finally, the muscles that allow us to move our core in a variety of angles are called the obliques. There are both internal and external obliques, which run diagonally across the body.

Functions of the Abdominals

Frank Zane Vacuum
Vacuum Pose

The rectus abdominus is responsible for bringing the rib cage closer to the pelvis, or flexing the spine, as when performing a crunch. By alternately stretching the spine, the rectus abdominus brings the pelvis closer to the rib cage, as when performing leg raises properly by tilting the hips towards the chest at the top of the movement.

Your transverse abdominus is responsible for keeping your guts in your body. It acts like a natural weight belt and is important for trunk and core stability. By constantly keeping your abs pulled in tight throughout the day, you are training your transverse abdominus with an isometric contraction. An extreme example is a Frank Zane vacuum pose.

Tip: By consciously holding a vacuum all day long each and every day, you are training your midsection to stay flat at all times.

The internal and external obliques rotate the torso and stabilize your trunk during various angled movements.

The Top 10 Best Abdominal Exercises

We are going to put all that diet talk on the shelf for a moment to focus only on abdominal exercises.

You already know you need to drop to low levels of bodyfat in order to display your abs. So lets assume you are already there or are currently dieting with a vengeance.

Now you need to know which exercises you should perform to thicken, shape, and sculpt those abs. Or if that’s not your bag, you need to know which exercises will help you the most with your powerlifting, strongman training, Olympic lifting, or sports performance.

Obviously exercises like squats, deadlifts, and overhead pressing will be important for developing your core. Exposing the abdominals to heavy weights while squatting is extremely beneficial for shocking the abs into new growth.

For now we are going to forget about all that stuff and examine exactly which abdominal exercises will give you the most bang for your buck.

This list is a compilation of exercises that meet the following classifications:

  • exercises that are highly praised and used often by good personal trainers
  • exercises used by martial artists for abdominal strength and conditioning
  • exercises used by bodybuilders that have thick, well defined abs
  • exercises that provide real results based on my 14 years of experience
  • exercises from a study in which participants were tested using using electromyography (EMG) equipment to monitor muscle activity

The EMG Study

In the ACE-commissioned study referenced above, conducted by Peter Francis, Ph.D., and Jennifer Davis, M.A., at the San Diego State University Biomechanics Lab, the upper and lower rectus abdominus muscles were tested along with the external obliques.

Activity in the rectus femoris was also measured and recorded, because high levels of activity in the hip flexors indicates an exercise that might commonly be performed incorrectly, or requires the body to recruit secondary muscles in addition to the abdominal and obliques.

An example of this would be the very common hanging leg raise, in which most people simply use their hip flexors to raise and lower their legs, barely recruiting the abdominals at all. Aside from wasting time thinking your are working your abs, this can lead to muscle imbalance, impingement, discomfort, and injury.

To Be Continued…

Now that you have read the basis for my top 10 best ab exercises, take a moment and re-read some diet articles to help you shed that extra body fat. Part 2 will be published later this week and will contain the first 5 of my top 10 best ab exercises.

Quick Links: 10 Best Ab Exercises Part 2

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19 Responses to “The Top 10 Best Abdominal Exercises Part 1”

  1. I must say that it is absolutely astonishing to witness the number of people in the gym who do crunches for what seems like they are trying to lose weight in their stomach. It’s almost as if people refuse to believe that those “ab rocker” miracle machines they sell in infomercials don’t work. I am eager to see your list!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. My bad I guess…..when I clicked her name the photo reappeared. That’s all the motivation I need to bring to the squat rack for a high production workout!

  3. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to debunk the spot training myth. I just feel bad when people ask “Can I get abs doing 100 situps a day?”

    You can’t get abs doing 10,000 sits up a day. It requires a variety of exercises to train them and make them pop out!

  4. Ab training is like anything else – most mistakes are made in the kitchen and not the gym. Want a 6-pak? Get your fat ass down to about 10% bodyfat or less, do a little bit of ab work (not hip flexors) and BAM!

  5. Hi Steve!

    Hope your still checking your old post :) Those are some crazy lookin abs you got on your page. I was wondering what you would consider the best exercises to work the lower part of your abs?

    by the way.. there’s no button to be notified if you post an answer hehe.. but I bookmarked your page so I’ll be checking back again.

    Thanks again and nice blog!

  6. Hi Steve, Thanks for a really interesting post. I am nearly 60 and have never had a 6 pack, maybe 4 once. I run 10 miles 5x a week and do a bit of weght lifting crunches etc. but I think it’s more about genetics for me, that is the wrong ones. Man it’s tough.

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