Your abdominal muscles, or abs, sit at the core of your body. They are involved in almost every movement you do, either powering the movement themselves or stabilizing your body so that your arms and legs can transmit force efficiently.
Visually, the abs have been the focal point of physical culture for decades, and much effort (and money) is dedicated worldwide to the development and display of this muscle group.
In practice, developing a set of ripped abs depends on you doing two things:
- Being lean enough so that your subcutaneous fat doesn’t cover the muscles.
- Training your abdominal muscles enough for them to bulge through your skin.
You can learn how to do the first part in our guide on How to Cut. For the second part, keep reading.
In this article, you will learn how to train your abs effectively. From abdominal muscle anatomy, to the best ab exercises. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective ab workout.
Anatomy of Your Abs
When we say “abs”, we are typically referring to a muscle group consisting of four muscles:
- Rectus abdominis. The “six-pack” muscle on the front of your abdomen.
- External obliques. The outermost, diagonal muscles on the sides of your abdomen.
- Internal obliques. Located underneath the external obliques, and running diagonally in a perpendicular direction to them.
- Transversus abdominis. The deepest of your abdominal muscles, running horizontally like a wide belt around your midsection.
While all four muscles contribute to both core stabilization and movement to some extent, their primary functions vary.
The internal and external obliques are responsible for rotating your core (like when you’re throwing a ball or a punch), flexing it to your sides, and also keeping your core and pelvis stable during unilateral (one-sided) lifts and movements. For instance, Bulgarian split squats and standing one-handed dumbbell shoulder presses both activate the obliques.1 2
The main function of the rectus femoris is to bend your spine forward and keep your core rigid, and also to protect your viscera.
The transversus abdominis is the deepest of the muscles, and functions as a wide belt or a corset. It compresses and stabilizes your core.
Since the abdominal muscles have such a wide array of muscle fibers, going in several directions, you will need to utilize several different ab exercises if you wish to train them optimally.
Ab Exercises: The Best Exercises for Training Your Abs
In this section, we’ll take a look at four ab exercises that target the different abdominal muscles.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great ab workout.
1. Ab Wheel Roll-Out
The ab wheel roll-out might very well be both the king and queen of ab exercises. While the standing version is off-limits for most of us, and rather the fruit of many years of practice, the kneeling version is more widely accessible.
The kneeling ab wheel roll-out primarily trains your rectus abdominis, but all four ab muscles are active in this exercise, striving to keep your core rigid and bringing you back to the kneeling position.
If the exercise is too heavy for you, you can make it easier by rolling out in front of a wall, and thus use the wall to limit your range of motion. Move further and further away from the wall as you become stronger.
If you don’t have access to an ab wheel, you can put small plates on a barbell and use that instead. Use a soft mat under your knees to make it more comfortable.
- Standing Ab Wheel Roll-Out
2. High to Low Wood Chop
You can do this exercise with a cable or an elastic band, or, I suppose, with an actual axe and wood.
3. Hanging Leg Raise
You can make this exercise easier by bending your knees and perform a hanging knee raise. You can make it heavier by using ankle weights or holding a dumbbell between your feet. You can also increase the difficulty by bringing your toes all the way to the bar.
If it is uncomfortable to hang from a bar, you can lie down on the floor instead.
Finally, the crunch. It is one of the most classic ab exercises, and for good reason: You don’t need any equipment to get some good training in – just your own body and the floor.
If this exercise is too easy for you, you can increase the difficulty by holding a weight against your chest, by using a crunch machine, or by performing the exercise in a decline.
The crunch primarily works your rectus abdominis.
Ab Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective ab workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises target all four abdominal muscles, at slightly different muscle lengths or positions, which means a majority of their different muscle fibers will be targeted.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from medium reps with moderate weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Ab Workout
- Kneeling Ab Wheel Roll-Out: 3 sets x 8 reps
- High to Low Wood Chop: 3 sets/side x 10 reps
- Hanging Leg Raise: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Crunch: 2 sets x 20 reps
Can’t do the prescribed number of reps? That’s OK! Aim towards them, and when you finally get strong enough to exceed them, add weight to make the exercise heavier.
This ab workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
This ab workout begins with three working sets of kneeling ab wheel roll-outs, because they are the heaviest exercise of the lot. If you get stronger in this exercise (i.e. increase your reps, or the range of motion) then that is a good indication that your abs are growing. You are also likely increasing your core’s “functional” capabilities in the general sense of the word. Try to improve your performance in this exercise, maybe aiming towards one day being able to do standing ab wheel roll-outs.
After the roll-outs, you will move on to high to low wood chops. These will make sure that you are hitting your obliques hard, as it involves both rotation and side flexion. Form and muscle contact is a priority in this exercise, so make sure you don’t increase the weight at the cost of your technique.
Then, it is time for the hanging leg raises. This is another heavy exercise, especially when you are drained from the previous exercises. Still strive to increase your number of reps in this exercise, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t perform as well as when you are fresh and rested in your abs.
Finally, for the finishing touch, you hit the ground and knock out some crunches. They often lend themselves to higher rep numbers and lets you pump out the last bit of energy from your muscles.
How often can you train this same ab workout?
For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 1–2 times per week is probably enough. Once a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you can beat your previous weights, you could repeat it every 4–5 days.
An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do a lighter second workout in between each workout. In the lighter workout, you can reduce both volume and the number of exercises, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your abdominal muscle anatomy, what some effective ab exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome ab workout.
Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight and reps you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- European Journal of Applied Physiology. May 2012, Volume 112, Issue 5, pp 1671–1678. Muscle activity of the core during bilateral, unilateral, seated and standing resistance exercise.
- Int J Sports Med. 2014 Dec;35(14):1196-202. Muscle activation and strength in squat and Bulgarian squat on stable and unstable surface.