3 Best Ab Exercises for Ultimate Core Strength

Nov 17, 2022 | Strength & Conditioning

Strong, athletic, shirtless man doing ab exercises in on a Swiss ball in a gym setting for core strength.
Not seeing any progress with your current ab routine? Bored of the same old core exercises you’ve been doing since high school? Ditch the endless crunches, sit-ups, and front planks and do these 3 movements instead for ultimate core strength.

Dr. Bailey is a chiropractor, former collegiate basketball player, and S&C coach. He has experience as a personal trainer helping athletes of all ages and levels and is now on the board of directors for Rehab2Performance (R2P). Here, he explains what true core strength really is and the best 3 exercises to get you there.

Dr. Cory Bailey, DC, CSCS
Dr. Cory Bailey

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Your Abs Are on Overdrive

I’m sure you’ve done your fair share of core exercises with the hope of getting washboard abs. And you’re not alone. Most people train abs to get that chiseled 6-pack and deep “V” going into the waistline. The muscle responsible for this look is the rectus abdominis.
Rectus abdominis or abdominal abs muscular system anatomy outline diagram.

But what if I told you most people have a rectus abdominis that is already on overdrive? And the more you do ab exercises like crunches and sit-ups, the further into overdrive you go and the more likely your hips and low back tighten up.

If it’s the chiseled 6-pack you’re looking for, eating your way there with a healthy and consistent protein-packed diet is a much easier route to get there than doing thousands of crunches every day.

What Is Core Strength?

Core strength is the ability to move and resist force on the body in a way that keeps joints happy and healthy. Tailor that to whatever your goals may be: picking up your grandchildren, squatting/deadlifting over 500 lbs, running marathons, etc; and you can come up with how much effort you need to put in to get there.

If your goal has more to do with functional fitness, then the muscles you should be targeting are the internal and external obliques.

External abdominal oblique muscle with human ribcage bones outline diagram. Labeled educational scheme with hip iliac crest, inguinal ligament and aponeurosis anatomical location vector illustration.
Internal oblique muscle with ribcage muscular system anatomy outline diagram. Labeled educational scheme with ribs costal cartilages, aponeurosis, iliac crest and inguinal ligament vector illustration
Training your obliques requires the ability to orient your ribcage over your pelvis with movement. Said differently, if you “stack” well with movement, your obliques will be engaged and ready for action.

I know this sounds complicated, but hear me out.

Finding an ideal stacked position (ribcage over pelvis) can be difficult for the average person. And that’s okay! The right exercises actually do this for you. So if you’re not a movement professional or you don’t have a coach to keep a keen eye on you while you work out, try my three go-to ab exercises that are pretty much fail-safe.

1. Suitcase Carries

Just as it sounds, carry a weight on one side of your body like you’re walking in an airport to your terminal to catch a flight. The amount of weight should be heavy enough to pose a challenge when holding for 30 seconds, but not so heavy that it’s pulling your shoulder out of its socket.

If you’re able to hold the weight by your side without it pulling you into a side-bend, then your oblique muscles on the opposite side of the weight are firing like crazy.

For a challenge that increases how much your obliques are firing by tenfold, try adding a walk or march in place while keeping that weight secured to your side

I usually program “2-laps” for each arm for one set, which amounts to about 50 yards or 30 seconds total for each arm.

2. (Not Your Average) Side Planks

This isn’t your typical side plank where you keep your legs straight and use your bottom elbow and foot for support.

This challenging side plank progression does NOT facilitate an ideal stacked position and therefore does NOT fire the obliques in a favorable way. Instead, bend your hips and knees at about 45 degrees (doesn’t have to be perfect) and support yourself on your bottom elbow and knee. Then bring your bottom hip off the ground and hold for 30 seconds.

This modification allows for a better stack without working that hard to find it, and your obliques on the bottom side are targeted a lot more.

For an added challenge, lift your top knee and foot into the air, sort of like a star plank. If you do these well, your bottom hip will be working as well.

3. Cable / Band High to Low Chops

Anchor a band or a cable up high above your head and turn your body sideways so the band/cable is off to one side. Then pull from above your head to the opposite hip while keeping your body still like a statue.

I typically program 12 chops on each side, always chopping from high to low.

This is my favorite of these three ab exercises because you can change positions anywhere from kneeling on the ground to standing. This gives you options to progress or regress the exercise (kneeling being the easiest, standing on one leg or in a staggered stance being the hardest).

Coach’s Tip: If you focus on reaching your arms more than rotating and flexing your trunk, you will get more out of this exercise for the obliques.

Programming Considerations

So exactly how many of these exercises should you do, how do you program them within a workout?

I like to program each of these exercises within the rest periods of more advanced compound movements. This works great if you have limited time in the gym!

If you’d rather keep your rest periods strictly for rest, try doing an “ab circuit” where you perform each of these three exercises one after another for 3-5 rounds:

Ab Circuit: 5 rounds, no rest
Suitcase Carries: 45lbs, x2 laps or 30 seconds each arm
Side Planks: x30 seconds each side
Cable Chops: 50lbs, x12 chops each side

Either option works! The most important thing is substituting the boring hip and low-back hurting crunches/sit-ups for these three ab exercises AND putting in consistent effort.

These powerful movements are the best way to generate ultimate core strength that translates to your goals, from running a 5k to hitting a new squat PR.

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