3 Best Ab Exercises 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.
Change the Way You Train
Your Abs Are on Overdrive
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.
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
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 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
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.
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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