It’s time for another reader Q+A, and this month it’s my take on a question I get a lot: “What are the best exercises for flat abs?”
Let me start this one by saying that there haven’t been many Fitness Friday workouts here lately due to the commitment I made to myself earlier this summer. That was to spend more time fully living, being with friends and experiencing more of life away from my computer. All the while, my fitness goals have been focused around getting stronger while also moving my body in ways that it wants to be moved. That doesn’t mean the challenging workouts aren’t happening – they absolutely are! What it means is more intuitive decisions as to what my fitness regimen looks like on a daily basis.
Once upon a time I’d force myself to train hard regardless of how sore I was from the day before, how much sleep I’d had, or what level of stress I was feeling at work. All of this has been a really interesting learning process, and what I’ve experienced first-hand has shattered what I previously believed about what it took to “get abs”.
You’ve probably heard the statement made that abs are made in the kitchen, and I’ll comment on that at the end of this post. (Spoiler alert: they are.) But because the questions I get about abs are always related to what can be done in the gym, let’s chat about that first.
What muscles are we really talking about?
First things first: We all have abs. They’re the muscles that support our torso, allow us to move and hold our organs where they’re supposed to be. To get all biology teacher on you for a sec, the abdominal muscles are:
- The rectus abdominis – also known as the six pack (or 8-pack, depending on what your genetics allow you to reveal!) This is located in front of the pelvis between your ribs and pubic bone. The rectus abdominis allows the body to move in this area.
- The transversus abdominis – the one deep down. You can’t see it, but this stabilizes the torso and helps to maintain pressure in the abdominals. Without strength here (which many people lack), the lower part of your midsection can look distended.
- The external obliques – the ones down the sides, which help our trunk rotate left and right. Depending on where you get your fitness tips from, you might have read about workouts that leverage these muscles to “get rid of love handles”. (I’m not saying those workouts are effective, by the way – more on that in a sec!)
- The internal obliques – You can’t see these either, but you’ll find them just inside your hip bones, running in the opposite direction to the external obliques. They allow for powerful trunk twisting motions and work in tandem with the external obliques.
You might also see the serratus and intercostal muscles included as part of the abdominals, and when talking about the core, that opens things up to many more – the pelvic floor, muscles around the spine, diaphragm, glutes, latissiumus dorsi and trapezius.
While ‘flat abs’ are often the envy of many women (myself included at one point!) I think what’s really being sought after is a strong core. Yes, a defined rectus abdominis might look great when you’re on a beach vacation in a bikini, but in my opinion and personal experience, it’s pretty hard to achieve without strength in the other areas mentioned above.
What are the best exercises for flat abs?
Plenty of exercises you’ll find in training plans that are ab-specific target the rectus abdominis and external obliques. Those are the areas we typically store fat around, and are therefore the ones we hope to spot reduce. But if you’re about effectiveness and efficiency, and want to actually see results from your workouts, the approach I prefer to take (and what’s worked for me) is to do the exercises that engage as many muscles as possible.
You’ve probably done your fair share of sit ups, v-ups, bicycle twists and other variations of a crunch, and my guess is that you wouldn’t be this far down the post if those were working. So what I’d propose is ditching those moves for compound ones. This just means exercises that engage more than 1 muscle group, but also means more energy (aka calories) burned. Yes, cardio burns calories. But the compound exercises I’m about to list are strength-based, and therefore give you all the added benefits of strength building, improved bone density, injury prevention, flexibility (if done with proper form and range), etc.
I’ve seen the best results from these:
No, these are not just for your legs and glutes. Squats are a full-body exercise and the heavier you go (with good form), the more you’ll be forced to engage your entire core to stay upright and stable. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this is my #1 top exercise for core strength and lower body strength. If you want to make a difference in your physical fitness, be prepared to make squats your best friend!
I can’t emphasize how important good form is here, and if there’s one thing I’d suggest working on with a trainer or pro to perfect, it’d be your squat. Even after a solid year of being committed to improving my technique, there are still things I’m working on in order to be able to lift more weight. And if you’re totally new to this, don’t worry – bodyweight squats (as in, no weight added) are still super effective.
Variations: Back squat (barbell behind neck on shoulders), front squat (barbell under chin), overhead squat (arms holding barbell above head), sumo squat (super wide stance), squat holds/pulses (changing tempo during different parts of the motion). You can also do any of these with dumbbells or kettlebells held either at your sides or at shoulders. Others: curtsy squat, goblet squats, plyo squats, jumping squats, pistol squats, single-leg squats allllll the squaaaats!
2. Split squats
Ok, I realize this is another squat variation but I’m giving it it’s own space because this is one of the exercises I’ve done to make my back squat better. A split squat could be what you might otherwise call a static lunge with one foot forward and the other behind, lowering into a lunge and pushing up evenly through your feet to where you started, keeping your feet on the floor. Toss a heavy barbell on your back and your core becomes forced to engage or else you’d topple over.
Variations: Bulgarian split squats take it a step further by elevating the back foot on a box or bench. Aiming to keep weight distributed evenly and not being tempted to load it all into the front of your forward foot, your core works even harder to keep you upright.
I (and most people, I bet) have a strength imbalance between left and right sides. The Bulgarian split squat is an example of a uni-lateral exercise that emphasizes one side of the body at a time, and this is exactly why I’ve been using them to work on my strength imbalance. As a result, the position of my hips under heavier loads stays even in my regular back squat. (For comparison, a back squat is bi-lateral move because both sides are working, evenly, in an ideal world.) Tying it back to the core and this being an effective exercise for abs, the instability created by having one foot elevated, as well as the added element of weight means that the core has to be fully switched on for balance.
Another variation of the split squat is elevating the front foot – in other words, the opposite setup to a Bulgarian split squat. This places more emphasis on the quads, but also changes the feeling in your front knee. Personally I don’t love this kind, but to each their own.
3. Walking lunges
To fire up the core, I do these with a 45lb plate or heavier (depending on how hard I’ve worked already) held over my head with both hands. The muscles around the spine work to keep you upright, obliques keep you from toppling to the sides and all the other muscles in the core switch on to keep you stable. as your lower body moves.
Variations: Try holding dumbells or kettlebells, either at your sides or holding one overhead and one at your side. This uneven load creates more instability and more work for the core to do. The farmer’s carry (simply walking without lunging from one end of a room to another) holding weights as heavy as you can in your hands not only requires the core to fire, but also improves grip strength – something I’ve certainly lacked in the past.
I’ve struggled with these forever. Only this year did I discover that I was trying to lift my entire bodyweight with my arms, rather than engaging my lats and core to help do the work. Chin-ups (and pull-ups) recruit everything in the upper body, and if I only have time for 2 moves in a single gym session, I pick squats and chin-ups. BAM. Total body worked.
If chin-ups are new to you, or if you’re wondering why I’m suggesting this as an exercise for core strength, try simply hanging from a bar. Pretend someone’s about to punch you in the stomach. You wouldn’t just hang there with all muscles unengaged, nor would you suck your stomach in as if trying to squeeze into a tight pair of skinny jeans. Instead, the core muscles should brace and you might move your hips back slightly in the process. The pressure inside your abdominals builds to protect those internal organs. Try to hang out here for as long as you can before you can’t grip any longer in that braced position. Remember that braced feeling when you go to do a chin-up, and it’ll help take the focus out of your arms.
Easier variations: Assisted pull/chin-up machine, leaning under a barbell and pulling your chest towards it (the steeper the angle at your feet and the closer you are to standing, the easier it’ll feel). The type that worked best for me is banded chin-ups – an elastic band looped around the bar and one foot or bent knee. Experiment with different band thicknesses until you only need a small amount of your weight supported.
Harder variations: Add weight between your knees, or switch to a pull-up with your grip over the bar instead of under.
Nope, this is not just an upper body exercise for jacked arms! Push-ups require full body strength to keep your body in a properly engaged plank position, so doing them properly means having a braced core and not letting your stomach drop down to the floor. Doing so would create a dip in your lower back, putting more of the work into your arms and making the motion of pushing back up way harder than it needs to be.
Easier variations: Knees on the ground and hands on the floor, or hands on a bar positioned somewhere above your feet. The higher up your hands are positioned from your feet, the easier it’ll be.
Harder variations: Hands on the ground and feet on a step or stability ball, or suspended in a TRX – the steeper the angle at your hands, the harder they’ll be. Single arm, explosive, weighted (weight on your back), narrow hand position (which recruits more of the triceps).
6. Any exercise where you forcefully pull/push weight over your head
That means barbell or dumbbell clean and press, snatches, kettlebell swings, dumbbell/barbell squat thrusters – all of which involve:
- explosive strength
- core stabilization
- multiple muscle groups in the upper body, lower body and core.
Exercise isn’t everything: a word on sleep + nutrition
This would be a very incomplete post about abs if I didn’t speak to the importance of nutrition and sleep, and this is already a long one so I’ll save my thoughts on nutrition for a separate post. In a nutshell, I think these are FAR more important for someone looking to achieve fat loss than any of the exercises above. (That said, if your goal is to also build strength, you can’t avoid strength training.)
As has been discussed here many times before, gut health is hugely important and impacts so many parts of our health, whether we realize it or not. Seventy percent of our immune cells are in the gut, and bombarding them with sugar, processed ingredients, chemicals and other inflammatory foods doesn’t make those cells very happy.
Furthermore, when we’re stressed, digestion is often the first place we start to notice it. (Think bloating, cramping, constipation etc.) I didn’t think I had the genes to develop visible abdominal muscles until I made the effort to reduce stress of all kinds in my life – less chronic cardio, more healthy fats to aid in digestion, more yoga, sleep and relaxation time.
Without proper nutrition and all-around stress reduction, the body runs with high levels of cortisol. It’s a stress hormone that we produce naturally, but in high amounts it’s counter-productive to any sort of weight loss goals you might have. So before you go and try to kill it in your next gym session, consider that lowering cortisol by reducing stress in your life – including dietary – could be a just as effective (or more effective) first step.
So tell me… what are the exercises you’ve found to be effective in strengthening your abs and/or core, and what are your thoughts on the nutrition, sleep and stress component?