If you want to work your abs and are tired of doing sit-ups day in day out, then let me share with you some of my favourite exercises to work the abs. Sit-ups are not as effective as people think so dump them and try some of the exercises below. A strong abdomen can help relieve lower back pain too.
The abs is a large muscle group and although you can’t work specific parts such as your upper abs or lower abs only, you can certainly place more emphasis on one region than on another by doing specific exercises.
Leg raise/reverse crunches
This is my favourite exercise as I feel that it works best for me.
To perform the leg raise, lie down and lift your legs, keeping your knees slightly bent. If this is too hard, bend your knees even more. Normally you shouldn’t raise your legs so much that you start feeling less resistance but you can go all the way to the vertical and beyond until the exercise becomes a reverse crunch. You get a full range of motion that way.
In order to do the reverse crunch and bring your legs all the way back past vertical, you’ll have to hold on to something, whether it’s the side of the bench you are lying on or the legs of a partner or the bed!
You can also use a declined bench to make the exercise harder instead of lying horizontally.
Hanging knee raise
Picture credit: Ulf Liljankoski
If you find the leg raise too easy, then try hanging knee raises.
As the name suggests, you need to hang from a bar so your lower body can move freely. Bend your knees and lift then up as high as you can, usually slightly past horizontal is enough. Try to hold them up briefly and squeeze your abs before relaxing them. If you still find this exercise easy, straighten your legs and lift them!
I don’t like this exercise because you also need to concentrate on holding your upper body instead of dedicating all your energy and attention to your abs.
Sitting knee raises
This is purportedly one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favourite exercises when he was staying in hotel rooms.
Sit on the side of a chair or bed, lean back slightly while grasping the edge and raise your knees as high as they will go. It’s a very easy exercise to do and I usually like to do it at the beginning as a warm-up or at the end when I am exhausted. Sometimes I squeeze them in-between sets of other exercises instead of resting.
The first 3 exercises concentrated on working the lower abs and are harder to do than upper abs exercises. The classic upper ab exercise is the crunch.
My favourite way of doing crunches is to lie down, keep my knees in the air and lift my shoulders forward as far as I can. I keep my head in line as if holding an apple under my chin. My hands are held loosely by my ears, not pulling forcefully on my neck. Hold the position at the top for an instant and contract your abs hard – the crunch of the exercise! Then relax and lower yourself.
There are many variations to this exercise. You can have your lower legs on the bed but I feel that holding your legs yourself makes you work your lower abs a little. You can lie on a Swiss ball for an extra stretch of your abs. your feet will be flat on the ground for support and stability. You could also lie on a declined bench.
Whatever position you use, make sure you concentrate on pulling with your abs and squeeze your muscles at the top of the movement to get the full benefits.
Picture credit: Ditsch Fitness.
Too often people concentrate on their lower and upper regions and forget that their obliques also form part of their abs, albeit they are on the sides as their name suggest and their function is to pull your upper body from side to side. A strong core does not involve strong upper and lower abs but also powerful obliques.
Most abs exercises can be modified to place more emphasis on the obliques.
During the crunch, you can twist at the end of the exercise so your right side moves closer to your left knee. Then at the next rep, twist the other side to bring your left shoulder closer to your right knee.
However, to really recruit your side muscles, try doing crunches by lying on your side. It’s not a very comfortable position but I find that it really recruits on obliques.
Lie on your side with one arm below and to the front of you. Knees bent and the other arm over your head the usual way, lift your shoulders up using your stomach muscles and try bringing them closer to your knees which of course don’t move. The range of motion is quite limited in this position though.
People always think of squats as a leg exercise and rightly so but what many don’t realise is that it takes a strong core to lift and balance extremely heavy weights on top of your shoulders. Thus when I do heavy squats as part of my routine, I often go light on ab exercises or drop them altogether.
Squats recruit the abs as well because the legs must transmit power through the body to the loaded bar. If you don’t have a rigid core, you won’t be able to transmit this power. That’s why to perform squats effectively, you need to breathe in as you go down and hold on to that breath as you go up to create pressure in your abdomen and give it extra rigidity.
I’m not a big fan of weights or accessories for abs simply because I won’t be able to do these exercises at any time anywhere. I don’t do all the exercises I’ve listed here but choose several from them. through trial and error over the years, I’ve found out that I like them best and feel my muscles work more when doing them.