The Best Ab Exercises To Build A Strong Core

The Best Ab Exercises To Build A Strong Core

clock-circular-outlinePosted 12 Apr 2024

A chiseled core with well-defined ab muscles is the pinnacle of an athletic physique. But there’s more to abs than meets the eye – these small, powerful muscles are there to help during almost all exercises, whether you’re looking to pull a heavier deadlift, knock time off your 5K, or perfect your posture.

If you’re serious about carving your core to look built in a muscle-fit shirt or toned in a crop top, it’s going to take more than some heavy barbell lifts to get there. We’re talking about focused core training: From crunches and leg raises, to rotational exercises; Discover our go-to core exercises, along with expert advice on training frequency and a note on nutrition for fat loss. Brace yourself, we’ve got the ideal ab-building recipe ready to share.

Ready to train? Choose a follow-along core workout on The Gymshark Training App.


Abs aren’t solely built in the kitchen, but mastering what to eat before and after your workout, can help build definition.

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What Are Abs?

Let’s start with the basics – What are abs? You’re probably well aware that your abs (part of the core) are located around your midsection. But did you know that these muscles are actually made up of four key groups?

These include:

  • Rectus Abdominis (The ‘six-pack muscles’; located in the middle of the abdomen, these muscles help you flex forward)

  • Transversus Abdominis (The deepest muscle of the abs that wraps around the waist to support the spine)

  • External Obliques (The outermost ab muscle that runs from the ribs to the pelvis, helping the body rotate and bend from side to side)

  • Internal Obliques (Sit underneath the external obliques, also assisting with rotation of the trunk and bending)

Each is a separate muscle, but together they allow the trunk to rotate and flex, stabilizing the body through various movements. To develop a crisp six-pack, you’ll need to dedicate time to training and refining each of these four muscle groups, and whilst most ab exercises don’t target a singular area, most do place more focus on one muscle group.

Genetics also play a big role in the appearance of our abs. Whilst some are blessed with the ability to create an impressive eight-pack like David Laid, others of us aren’t. Depending on how the connective tissue in your abdominals is built, you may find you build a four, six, or eight-pack (however a six-pack is the most common). We’re going to share the best ab exercises to build your core – but just remember you won’t be able to alter your genetic make-up that determines the appearance of your abs.

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The Best Ab Exercises

You might think all you need to do is 100 crunches a day to build your abs, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Not only is it really boring, but crunches only train your abs in one motion, which is the back and forward flexion of the spine. We want to hit the abs from different angles, to build a balanced midline framed by defined obliques.

So how do we do that? We’ve chosen our favorite ab exercises to challenge every part of your core. All you need to do is pick three exercises from below, and perform 10-15 reps of each, for 3 sets – there are bodyweight options if you’re working out from home, or weighted options if you’re hitting the gym.

Our 8 Best Ab Exercises To Build A Stronger Core:

  1. Crunches

  2. Bird Dogs

  3. Leg Raises

  4. Side Plank

  5. Russian Twists

  6. Cable Woodchopper

  7. Cable Crunch

  8. Med Ball V Ups

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Bodyweight Ab Exercises

You don’t need anything except your own bodyweight (and maybe a mat) for these, so there’s no excuse for skipping these bodyweight ab exercises! Don’t underestimate their effectiveness – they get tough pretty quickly!

1. Crunches

The Abdominal Crunch: Easily the most common abs exercise to grace the gym mats – and they deserve the hype. Proven effective even in small amounts, they are unmatched in their ability to target our six-pack muscle (you know the one: rectus abdominis) [1]. Don’t make these your only ab exercise, but certainly give them their time of day!

How To Do Crunches:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, feet flat on the floor, lower back in contact with the mat.

  2. Placing your arms on your thighs, take a breath in, bracing your core.

  3. Lift your shoulder blades up, exhaling as you rise, crunching’ your abs. Your hands should move up your thighs towards your knees, keeping your chin tucked as you do so.

  4. Lower back to the starting position, exhaling.

  5. Repeat.

TIP: Make sure you don’t strain your neck to lift yourself up. Focus on keeping your neck in line with your spine, and using your core to crunch your body up.

To increase the difficulty, hold a small weight and add a pause at the top of the crunch.

2. Bird Dog Exercise

Bird dogs? Despite the strange name, this is an effective core exercise that targets the rectus abdominis and the obliques. But a great thing about bird dogs is that they build lower back function and can even reduce lower back pain by engaging the core and back muscles simultaneously [2,3]. If you struggle with back pain during core exercises or your big lifts, bird dogs can be a great way to ease this.

How To Do Bird Dogs:

  1. Kneel on all fours on a mat, hands directly below shoulders, knees stacked below hips.

  2. Bracing your abs, extend opposite arm and legs straight out in front and behind to form a straight line. Keep your hips square and back straight.

  3. Hold for 2 seconds, then bring the arm and leg back in, driving your elbow towards your knee.

  4. Pause, then begin the second rep, extending the legs and arms back out in front.

  5. Complete 10 reps on one side, then switch sides to complete the same steps.

TIP: Try to minimize motion in your hips, keeping them square to the ground, especially as you transition from one side to the other.

You can also alternate sides, returning the knee and hand to the mat after each rep, before extending out the opposite arm and leg. This will feel slightly easier.

3. Leg Raises

Leg raises are one of the best lower ab exercises, helping increase strength and muscular control throughout the core, with particular emphasis on the rectus abdominis. They also target the hip flexors, strengthening them to improve squats, running, and jumping.

Leg raises can be performed flat on the floor, on an incline bench, or hanging from a bar, depending on your strength and experience – the latter variation being the most advanced!

How To Do Lying Leg Raises:

  1. Lie flat on your back on a mat, hands resting on the floor, palms facing down, and legs extended.

  2. Slowly raise your legs up towards the ceiling, inhaling and bracing your core as you do so. Press your thighs together and keep your legs straight, stopping when they are at a 90-degree angle with your torso.

  3. Slowly lower back down, stopping just before your heels reach the floor, then repeat for 10-15 reps.

TIP: Resisting the urge to move too quickly, particularly in the downward phase can be difficult! Make sure to control your legs on the way down, moving them slowly and stopping before your feet touch the floor.

If you find your lower back creeping off the floor, consciously think about pulling your belly button down towards your spine. You can also try placing your hands underneath your lower back as you do the exercise to support your pelvis. Still an issue? Don’t bring your legs as low: stop just before the point where your lower back loses contact with the floor.

4. Side Plank

If you want to work your waist and define your obliques, side planks are a great exercise to get you there. This unilateral movement challenges each side of the body independently, working not only the core but also the lats, lower traps, chest, shoulders, and glutes, which are all needed to help keep the body stable. These aren’t easy, but they’ll build strength, balance, and coordination, without putting any pressure on the lower back or neck like some ab exercises do.

How To Do A Side Plank:

  1. Lie on your side with your legs extended, forearm flat on the floor, elbow bent. Feet can either be stacked on top of one another (harder), or staggered (easier).

  2. Pop your hips up, squeezing your core and using your feet and forearm to stabilize yourself. Your forearm should remain flat on the floor, elbow directly below the shoulder. Place your opposite hand on your hip for balance. Your body should form a straight line.

  3. Hold for 15-30 seconds, squeezing your core throughout. Think about lifting your ribcage away from the mat, squeezing your quads and glutes throughout to stabilize your body.

  4. Bring your body back down to the mat, and switch sides.

TIP: Make this movement harder by adding a hip dip, lowering your hips towards the ground when in the side plank, and then moving them back up towards the ceiling. Aim for 10 reps on one side, before switching to the other.

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Ab Exercises With Weights

Looking to take things up a level? Training abs doesn’t need to be limited to just bodyweight. Here are our more effective weighted ab exercises to boost your strength gains.

5. Russian Twists

Another weights room classic, and for good reason. The Russian Twist places constant tension on the abdominals while the obliques help maintain balance and rotation of the torso. While these can be performed using just bodyweight, adding resistance such as a medicine ball, kettlebell or sandbag will increase the difficulty, making your core work that little bit harder!

How To Do Russian Twists:

  1. Select an appropriately weighted med ball, kettlebell, or sandbag.

  2. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet on the floor, holding the weight close in front of your chest.

  3. Lean back slightly, lifting your feet off the floor so your legs form a V-shape.

  4. Brace your core and rotate your torso, moving the weight to one side of your body. Bring it down so it is level with your hip, but not touching the ground. Keep your gaze fixed on the weight as you move it.

  5. Pause, then return the weight to the center, before moving it down towards the other hip.

  6. Return back to center. This counts as one rep.

  7. Repeat, aiming for 10 to 12 reps for 3 sets.

TIP: To help balance, cross your feet and try to hold your legs in the center of your body, avoiding swinging when rotating your torso. Don’t rush the movement: Keep the reps slow and controlled.

To make this exercise harder, take your legs straight out in front of you, rather than keeping them bent – you’ll have to work your core that little bit harder to stabilize yourself and you’ll definitely feel the burn!

6. Cable Woodchopper

Gaining its name from the motion of chopping down a tree, this is another rotational core exercise that simultaneously challenges the muscles in your trunk, hips, and shoulders, strengthening and defining the waist. Don’t worry, no trees will be harmed in the process – all you need is a cable and a handle attachment.

How To Do The Cable Woodchopper:

  1. Attach the handle grip attachment to the cable, and set the height to somewhere between chest or shoulder height. Adjust the weight to a weight you can perform 10-12 reps on each side with.

  2. Clasp the handle in both hands and take a couple of steps away from the tower, keeping your arms outstretched. Stand side on to the tower, feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.

  3. Pull the handle, rotating your torso 180 degrees, keeping your arms fully extended throughout. Keep a neutral spine, focusing your gaze on your hands throughout.

  4. Hold for one to two seconds, before rotating back to starting position.

  5. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps, then switch sides by turning around and facing the other way.

TIP: When performing cable woodchoppers, focus on only rotating your upper half of the body, twisting the torso away from the cable, keeping your arms straight and thighs facing forwards.

For ultimate oblique activation, superset these with Russian Twists.

Cable Woodchopper Variations: You can also perform high-to-low and low-to-high cable chops by adjusting the height of the cable on the tower and moving the cable at a 45-degree angle, instead of side-to-side. These will work your obliques at a slightly different angle.

7. Cable Crunch

If you’re serious about building those six-pack muscles, then kneeling cable crunches will take your crunch game to a whole new level. They’re weighted, they’re controlled and they isolate the rectus abdominis to increase core strength and build abs of steel.

How To Do Cable Crunches:

  1. Set the cable machine up to the top of the tower and attach the rope attachment.

  2. Take hold of the end of the ropes in both hands, taking a couple of steps away from the tower to move the weights off the stack whilst turning to face away from it. Kneel down, placing both knees on the floor directly below shoulders.

  3. Hold the rope handles above the top of your head in an overhand grip, thumbs facing the ceiling.

  4. Begin the crunch by bracing your core and taking a breath in. Hinge from your hips, breathing out as you contract for abs and curl your torso towards the ground. The rope should remain above your head at all times, chin tucked (imagine you are trying to hold an egg under your chin!)

  5. Aim to lower until your elbows are close to your legs, squeezing your abs the whole time.

  6. Pause, then slowly extend your torso to come back to starting position.

  7. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.

TIP: If you find cable crunches too difficult, instead of reducing the weight, try turning around and performing the crunches facing the tower. Facing this way, the resistance path of the cable won’t pull you backward, making it easier to ‘crunch’.

For a harder variation, try a standing cable crunch. You’ll have to work a lot harder to stabilize your entire body throughout the movement, upping the core engagement required to perform the movement.

8. Med Ball V Ups

Med ball v sit ups (or jack knives) are a challenging core burner that will fire up both your rectus abdominis and your transverse abdominis, along with the hip flexors, adductors, and quads. They aren’t easy: starting every rep from a hollow body position will test your core and require some serious strength to drive the med ball up toward your toes!

How To Do Med Ball V Ups:

  1. Choose a moderate-weight medicine ball and place it behind the top of your mat. Lie flat on your back with your legs extended out, reaching your arms overhead to take hold of the med ball.

  2. Point your toes, squeeze your quads together, and engage your core. Taking a deep breath in, lift your feet slightly off the floor.

  3. Begin the rep, simultaneously moving your legs and arms (still holding the medicine ball) towards each other to create a ‘V’ shape with your body, aiming to touch the med ball to your toes. Arms and legs should remain straight throughout.

  4. Slowly lower your arms and legs back down to the floor, keeping them straight and exhaling as you do so. Touch the med ball back on the floor behind you after each rep. To make the exercise harder, try not to let your heels touch the floor, stopping when they are about 10 cm away, before beginning the next rep.

  5. Repeat for 10-15 reps.

Tip: If you struggle to straighten your legs, bend your knees and aim to reach your knees, rather than your toes. In the meantime, work on some hamstring stretches to improve flexibility so you can work your way up to doing toe-touch crunches with straight legs.

If you find these too challenging, either go for a lighter med ball or ditch the med ball entirely and do the v ups using just you’re bodyweight – trust us when we say this variation is still very challenging!

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The Only Ab Exercises You Need

Building a strong core takes diligence, discipline, and hard work – and it won’t happen overnight; But we’ve given you the tools to work intelligently with your training to hit every square inch of your midsection.

For ultimate ab definition, perform 3 of the core exercises above for 10-15 reps, for three rounds, three times a week. Make sure you include a mixture of flexion exercises (like crunches) with rotational ones (such as Russian Twists). Your lifts will soon start to feel stronger, your body more stable and you’ll feel confident taking off your shirt mid-sweat session or just wearing a sports bra to the gym – it’s a win-win if you ask us.

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WRITTEN BY: Alex Kirkup-Lee

Alex is an inhouse Content Writer for Gymshark’s Health & Conditioning categories. A qualified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 and Functional Fitness Coach, Alex is experienced in training clients from a range of sporting backgrounds. With a passion for functional training, her favorite workout is anything that includes deadlifts, rowing, or wallballs.

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