Abdominal Training

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How do I exercise the abs?  |  What's wrong with sit-ups?
What are good ab exercises?  |  Lower Ab Exercises  |  Upper ab Exercises
Is there a specific order I should do exercises in?
How do I structure an ab routine?  |  How often should I train abs?
Shouldn't I balance my abs with my spinal erectors?

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How do I exercise the abs?

The abs are designed to perform one main task, to shorten the distance between your sternum, or breastbone, and your pelvis. The only way to do this is to bend your spine in the lower back region.

In short, any exercise which makes you move your sternum toward your pelvis or your pelvis toward your sternum is good. To do this safely, the lower back should be slightly rounded, not arched.

In general when exercising the abs, try to maintain the natural arch of you lower back. The lower back will round slightly as you perform the exercises. Don't fret about pressing your back into the ground.

What's wrong with sit-ups?

Traditional sit-ups emphasize sitting up rather than merely pulling your sternum down to meet your pelvis. The action of the psoas muscles, which run from the lower back around to the front of the thighs, is to pull the thighs closer to the torso. This action is the major component in sitting up. Because of this, sit-ups primarily engage the psoas making them inefficient at exercising your abs. More importantly, they also grind the vertebrae in your lower back.

They're inefficient because the psoas work best when the legs are close to straight (as they are when doing sit-ups), so for most of the sit-up the psoas are doing most of the work and the abs are just stabilizing.

Putting the thighs at a right angle to the torso to begin with means that the psoas can't pull it any further, so all of the stress is placed on the abs.

Sit-ups also grind vertebrae in your lower back. This is because to work the abs effectively you are trying to make the lower back round, but tension in the psoas encourages the lower back move into an exaggerated arch. The result is the infamous "disc pepper grinder" effect that helps give you chronic lower back pain in later life.

What are good ab exercises?

We've divided the exercises into upper and lower ab exercises. Note that there aren't two separate muscles that you can truly isolate, so all the exercises stress the whole abdominal wall. However there are "clusters" of muscle separated by connective tissue (these make up the "washboard" or the "six-pack"). You can focus on the upper clusters by moving just the torso and the lower clusters by moving the pelvis.

For the lower abs, in increasing order of difficulty:

For the upper abs:

Lower Ab Exercises

Lying Leg Raises

Lie on your back with your hands, palms down under your buttocks. Raise your legs about 30cm (12") off the floor and hold them there. Now trying to use just your lower abs, raise your legs by another 15cm (6"). Do this by tilting the pelvis instead of lifting the legs with the psoas. Make sure your knees are slightly bent.

If you're big or have long legs or both, you should probably avoid this exercise. For people with legs that are too heavy for their lower abs strength, this exercise pulls the lower back into an exaggerated arch which is bad (and painful). If you have this problem you can either try bending your knees slightly and making sure you keep your lower back fairly flat, or just try another exercise.

Reverse Crunch

This exercise can be done on the ground or on an incline sit-up board. All you need is something behind your head to hold. If you use the incline board, use it with your feet lower than your head.

Lying on your back, hold a weight or a chair leg (if lying on the floor) or the foot bar (if using the sit-up board). Keep the knees slightly bent.

Pull your pelvis and legs up so that your knees are above your chest and then return to beginning position.

This exercise is very similar to a hanging knee raise, but a little less intense.

Vertical Lying Leg Thrusts

Initial position:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Put your fists under your buttocks to form a cradle.
  3. Raise your legs in the air 20-30cm (10-12") off the ground, knees slightly bent.
  4. If you feel any strain on your lower back, bend your knees a little more.
  5. Raise your head and shoulders off the ground slightly if you can to help keep the abs stressed.

The exercise itself has four phases:

  1. Raise your legs until your feet are above your pelvis; focus on contracting the abs.
  2. Thrust your heels to the ceiling, breathe out, keep contracting the abs raising the pelvis out of the cradle of your fists.
  3. Lower out of the thrust back to your fists, leaving your feet above your pelvis.
  4. Lower your legs back to the initial position.

Hanging Knee Raises

You need a chin-up bar or something you can hang from for this. Grab the bar with both hands with a grip a bit wider than your shoulders, cross your ankles and bring your knees up to your chest (or as close as you can get). Your pelvis should rock slightly forward. Pause at the top of the movement for a second and then slowly lower your knees by relaxing your abs. Don't lower your legs all the way. Repeat the movement using just your abs to raise your knees.

Make sure that you don't start swinging. You want your abs to do the work, not momentum. It's important that you don't move your legs too far or your psoas muscle will be doing a lot of work and possibly causing back problems as in a sit-up.

Make sure your pelvis moves, your lower back stays neutral or slightly rounded, not arched, and that your abs are doing the work, not your hips.

Upper Ab Exercises

Ab Crunches

Lying on your back, put your knees up in the air so that your thighs are at a right angle to your torso, with your knees bent. If you like you can rest your feet on something, like a chair. Put your hands either behind your head or gently touching the sides of your head.

Now, slowly raise your shoulders off the ground and try to touch your breastbone to your pelvis, breathing out as you go. If you succeed in touching your breastbone to your pelvis, see a doctor immediately.

Although the actual movement will be very small (your upper torso should move through less than 30 degrees) you should try to go as high as possible. Only your spine should bend, your hips should not move. If the hips move, you are exercising the psoas.

Do these fairly slowly to avoid using momentum to help.

You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by extending your hands out behind your head instead of keeping them at the side. Make sure you don't jerk your hands forward to help with the crunch, keep them still.

1/4 Crunches

Same as an ab crunch except that you raise your shoulder up, instead of pulling them toward your pelvis. You can do these quickly, in fact it's hard to do them any other way.

Cross-Knee Crunches

Like ab crunches, take the lying, bent-knee position, but this time crunch diagonally so that you try to touch each shoulder to the opposite hip alternately. At the top position, one shoulder and one hip should be off the ground.

Pull down Crunches

Drape a towel or rope around the bar of a pull down machine so that you pull the weight using it instead of the bar. Kneel facing the machine and grab hold of the towel and put your hands against your forehead. Kneel far enough away from the machine so that the cable comes down at a slight angle.

The exercise is the same movement as an ab crunch, but using the weight instead of gravity. The emphasis is still on crunching the abs, pulling the sternum (breastbone) towards the pelvis and making sure you exhale all your air at each contraction.

Is there a specific order I should do exercises in?

You should exercise the lower abs before the upper abs and do any twisting upper ab movements before straight upper ab ones. Twisting exercises work the obliques as well as the upper abs.

How do I structure an ab routine?

  1. Try to do sets in the 15-30 rep range.
  2. Follow the order above
  3. Pick easy exercises to start with and when you can happily do about 2 sets in a row of an exercise, try harder ones.
  4. Only rest when you absolutely must, so take a short (10-15sec) rest between two sets of the same exercise, but none between lower and upper abs.
  5. Try to take about 1 second for each rep, except for ab crunches which you do slower (2 secs/rep) for a better contraction and 1/4 crunches which you should do fast (2 reps/sec) because you're hardly moving.

How often should I train abs?

Some experts recommend doing abs at every workout. Others recommend doing them however often you do anything else in other words treating them as you would any other body part.

Since most people want good abdominal tone more than freaky abdominal size, it probably makes sense to exercise the abs with lower intensity and more frequently, rather than with high intensity and less frequently.

Shouldn't I balance my abs with my spinal erectors?

Thanks for asking. If you develop your ab strength without similarly developing your spinal erectors (the muscles that straighten your lower back), you will end up with strange and possibly damaging posture.

Hyperextensions are a good lower back exercise. Dead lifts, both straight and bent-legged give the lower back a lot of exercise, so if you do them you don't need to add anything else. Make sure you get someone to show you how to do them properly and keep your lower back arched through the whole movement.


Hyperextensions are best done on a hyperextension bench, but can be done on a bed or ordinary bench with something (or someone) holding down your ankles.

Lie face down, with your hands touching the sides of your head and your body draped over the edge of the bench. Make sure your hips are supported so your pelvis can't move. Slowly raise your torso to the horizontal position, but no higher.

Keep your head, shoulders and upper back arched through the whole movement.

Try to do a couple of sets of around 12 reps after each ab routine or after each back routine. Don't exercise the lower back more than about three times a week. Don't exercise the lower back if it's still sore from the previous workout.

Recommended Ab Books

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Revised: March 02, 2015