Best Abdominal Exercises. Discover what the abs are really for, to understand which are the most effective exercises

Before considering best abdominal exercises we must ask: Why Work the Abs?

By that I mean, in an exercise class or at the gym.  Why work out the abdominal muscles using the best abdominal exercises, or, as is often the case, the most trendy exercises?

(I am using the word Abdominal and Ab somewhat interchangeably during this piece by the way)

On a wider level why Work Out at all?  It is a very new phenomenon, almost entirely confined to the 20th and 21st Century.   Our forebears just lived, lifted, pushed, pulled, pounded, twisted, bended and yanked to survive. They walked a lot, ran a bit and never, ever did exercise

Now we put back the physical activity missing in our modern , sedentary lives.  We need to replace an absence of running and walking and an absence of weight training.   Why we do exercise, avoid it, hate it or need it, is a very interesting topic.  Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist based at Harvard Uni has studied this and here is a brief Q&A introducing the topic. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/01/daniel-lieberman-busts-exercising-myths/

So far, so good, but the relentless focus on ab work? That is a whole other matter

There is a difference between why we chose to work them and what would be suitable exercise to maintain their functional capacity.

Lets look at what people want to achieve by ab work,  and then look at what functional ab work actually is.    Then we can consider what the best abdominal exercises really are

So Why Do People Want to do Abdominal Exercise? Best abdominal exercises, or any other, for that matter?

I think we all know the answer to that one don’t we! To achieve the fashionable look.  In my view it is an aggressive, extreme aesthetic: the flat stomach look.  Even worse , in women at least, exacerbated by the current fashion for cropped tops and visible midriffs.   This is an entirely culturally derived phenomenon and doesn’t relate to what the abdominal muscles are actually for

I won’t rant, and in any case I already have, right here: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/ab-dominance-why-are-we-so-ab-sessed-with-the-abdominals/

Instead, let’s stick with considering the goal: a flat, toned stomach.     You can’t get a flat stomach by doing ab work.    You might never achieve a flat stomach, but to even get close, then the only solution is weight loss via dietary modification.      There is scant evidence in favour of reducing fat by doing specific targeted exercises and to do it, you probably need to have fairly low body fat levels in the first place and  then it is best achieved by using topical steroid creams rubbed into the muscles to enhance the effect.  In short it is more likely to work on a body builder

I get asked about ab work more than anything else, apart from being asked to sort out people’s “weak core”.

Core Stability: Myth, Legend or Vital Component of a Workout? What has it got to do with with Best Abdominal Exercises?

I am not a fan of the word Core.   However, I do what core stability is and  know how to use Pilates to enhance it but, it is supremely misunderstood concept. I have written about this in the past: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/core-strength/

Many people, consider their flabby stomach to be their weak core. That is their view of their stomach, not mine.  The stomach is not the core and the body fat on top of the stomach is, well, a different organ entirely.  Yes, it is an organ. A dynamic, metabolically active and vital part of our body, even if we have or feel we have too much of it.

I cannot stress this enough.  THE STOMACH MUSCLES ARE NOT THE CORE.    The deepest layer of abdominal muscle does form part of the inner unit of core stability and pretty much everything else in the trunk (and beyond) contributes to trunk stability.  This includes smaller muscles that stabilise the joints as well as the big, more famous muscles like the Gluteals, Hamstrings, and yes the Six Pack Muscle.

Doing Ab work IS NOT CORE WORK, unless it is part of a more holistic workout full body workout

So what is core work I hear you ask?

A full body workout which works the trunk legs, shoulders, bottom and legs, front and back, whilst paying attention to form and alignment.   The workout should include small moves (think Pelvic Tilt, or Spine Twist) so as to work small stabilising muscles that contribute to your core stability stability as well as big moves (think Lunge, Squat, Single Leg Stretch, Prone Swimming) that work big muscles moving big amounts of body weight .

In addition, we need to be aware of, and have,  efficient breathing that expands the ribcage 3 dimensionally with each in breath .  It is a crucial and often overlooked aspect of core stability.  Best avoided for day to day breathing (as opposed to relaxation or yoga practice) is sending the breath into the abdominal cavity (that is, belly breathing).   Also best avoided is a tendency to breathe from the upper chest area.

What are the Abs (abdominal muscles) for?

Do they exist to cause heartache, disappointment and sadness, increase the prevalence of eating disorders, and give you neck ache from excessive numbers of  abdominal curls?   No

Should their presence be sucked out of existence or hidden behind magic knickers?  No. And in my view they should not be on display all the time like some latter day baboon’s red bottom

Are they the very apotheosis of muscles, queen of the muscular castle with everything else subordinate? No

Are they crucial  because they are the core? Not even that one

I bet most people don’t even know what the abs really do.  And why would you?  We aren’t great on the purpose of any muscles really.  I’d been qualified a few years before I nailed down all that info for myself and you’d think a Fitness Instructor would know!

  • As part of the trunk as a whole, via the centre, they provide support for the arms, legs, head.  During sitting, walking, running, lying.    The important phrase here is trunk as a whole.  The Latissimus Dorsi muscle (aka the Lats) in the mid/upper back is just as important in this regard
  • They help to support the organs of the body
  • To enable the spine, and therefore the body to bend forwards, rotate, side bend, and combine those movements to provide us with an infinite set of movement options so we can bend, twist, lift, push.  It applies to pottering around the kitchen:  opening, reaching, chopping sweeping, stirring, carrying.  Equally, it applies to hunting for food or playing a game of tennis
  • Various layers of abdominal muscle are part of a whole top to toe connection of muscles at the front of the body.
  • Breathing needs the abs.  With each breath the abdominal muscles relax, then contract  back on each out breath.

The abdominal muscles cannot do all of this on their own.   Everything else in the trunk helps out too

We are upright eye dominant creatures.  The back of our body is quite literally out of sight and out of mind.  All the muscles at the back, ( back of the shoulders , the buttock muscles, back muscles) are stronger than the ones at the front because they play a greater role in holding us upright.    Yes  folks………We are held upright and move via the back, not the front or the core.   

Due to their importance, their function and their relative strength,  The stronger back muscles are less often felt during exercise.  I have highlighted this because I think it is super important.  We don’t feel the back muscles working so we don’t realise they are working.   Most of us forget they exist and fail to appreciate their importance.   Conversely, we feel the abs more readily.  We feel them,  notice them and very often we over focus

Tragic really.  How did an unimportant little muscle group rise to such prominence?  They are like a reality TV contestant becoming a celebrity for basically not doing very much.  They are the muscle equivalent of the winner of Love Island: An influencer.  Actually, they  are The Influencer

So what are the best abdominal exercises?

As a Pilates instructor quietly doing my thing and definitely not being an influencer on Instagram, I cannot really challenge societal values,  however much I dislike them.   I teach ab work, and tend  to keep dedicated ab exercises to a minimum and only use it as part of a balanced full body work out

For years now I have been teaching a raft of abdominal exercises that will give them functional strength but deliver the “feel” of an abdominal workout so that if that is what you want, then that’s what you’ll get.   I’m trying to marry those two sets of values in one exercise

I’ve popped some of these onto a special YouTube clip which is embedded into this post at the bottom

  • For me, the best are probably ones that use the legs or arms as load (with or without extra metal work in the form of, say, Kettlebells, or Weights)     You add load to the body so the abs and everything else has to kick in and stabilise you.
  • Check that you are breathing correctly.  I really am going to have to write about this aren’t I!
  • Articulating the spine firstly and secondly with added load   (Big Cat, banded Rotation, Diving Roll Down.  See the YouTube clip for a proper explanation!)
  • Tentatively I’d suggest Plank exercises, but not elbow ones.  Instead try bent knee Side Plank, Straight Arm Plank (or Knee Hover alternative) , Kneeling Plank  They are demanding so never do too much.
  • Banana curl ( which is also a pre cursor to the classic Pilates exercises)  No clue? Again,  see the YouTube clip!
  • If you are in the gym or have a Kettle bell at home: Dead Lifts are great

Here is that list of best abdominal exercises in terms of body position

  • Standing: Diving Roll Down, Weighted Over Head Press and Front Raise (which use the arms as load/resistance).  Standing is good to work on the ability of the abs to deliver trunk rotation. Something like  Dynaband Rotation if you can secure the dynaband to something in your room . Deadlifting is brilliant….if you have the kit.  Really really strong exercise bands work well here
  • All Fours: Straight Arm Plank or Knee Hover, Big Cat Stretch
  • Side Lying: Side Kick or Double leg lift. These use the legs as load
  • Lying on your back: very careful abdominal curls (and oblique variation)  has its place.  It  is worth mastering for the spine articulation element. Plus, it is a foundational shape: a precursor to more advanced work and it is essential that you get the basics correct for the advanced stuff like Single Leg Stretch. Single leg lifts/lowers
  • Seated work, lying on your tummy: useable positions but not the best in my view

Good for the Abs and not quite exercise

  • Sort your breathing out.  Breathing properly will functionally tone and work the abs as standard, morning , noon and night.   How about right now: take a slowish deep breath and endeavour to expand your rib cage. Go bigger. Go longer.  You have to work the stomach  It is kind of the opposite to belly sucking. That will ruin your abs, your breathing, your pelvic floor, possibly your posture and alignment
  • Take care on the alignment of the body.  It is a big topic but basically getting the ribs and pelvis is the right place is inherently good for the lean “look” whilst being functionally helpful. How about that for a win win?  Rather than talk further I’ll direct you to a YouTube clip about standing well that I recorded a couple of years ago

What about if you have a Diastasis Recti?

Be careful. Very careful. Minimise the load and start with the breathing.  If you get the breathing correct then you pressurise the ribcage and not the body cavity.  Poor breathing, belly breathing tends to blast air into the tummy area and places strain on the already weakened abdominal muscles.  Good breathing technique helps the abdominals stay functional

Avoid loading the abs with ab curl type work or even Plank type exercises to be honest.  Upper Body strength training is idea, but you must watch your alignment.  Using the legs as load is good, but never , ever 2 legs at once, no matter what the exercise is

For more on the importance of breathing, alignment and thinking about DR as a whole body problem, rather than just an ab issue, check out this link from Katy Bowman, who has written a book on the subject https://www.nutritiousmovement.com/under-pressure-part-1/

What do I think are the worst Abdominal Exercises?

There is more than one answer to this question

Ones that make you feel terrible.

Ones that are not suitable for your body type.   Specifically, if you carry quite a bit of weight around the front of your body, any forward curl exercises are going to be tricky and possibly unsuitable.  I mean any ab curl type stuff, and in Pilates, Hundred, Single Leg Stretch, Double Leg Stretch, possibly even Seated Roll Up.  The weight you carry is quite literally in the way.  The exercise is the problem not you.  Avoid them

Ones that worsen your  posture

If you work in a job where you spend the hunched over a desk or computer or phone, why go to an exercise class with loads of ab curl exercises that simply recreate the same posture?  We are very good at forward bending and what the spine , the abdominal muscles and our bodies need is the opposite: standing tall or a bit of back bending even.

This is more a matter of exercise selection and relevance, rather than an exercise being plain daft

Your abdominal muscles contribute to you standing tall and maybe even a bit leaner. Why not work them with the body in that shape?

Exercises that are really Extreme

Take it from me, and I’ve observed people aged 18 and upwards for years, getting this wrong:  the extreme ones are almost always too hard and result in the abs being overwhelmed and other muscles taking over, generally the ones at the back

My absolute top two most hated exercises are

Lying on your back and doing double leg lowers to the floor .  Almost everyone ends up arching the back and using the back muscles.  There is too much load.  Feeling that it is hard is not an indication of success. Feeling it in your back is generally an indication that you using your back

Sitting in a V shape with the bent legs, feet off the ground, holding a medicine ball and rotating it from side to side.  It makes me upset and sad to see this.  There is too much load, the abs give out and the back takes over, as do the front thigh muscles

An End Note on Belly Sucking

This is not a substitute for a best abdominal exercise when you can’t make your Pilates class, or the gym

Ok for a dramatic  entrance somewhere or your Tinder profile picture but otherwise DO NOT DO THIS.  It messes with your breathing which is, well quite a profound thing really,  and in time will lead to pelvic floor dysfunction and ironically weakened dysfunctional abs

And finally

I’ve popped most of the best abdominal exercises into a Youtube clip

Here it is.   I hope you find it useful .  There should be something for everyone.   Here goes!  https://youtu.be/8q83kA9WvKM

 

picture of the author doing a ab curl using the mat to assist


4 thoughts on “Best Abdominal Exercises. Discover what the abs are really for, to understand which are the most effective exercises

  1. As a 90-year-old, I try to keep up with a set of exercises fairly regularly. While doing them I often wonder about this or that movement and which is the best way to do it, and move over to the computer for a bit of help. Your site is a revelation! It’s the first one that has taken me right down to the basics in plain language.. Thank you! I’ll certainly be coming back to it.

    • thank you very much for your feedback James. It is really kind of you to take the time to reach out to me.
      Did you know that I have a YouTube channel which is home to my “how too” clips? Here is the name, which will come as no surprise! http://www.youtube.com/@PilatesLeeds
      Just out of interest, where did you find my blog?

      • Thanks for the link, Alison, which will be very useful. I found your blog from the Startpage search engine, when doing a search on abdominal exercises.

        Do you happen to know of any book that explains the basic theory of Pilates, and gives some beginning exercises?

        • I’ve never heard of Startpage but so pleased I was on there James!
          You will struggle to find a book because there isn’t really a unifying theory. There is a bit of a schism in Pilates and it is divided between Classical Pilates, which is trying to be as close to the original Joseph Pilates method, and Contemporary which has modernised and added in loads of new exercises. So, most books will explain about Classical Pilates but the exercises are pretty extreme and not really ideal for most bodies in our modern sedentary world. That is my concern about most books.
          You could try The Pilates Bible by Lynne Robinson, Lisa Bradshaw and Nathan Gardner. That is British and starts with the basics.
          I have written a blog about beginner pilates classes but that does not really help you at home. Do let me know how you go on with books. I haven’t really look recently!!

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