Getting and maintaining a six-pack is hard work and we’re about to make it harder. We’ve picked out six common abs moves that aren’t as effective as people think, and then provided you with upgrades or alternatives to try instead. Often this means tweaks that will keep your abdominal muscles under tension for longer, which may come as quite a shock but will help to develop your abs in double-quick time.
Upgrade the plank to plank with toe tap
Why It can be easy to “switch off” when doing planks so your hips drop and your abs muscles disengage – particularly since you do them for time, which can really drag. Adding a foot movement keeps the hips high, the lower abs engaged, and means you can count reps, rather than seconds.
How Get into the plank position, supporting yourself on your forearms with your elbows underneath your shoulders. Engage your abs, then raise your hips so that your body forms a straight line from head to heels. Without letting your hips sag, lift and move one foot out as far as you can to the side. Tap your toe on the floor, then bring it back in and repeat with the other foot.
Upgrade the sit-up to weighted crunch reach
Why Sit-ups are the most popular abs move but probably the least effective, because the muscles aren’t exposed to much tension. But the crunch reach, with added resistance, keeps the upper abs firing to keep your torso stable.
How Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, holding a dumbbell or weight plate in both hands with your arms straight. Use your abs to raise your torso, keeping your arms straight, and lift the weight as high as you can into the air. Pause and hold this top position for one second, then slowly lower your torso back to the start.
Why Lying leg raises do hit the lower abs hard, but not if you have any lower back niggles, while they can be quite uncomfortable to perform well. V-sits keep your lower abs engaged constantly, and work the upper abs too.
How Lie flat with your arms by your sides, legs straight and feet together. Keeping your arms straight, raise your torso and your legs simultaneously so that your fingertips go past your knees towards your shins. Slowly reverse the movement to the start, keeping your core tight and engaged throughout.
Upgrade the reverse crunch to gym ball pike
Why Unless you already have very strong lower abs, reverse crunches will end up as a rocking movement rather than a muscle-engaging one. In this upgrade, though, the abs must fire throughout.
How Get on your hands with your toes elevated on a gym ball and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line. Keeping your abs engaged, raise your hips as high as you can so your body forms an inverted V-shape. Hold this position for a second, then lower your hips to return to the start.
Upgrade the bicycle crunch to weighted Russian twist
Why With bicycles it’s easy for the abs to “switch off” as you jerk up and down and then side to side, but the addition of a weight creates resistance that needs to be managed for the duration of the set. This forces your upper, lower and side abs to be fully activated to keep your torso and feet elevated as you rotate back and forth.
How Sit on the floor holding a dumbbell or weight plate in both hands, with your knees bent and feet together raised off the floor. Holding the weight with straight arms, rotate your torso to one side while moving your knees in the opposite direction. Make sure your head follows the line of your arms. Reverse the move to the start, then rotate your torso and knees in the opposite directions, keeping your abs engaged throughout.
Upgrade the dumbbell side bend to alternating ankle tap
Why Holding a too-heavy dumbbell in one hand then bending to the side isn’t the most effective way to work your obliques (side abs). Ankle taps target these muscles more effectively, and bring the upper and lower abs in to boot.
How Lie flat on your back with straight legs and arms by your side. Crunch your torso up and bend your knees to bring your feet closer. Keeping tension on your abs, move one hand down the outside of that leg to tap your ankle, then reverse the movement and repeat on the other side. Keep reps smooth without letting your torso or feet move towards the floor.
- The Best Abs Exercises For All Levels Of Gym-Goer
- The Best Abs Workout: Circuits For Upper Abs, Lower Abs, And Obliques And Core
- Six-Pack “Rules” That Are Out Of Date
Abs Tips From The Man Who’s Been There, Done That
Toby Rowland first appeared on the cover of Men’s Fitness in his early 20s and then again aged 38, in 2018. Landing covers more than a decade apart is testament to his training philosophy and lifestyle rules, which he did us all a solid by sharing.
“I’m bigger and leaner than ever because I’ve got smarter about how I train,” Rowland says. “I’ve moved away from simply pounding the weights every session to lifting lighter for longer to avoid injury, and adding high-intensity strongman drills to the end of my weights workouts so I crank up that calorie burn to keep me lean. But more than that, it gives me a real buzz to train like this, and I’m more in love with training than I’ve ever been.”
Reduce the weight
“As I’ve got older I focus more on using lighter weights but I do more reps per set so I still get the ideal stimulus to build muscle,” says Rowland. “Lifting as heavy as you can is fine when you’re young, but over the years there’s wear and tear on the muscles and connective tissues, and it pays to lift smarter to limit your risk of injury.”
Pick pairs of moves
“I love doing supersets and working out which two exercises to do back to back. Sometimes I go for antagonistic supersets, so a chest move and a back move, or it can be a complementary superset, such as bench press then press-ups. Lifting this way is very efficient and forces you to focus on tempo and rest periods to stay in the training zone and keep every workout effective.”
Get more intense
“One of the big changes to my training is adding high-intensity strongman-style interval training drills to the end of my sessions. Doing sled pushes or farmer’s walks gets my heart rate really high and these ‘finishers’ are highly effective for getting leaner and fitter. I also get a huge endorphin buzz from them, which makes training much more fun.”
Don’t fixate on the abs
“I rarely do any direct abs work because my core is always engaged during the other lifts I do. If your abs are braced when squatting or pressing they’re going to get worked hard anyway.”
Have life balance
“I like a glass of wine but it’s about priorities: you can’t drink beer every night and still have a strong, lean body. Consistency is key, and if you train smart and eat well most of the time you’ll get and stay in great shape.”
Photography: Glen Burrows; Model: William Goodge@WModels
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