Category Archives: Best Ab Exercises
I have a confession to make: I love lifting weights, but I don’t enjoy training the beach muscles.
It’s not that I hate bodybuilding or training arms – I love all training – but if given the choice, I’d pick legs ten times out of ten.
My hierarchy would probably look something like this:
- More Legs
- Wander aimlessly around the gym
- More Back
- Read a magazine
- Clip my toenails
Most typical upper body exercises bore me to tears. I just can’t get hyped up for bench presses, pushdowns, and curls like I can for squats, lunges, and pull-ups.
Call me crazy.
One thing that helps make upper body days more fun, and consequently keeps me pushing hard, is experimenting with different exercise variations. Here are some upper body exercises that even I like.
1. Rotational One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
When I first saw the one-arm dumbbell bench press, I didn’t give it the respect it deserves. It didn’t look particularly hard, so I unassumingly grabbed the same weight I’d use for a regular dumbbell bench press.
Bad move. Anyone that’s tried the exercise before knows where this is going.
On the first rep, I literally tipped to the side and fell off the bench, dropping the dumbbell like a total jackass and causing a scene. I knew immediately I was going to like this one.
While it’s essentially an upper-body pushing exercise to work the chest, shoulders, and triceps, you’ll learn fast that it’s really a full body exercise. To be successful, you must create massive tension throughout your legs, core, and even the opposite arm.
You’ll want to start out light to avoid my embarrassing fate, but interestingly, after a few tries to get the hang of it, you’ll find you’re able to use more weight unilaterally than you could bilaterally.
I like to start with a neutral grip at the bottom and pronate my wrist as I press. This feels great on the shoulders, and the rotation allows for a better contraction in my chest.
2. Ring Flies
These are brutal, but if you can pull them off, they’ll fry your chest like no other. I first tried them after seeing a picture of Larry Scott doing them on some badass old-school chain rings.
This is an extremely advanced exercise, so don’t just jump right into trying it if you don’t have any experience on the rings. Doing so will inevitably lead to either a shoulder injury or a face plant, neither of which you want.
Make sure you can first knock out at least 25 ring push-ups to get acquainted with the inherent instability. From there, progress to flies with your arms bent at approximately a 90-degree angle. You may even want to do these on your knees at first.
Once you’re comfortable with those, it’s time to progress to full flies. Be sure to maintain a slight bend in your elbows to protect your shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
If you get comfortable with full flies (and by comfortable I mean proficient – I can assure your pecs won’t be comfortable), give ring “fly-aways” a shot. I got the idea for these from a recent Livespill from TC where he talked about a similar concept using dumbbells.
You’re basically going to do a drop set going in the reverse order of the progression I laid out to work up to full flies: five full flies, five bent-arm flies, and five pushups, all in succession with no rest. Superset that with five minutes of lying on the floor, hating life.
3. Ring Push-up/Fly Combo
Like the name suggests, one arm does a push-up while the other arm does a fly. You’ll want to place more weight on the arm doing the push-up and de-load the arm doing the fly as much as possible. It may help to think of it as a modified one-arm pushup where you reach the other arm straight out to the side. Alternate between arms each rep.
Confused? I don’t blame you. Check out the video below.
The unilateral nature of the exercise may lead you to believe it’s significantly more difficult than bilateral ring flies, but from a pressing standpoint, it’s actually slightly easier since the arm doing the push-up is supporting the majority of the load where the lever arm is shorter. The “fly” arm simply provides some assistance to counter the rotational demands of the one-arm push up, and gets a decent stretch and bit of activation in the process.
From a core standpoint, however, it’s much harder. The unilateral nature of the exercise introduces a big anti-rotational stability component since you have to brace extremely hard to avoid twisting toward the arm doing the fly.
4. Supinated Ring Chins
Some bodybuilding coaches spout that chin-ups are the best biceps exercise going and no direct biceps work is required. Others say to build mammoth bone-crushing pythons, you need to devote an entire day (or two or three) per week to arms and do every type of curl imaginable.
I’m somewhere in the middle.
I love chin-ups as much as anybody, while curls are the absolute bane of my training existence.
I dropped curls all-together about two years ago, and have just been doing a heavy diet of chin-ups and rows. In that time, my arms have stayed about the same size while the rest of my body has grown, leading me to believe that chin-ups obviously work the biceps to a large degree and are sufficient if your goals are more performance-based, but probably aren’t enough if you hope to start selling tickets to the gun show.
Here’s the thing: it depends largely on how you do the chin-ups.
For instance, I usually use a shoulder-width grip (often wider) and think of my arms as being hooks while my back does all the work. I also come to full extension at the bottom of every rep and do them explosively while maintaining control of my body (i.e. no swinging).
Interestingly, the better I’ve become at chin-ups, the less I feel them in my biceps. Fact is, when I do feel my biceps working a lot, I take it as a sign I’m not retracting my scapulae as I should be.
However, you can easily tweak them to hone in on the biceps. The best way I’ve found is with close-grip supinated ring chin-ups.
Place the rings as close together as possible and take a supinated grip. Perform the reps slower than normal on both the concentric and eccentric and stop just short of full extension at the bottom to keep constant tension on the biceps. It’s important to be strict with these.
If you don’t have rings, you can do them with just a bar, although the rings definitely add something to it from a biceps standpoint. You’ll find that towards the bottom of the rep, the rings will start to twist and your biceps will be forced to kick into overdrive to keep that supinated wrist position.
These are a lot tougher than they look, so if it’s too much at first, you can also try a similar concept using inverted rows instead.
Doing reps like this will invariably shortchange your back to some degree, so do them after your regular chin-up or inverted row workout to finish off your arms.
5. Super Slow Chin-ups
The explanation for these is simple, but they’re far from easy. Do a close-grip chin-up as slowly as you can. That’s it.
Shoot for 20-30 seconds on the concentric and 30-40 seconds on the eccentric to start. If you can do that, add some weight. If that’s too much, then just go as slowly as you can.
I also like to do a static hold at the top.
Use a supinated grip for more biceps emphasis or a neutral grip to target the brachialis. Either way, it’ll also blast your forearms and help build tremendous grip strength.
Save this for the tail end of your workout and just do one painstaking rep. Trust me, if you’re doing it right, that’s all you’ll be able to muster.
6. Bodyweight Triceps Extensions
This is an awesome triceps exercise that, when done correctly, also smokes the core.
TC wrote about doing these in a Smith machine in a Livespill and while I like that exercise too, I prefer doing them using suspension straps for two reasons.
First, you can get a bigger range of motion. When you use a fixed bar, you’re forced to do the exercise like a traditional skullcrusher where you bring your forehead to the bar. With straps, you can extend your arms forward slightly as you drop down so that at the bottom, your hands are actually behind your head. This enhances the stretch on the long head of the triceps and takes stress off the elbows.
Second, the straps allow you to rotate your hands freely as you move through the rep, making it more shoulder-friendly and increasing the contraction in your triceps.
To get the full benefit for your core, it’s imperative that you keep a straight line from your feet to your head. There will be a tendency to want to pike at the hips, so you’ll need to squeeze your glutes and brace your abs to prevent that from happening. It should feel similar to the sensation you get from an ab wheel rollout. If it doesn’t, you’re probably not doing it right.
This is a lot tougher than it looks, so start with the straps fairly high at first (approximately chest level) and work your way down.
7. Reverse Grip Dumbbell Floor Press
Perform this exercise just as you would a regular dumbbell floor press, only supinate your hands as you press. At the bottom your palms will face each other, while at the top they’ll point back behind you.
Where you feel this exercise will depend on your set up. If you use a wider grip, you’ll feel it more in your chest, whereas a closer-grip will put more emphasis on the triceps. I prefer a close grip because I find a wide grip puts undue stress on my shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
You can also try holding a supinated position throughout the rep, but I prefer to rotate to allow for a neutral, shoulder-friendly position closer to the chest.
Think about pressing the dumbbell down towards your feet rather than up over your face like you might in a typical barbell bench press. You obviously won’t be able to, but having that cue in your mind makes the exercise go more smoothly.
Start with about 50% of the weight you can use for a regular dumbbell press and go from there.
8. The “Anti” Press
In response to Dr. Stuart McGill’s research regarding spinal health, much of the new-age core training focuses on “anti” movement stability training: anti-rotation, anti-extension, and anti-lateral flexion. I called this exercise the “anti press” because it addresses all those categories simultaneously.
Grab the handle of a suspension strap and face sideways. Lean out so that your body is at about a 60% angle to the floor. Now brace your core to keep from twisting and press straight out until your arms are fully extended. This part of the motion is similar to a Pallof press you might do with bands or cables and works anti-rotation.
From there, bring your arms straight overhead and pause for a brief second. At this point, you’re focusing on anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion. Rinse and repeat for the desired reps.
Along with building tremendous core stability, this also assists with shoulder strength and mobility. I’m always looking for ways to kill as many birds as I can with one stone and this exercise fits the bill nicely.
It’s easy to progress or regress simply by adjusting your foot position and/or the length of the strap. The further out your feet are from the anchor point and the shorter the strap is, the easier it will be. Move your feet more underneath the anchor point and increase the length of the strap as you get better.
This is a very advanced exercise, so you may want to start with just the overhead portion and see how that goes first.
If you’re one of those people that when asked how you’re doing always responds with “same shit, different day,” some of these exercises may be just what you need to spice up your gym life and get growing again. Don’t go throwing all the basics out the window, but use these as supplements to reignite your training vigor or to help break through a rut or plateau.
Have fun, and be sure to save me a seat at the gun show.
Actually, don’t bother. I’m pretty sure I’ll be training legs that day.
By: Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S.
If you can’t see your abs, don’t assume it’s because you’re missing out on a magical abdominal exercise or secret supplement. Blame your mindset.
You see, losing belly flab is a boring process. It requires time, hard work, and most important, dedication. Take the right steps every single day, and you’ll ultimately carve out your six-pack. But if you stray from your plan even a few times a week—which most men do—you’ll probably never see your abs.
The solution: six simple habits, which I teach to my clients to help them strip away their lard for good. Think of these habits as daily goals designed to keep you on the fast track to a fit-looking physique. Individually they’re not all that surprising, but together they become a powerful tool.
The effectiveness of this tool is even supported by science. At the University of Iowa, researchers determined that people are more likely to stick with their fat-loss plans when they concentrate on specific actions instead of the desired result. So rather than focusing on abs that show, follow my daily list of nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle strategies for achieving that rippled midsection.
The result: automatic abs.
Need help planning your workout? Men, click here | Women, click here.
Wake Up to Water
Imagine not drinking all day at work—no coffee, no water, no diet soda. At the end of an 8-hour shift, you’d be pretty parched. Which is precisely why you should start rehydrating immediately after a full night’s slumber. From now on, drink at least 16 ounces of chilled H2O as soon as you rise in the morning. German scientists recently found that doing this boosts metabolism by 24 percent for 90 minutes afterward. (A smaller amount of water had no effect.) What’s more, a previous study determined that muscle cells grow faster when they’re well hydrated. A general rule of thumb: Guzzle at least a gallon of water over the course of a day.
Eat Breakfast Every Day
A University of Massachusetts study showed that men who skip their morning meal are 4 1/2 times more likely to have bulging bellies than those who don’t. So within an hour of waking, have a meal or protein shake with at least 250 calories. British researchers found that breakfast size was inversely related to waist size. That is, the larger the morning meal, the leaner the midsection. But keep the meal’s size within reason: A 1,480-calorie smoked-sausage scramble at Denny’s is really two breakfasts, so cap your intake at 500 calories. For a quick way to fuel up first thing, I like this recipe: Prepare a package of instant oatmeal and mix in a scoop of whey protein powder and 1/2 cup of blueberries.
As You Eat, Review Your Goals . . .
Don’t worry, I’m not going all Tony Robbins on you. (I don’t have enough teeth.) But it’s important that you stay aware of your mission. University of Iowa scientists found that people who monitored their diet and exercise goals most frequently were more likely to achieve them than were goal setters who rarely reviewed their objectives.
. . . And Then Pack Your Lunch
My personal Igloo cooler just celebrated its 19th anniversary. I started carrying it with me every day back in college. Of course, it often housed a six-pack of beer—until I decided to compete in the Purdue bodybuilding championship. (Second place, by the way.) Once I knew I’d have to don a banana hammock in public (the world’s best motivator), I began to take the contents of my cooler seriously. And so should you. In fact, this habit should be as much a part of your morning ritual as showering. Here’s what I recommend packing into your cooler.
• An apple (to eat as a morning snack)
• Two slices of cheese (to eat with the apple)
• A 500- to 600-calorie portion of leftovers (for your lunch)
• A premixed protein shake or a pint of milk (for your afternoon snack)
By using this approach, you’ll keep your body well fed and satisfied throughout the day without overeating. You’ll also provide your body with the nutrients it needs for your workout, no matter what time you exercise. Just as important, you’ll be much less likely to be tempted by the office candy bowl. In fact, my personal rule is simple: I don’t eat anything that’s not in the cooler.
Exercise the Right Way
Everyone has abs, even if people can’t always see them because they’re hidden under a layer of flab. That means you don’t need to do endless crunches to carve out a six-pack. Instead, you should spend most of your gym time burning off blubber.
The most effective strategy is a one-two approach of weight-lifting and high-intensity interval training. According to a recent University of Southern Maine study, half an hour of pumping iron burns as many calories as running at a 6-minute-per-mile pace for the same duration. (And it has the added benefit of helping you build muscle.) What’s more, unlike aerobic exercise, lifting has been shown to boost metabolism for as long as 39 hours after the last repetition. Similar findings have been noted for intervals, which are short, all-out sprints interspersed with periods of rest.
For the best results, do a total-body weight-training workout 3 days a week, resting at least a day between sessions. Then do an interval-training session on the days in between. To make it easy on you, I’ve created the ultimate fat-burning plan.
Skip the Late Shows
You need sleep to unveil your six-pack. That’s because lack of shut-eye may disrupt the hormones that control your ability to burn fat. For instance, University of Chicago scientists recently found that just 3 nights of poor sleep may cause your muscle cells to become resistant to the hormone insulin. Over time, this leads to fat storage around your belly.
To achieve a better night’s sleep, review your goals again 15 minutes before bedtime. And while you’re at it, write down your plans for the next day’s work schedule, as well as any personal chores you need to accomplish. This can help prevent you from lying awake worrying about tomorrow (“I have to remember to e-mail Johnson”), which can cut into quality snooze time.
If you’re a regular reader of Testosterone — meaning you actually read the articles every day and don’t just skim down to the Vixen du Jour — you likely know that the whole “core” training concept is pure marketing hype.
Think about it: In the golden days of Muscle Beach and the Venice boardwalk, guys trained their midsections with sit-ups, crunches, and various lifting movements, and they probably had much stronger abs than most people walking around today.
Still, core training is an easy sell: After a few crunches, you can feel the “burn.” Too bad that’s lactic acid you’re feeling, not progress!
Here’s an analogy: suppose you walked into an 8 x 8 foot room filled with a million mosquitoes, armed with only a pair of fly swatters. After 10 minutes, you’d probably have torched a few hundred thousand of the bloodsuckers and built up one heck of a triceps pump. But how effective would such a “workout” be if your goal was to build up your triceps? Well, that’s doing about as much for your arms as nouveau core training is for your abs.
Now it’s definitely important for just about everyone to work his or her midsections. The benefits are overwhelming: improved posture, more stable midsection, better movement, and eliminating lower back pain. However, this can be accomplished in five to ten minutes per workout, with a few simple, non-retarded exercises.
Below are seven such movements. They’re all guaranteed to improve your looks, your lifts, and your lower back health — without leaving you looking like the latest infomercial victim.
As athletes we perform standing up, so why do so many magazines only recommend exercises performed while lying down? They’ll usually say that this is done in some half-ass attempt to “isolate” the abs. This explanation is a) wrong, and b) retarded.
First, the abs don’t need to be isolated. They function as a stabilizer in most athletic functions. Second, trying to take the hip flexors out of all ab training movements is asking for trouble. Sure, if you’re after only aesthetics, then isolating is a good idea at times — but always isolating can be problematic to long-term health.
The hip flexors and abs were designed to work together, so they should be trained together most of the time!
The Standing Cable Crunch is a perfect exercise to involve the abs in a dynamic fashion while standing.
Simply attach a rope or strap to a high pulley station, walk out a step or so, and bend forward in a forceful but controlled manner. Return to the top slowly, flex, and explode down. You can change up the attachments and foot placements to change the exercise.
Do 3 to 5 sets of 5-10 reps. Yes, that’s a far cry from the 500-rep nonsense the core training divas talk about. There’s a reason for this: the abs are muscles — so train them like muscles! Don’t be afraid to put some weight on the stack.
I learned about this exercise years back from Pavel Tsatsouline. It’s an excellent movement for the obliques and abs. Forget standing on a Swiss ball; the FCT isfunctional ab training!
I’ve found that this exercise not only strengthens the abs but also helps with the ability to “pop” the hips. Both seasoned MMA fighters and weekend warriors who like to throw the occasional drunken punch at closing time will find this exercise helpful.
Load one side of a barbell and stick the unloaded end in a corner or the corner of your rack. Stand to the left of the bar, facing it; the bar is perpendicular to your feet at this point. Grab the bar’s sleeve and tighten your body, pivot and turn the bar until you almost face the corner. Keep your elbows locked throughout.
When you reach the other side, reverse motion.
• Keep your abs tight the entire time and lift slowly and smoothly. Do not jerk or speed through this lift!
• Don’t twist your back while doing the FCT; it should be a smooth motion. Lower under control then flex and rotate back to the other side.
Again, 3 to 5 sets x 5 – 10 reps seems to work best. Add weight slowly; the majority of form problems I’ve seen have resulted from adding too much weight too quickly.
This is a great movement to really overload your abs; don’t be afraid to go heavy on this one. This is the type of movement that’ll pay huge dividends when it comes time to attempt a max squat or deadlift because you’re exposing your abs to way more weight than you ever could with a simple crunch, or even weighted crunches.
Simply set up as you would in a floor press or on a bench as in a bench press. Keep the bar locked out at arms’ length and do a crunch. Don’t let the arms drift back or forward. Concentrate on keeping the bar locked-in and flexing the hell out of your abs.
• Use dumbbells or kettlebells to crank up the intensity and place a different stress on the muscles.
• Try using one dumbbell or Kettlebell at a time to further increase intensity.
• Hold the top position for a second before returning to the starting position.
Do 3 sets of 6, but really load up the bar and go heavy!
Let’s not forget the obliques. The average side bend just doesn’t cut it when it comes to building a truly strong midsection. For anyone who wants to deadlift or squat real weights, the obliques must be strong.
The Suitcase Deadlift is old school and brutal. I’ve seen some very strong people humbled the first time they’ve tried this exercise.
This movement is best done off the floor, but if you’re having trouble, you can set the bar at about mid-shin level in the rack.
Stand to the side of the bar. Bend and set yourself in the same position you would to deadlift (back flat, chest up) and pick it up just as you would a suitcase. You can also use a Farmer’s Walk bar if you have access to them.
Keep your abs flexed and your lower back tight throughout the movement. If you start twisting, stop and take some weight off the bar.
Three to 4 sets of 5 reps is sufficient with this toughie!
Most of you have probably never done this lift before. The Pitch Fork Lift (sometimes called the Shovel Lift) comes from Steve Justa, author of Rock, Iron, Steel, and is true functional training. It works the obliques as hard as any other movement I’ve ever come across.
If you’ve been having trouble with falling forward in the squat or haven’t been able to properly push out against your belt when squatting or deadlifting, this movement will push your personal records to new heights.
This one’s easy to set up and perform. Load one end of an Olympic bar. Now, grab the unloaded end with one hand and place the other hand at about the midpoint of the bar.
Bend the knees and sideways at the hip and lift the loaded end of the bar, just as you would when shoveling dirt. You can make the movement much harder by then turning a bit to the side, as if “dumping” the dirt out of the shovel.
Return to the starting point and repeat. It will help if you lockout your arm farthest from the loaded end and “press” it down, levering the weight up.
Keep the reps under 6, and go for 3 to 5 sets.
Pavel re-popularized this movement in Bullet Proof Abs, but anyone who loves training movies fell in love with this exercise in Rocky IV.
This is an advanced exercise and you must already have very strong abs and great body control to do these properly.
Lie down on a bench and grab it hard at head level (if your grip slips, you fall). Then, roll your body up so that your lats are pointing straight out at almost 90 degrees. Slowly lower yourself to about 45 degrees, then down as far as you can without touching the bench.
Use your abs to pull your legs back up to above 45 degrees. At first, you may need to start dropping to just below the starting position until you feel strong enough to go all the way down.
• Keep your body tight and straight
• Hold on to that bench!
The ab wheel is one of the original darlings of the infomercial scene, which is too bad since it’s also one of the most kick-ass movements you can do.
The trick is, you have to do it properly: Simply rocking back and forth on your knees while holding a wheel will do about as much for your abs as a Thighmaster does for your quads.
Using an ab wheel properly is simple: Kneel down, roll out with the wheel, then pull yourself back up using your abs; don’t jackknife the hips. Your hips should “tuck” a bit (the end position should look like a scared cat).
There’s a big problem with the ab wheel that some of you seasoned guys can relate to: It’s just too easy for anyone who’s even moderately strong. Sure, you could run the reps way up, but who wants to count that high?
Here’s the solution: use the ab wheel while standing. This variation is much harder and you need to have good body control and a strong back.
Perform the exercise just as you would its kneeling variation, but standing up. When you reverse motion, your feet will act as “hooks” and pull you back to the top.
Start with low reps until you feel confident. Sets of 10 would be pretty damn strong, so shoot for that.
Rack Pulls aren’t your traditional ab exercise — they’re designed to hit the hams and back hard, along with helping improve your deadlift. But, as anyone who’s ever tried them will know, your abdominals will take a beating if you’re using heavy weight. Otherwise, you’ll fall forward and lose the lift.
Set up a bar at knee height (or just above or below the knee) in the rack; load it up, and deadlift it. This should be done as a heavy leg exercise with the benefit of hitting the abs, rather than as a direct abdominal movement.
Keep the reps low, 1 to 3 and the sets from 5 to 8.
If you compete in any sports or do any kind of powerlifting or Olympic lifting, I suggest training the abs three to five times per week. If you’re training to look good, three times should be enough, but you can never really do too much ab work.
Just add one exercise to the end of your training sessions several times per week and you’ll notice a huge improvement in both performance and looks!
And, if you call in the next 30 minutes, we’ll email you another free article, Tight Taut Tushy in Just Two Minutes a Week! But you must call now, or —
1998 — 2010 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
by Bret Contreras
Editor’s Note: If you haven’t yet read Inside the Muscles: Best Shoulders and Trap Exercises you may want to give it a quick look as it’ll clear up any questions you may have regarding electromyography (EMG) and the experiments. You might also want to read Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises, Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Biceps Exercises, and Inside the Muscles – Best Leg, Glute, and Calf Exercises as well.
First, I apologize if I left out one of your favorite exercises. Don’t take it personally. I performed these experiments in my garage, and while I have one of the baddest garage gyms in Arizona, I don’t have a lot of machines. Furthermore, there are probably 200 different ab exercises and variations that I’d need to test in order to please everyone, which wouldn’t be feasible for a single experiment. Plus, I’ve had my fill of “crippled abs” and never want to go there again!
I regret to inform you that I could only test four muscles at a time due to the fact that the instrument I used to measure EMG activity only has 4-channels. I’m also sorry I couldn’t test more individuals. These experiments are very labor-intensive; in order to measure every exercise on every muscle part using a variety of subjects would be a project of colossal proportions. Just remember this: people are different, but not that different. What’s true for me is probably true for you.
Finally, I’m not going to make any judgments regarding the safety of any exercise. I realize that certain exercises pose greater risks to the joints than others, but every guy has the right to train however the hell he chooses. As lifters, we can choose to assume a lot of risk or little risk since we’re the owners of our bodies.
Oh, one more thing: good form, a natural tempo, and a full range of motion were always used in these experiments.
Now that the pre-flight safety announcement list of warnings is over, let’s get to it. Are you ready to get ripped-up abs and a strong lower back?
Since this is a bodybuilding experiment, I used weight that was light enough to allow me to perform at least five repetitions. The mean number is on top and the peak number is on bottom. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read What Are Mean and Peak Activation?
|Lower Rectus Abdominis||Internal Oblique||External Oblique||Lumbar Erector|
|35 lb Plate Squat||7.8
|Ab Wheel from Knees||103.0
|Ab Wheel from Feet||103.0
|Lying Leg Throw||64.9
|100 lb Suitcase Carry||13.2
|Band Pallof Press||6.8
|120 lb Pallof Press||9.9
|90 lb Landmine||7.7
|BW Tight Rotation||15.1
|10 lb Tight Rotation||13.5
|10 lb Overhead Tornado Twirl||12.9
|120 lb Half-Kneeling Cable Chop||27.2
|100 lb Half-Kneeling Cable Lift||6.0
|10 lb Tornado Ball Slam||13.0
|50 lb Turkish Get Up||31.0
|BW Straight Leg Sit Up||78.2
|BW Hanging Leg Raise||124.0
|100 lb Crunch||55.3
|50 lb Swiss Ball Crunch||102.0
|100 lb Side Bend||35.1
|BW Dragon Flag||56.1
|200 lb Farmer’s Walk||13.2
|Overhand Sledgehammer Swing||34.8
|Rotational Sledgehammer Swing||12.2
|BW Hand Walk Out||47.2
|275 lb Parallel Squat||25.0
|225 lb Front Squat||14.4
|225 lb Good Morning||14.0
|275 lb Zercher Squat||15.7
|405 lb Deadlift||31.0
|405 lb Hip Thrust||23.6
|60 lb Lumbar Extension||16.0
|10 lb Weighted Bird Dog||11.2
|100 lb 45 Degree Hyper||25.7
|100 lb Back Extension||28.4
|185 lb Bulgarian Squat||27.7
|90 lb Pendulum Quadruped Hip Extension||29.2
|BW Chin Up||249.0
|90 lb Chin Up||162.0
|135 lb Barbell Curl||18.5
|100 lb Cable Tricep Extension||70.2
|100 lb Pullover||34.6
|BW Push Up||7.1
|275 lb Bench Press (with arch)||2.9
|45 lb Barbell Push Sit Up||19.4
|180 lb Reverse Hyper||3.5
|BW Reverse Hyper||2.5
|270 lb Reverse Hyper||7.2
Based on this experiment, here are the top three exercises in terms of mean and peak activity for each muscle part:
Mean: Chin Up, Hanging Leg Raise, Ab Wheel
Peak: Chin Up, Hanging Leg Raise, Swiss Ball Crunch
Mean: Ab Wheel from Feet, Ab Wheel from Knees, Bodysaw
Peak: Ab Wheel from Feet, Bodysaw, Tornado Ball Slam
Mean: Ab Wheel from Feet, Hanging Leg Raise, Bodysaw
Peak: Turkish Get Up, Hanging Leg Raise, Bodysaw
Mean: Kneeling Cable Lift, Landmine, Reverse Hyper
Peak: Kneeling Cable Lift, Tornado Ball Slam, Lumbar Extension
Since I could only test four muscles at a time, I opted to go with the lower rectus abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques, and erector spinae.
Last year I conducted a test where I placed electrodes on the upper and lower rectus abdominis and the study proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is indeed possible to place more tension on the upper or lower rectus abdominis depending on the type of ab exercise you perform. For example, shoulder-to-hip flexion (think crunch) movements hit the upper abs harder than they work the lower abs, whereas hip-to-shoulder flexion (think leg raise) movements hit the lower abs harder.
Below is an example from last year’s study that illustrates this phenomenon. Please note that the MVC for this experiment was obtained by simply flexing the abs as hard as possible from a standing position, which explains the relatively large percentages.
|Exercise||Upper Rectus Abdominis Activity||Lower Rectus Abdominis Activity|
|50 lb Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch||438.0 mean %
1205.0 peak %
|136.0 mean %
248.0 peak %
|Lying Leg Throw||224.0 mean %
474.0 peak %
|273.0 mean %
595.0 peak %
Some exercises have inherent advantages in terms of EMG activity while other exercises have inherent disadvantages.
For example, weighted uni-planar isolation core exercises with high levels of stability almost always equate to high levels of muscle activation. Case in point: the weighted crunch. How could it not activate a ton of rectus abdominis musculature? You’re lying on your back on a stable floor while isolating sagittal plane trunk flexion.
On the flip side, total-body multiplanar integrated core exercises with a degree of instability sometimes equate to lower levels of activation. Case in point: half-kneeling cable chops and lifts. These lifts are integrated diagonal patterns based on PNF principles that teach the core how to produce quality movement that isn’t specific to any single muscle.
Although these total-body multiplain exercises don’t necessarily elicit high levels of core EMG activation, they’re very worthwhile because they correctly train the stabilization and force transferring function of the core (as Gray Cook has touted for ages).
A lot of guys need to get away from rectus abdominis dominance (trunk flexion, posterior pelvic tilting) in order to allow for the inner core unit to effectively perform its task of stabilizing the spine during movement.
Also, the external oblique activity of every rotational exercise was at a disadvantage because I placed the electrodes on the same side as each other for each muscle tested. So I tested right-side external oblique activity along with right-side internal oblique activity.
Although both sides of the internal and external obliques are active during rotational exercises in each direction of rotation (right and left), the external obliques are known to be more active inopposite side rotation while the internal obliques are known to be more active in same side rotation.
For example, a half-kneeling cable chop to the right would activate more left-side external oblique and right-side internal oblique. Since I tested both right-side internal and external oblique for each rotational exercise and failed to test the activity going in the opposite direction, external oblique activity may not be truly represented for rotational exercises in this experiment. However, past research that I have conducted indicates that the difference isn’t as pronounced as one would think.
Isometric core exercises have a distinct advantage for mean activity because there are no periods of reduced muscular activity at the start or end of the repetition. The muscles are highly activated right at the start until the end of the set.
On the contrary, an exercise like the Turkish Get Up is at a disadvantage in terms of mean activity because the lift is so complex and has so many phases that there are periods where certain muscles aren’t working very hard, which reduces the levels of mean activation.
We’ve always known that crunches and hanging leg raises work a ton of rectus abdominis muscle. Anyone who’s performed a couple of sets of ab wheel rollouts can attest to the intense levels of rectus abdominis activity that are necessary to prevent the lumbar spine from extending throughout the exercise—and the soreness they produce the following day or two.
The bodysaw (see video at right) is similar to the ab wheel rollout in that it’s an anti-extension core exercise that involves increasing the lever arm throughout the movement to place more tension on the core.
The kettlebell community has praised the core-activating benefits of the Turkish Get Up (TGU) for many years. It’s taken quite a while for some strength coaches to catch on but nowadays most coaches are having their athletes perform the TGU in their warm-ups. The TGU was the only exercise in this experiment that had over 100% peak activation in all four core muscles that were tested. Good job kettlebellers!
A final confirmation is the reverse hyper. Louie Simmons has been touting its lumbar-targeting abilities for ages. He too was right—it’s one hell of an erector spinae exercise.
A while back a colleague of mine named Joe Sansalone taught me how to do an RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) plank. Basically, he had me get into my normal plank position and then made adjustments. First, he had me place my elbows slightly further out in front of me and closer together to increase the lever arm length and reduce the width of the base of support. He then had me forcefully lock out my knees by contracting my quads.
Finally, he had me contract my glutes as hard as possible to the point where my pelvis posteriorly rotated. These adjustments left me quivering like a school girl. I highly recommend experimenting with this new variation as it blows away the core activation of a normal plank. (In fact, I suggest you stop reading right now, drop down to the floor, and try it for yourself.) Chalk up another one for the kettlebellers! (See video at right.)
Probably the most shocking result of this entire experiment was the level of rectus abdominis activity elicited by a bodyweight chin-up! It beat out any other abdominal exercise, weighted exercises and all, in mean and peak rectus abdominis activity.
Chin-ups are ultimate “anti-extension” exercise for the low back. Some lifters let their lower back arch excessively, which is not only unsafe, but sub-optimal. If they brace their lower back and keep a straight line from their shoulders to knees, the core musculature has to work very hard to prevent the low back from extending.
Another surprise was that using extra weight on chin-ups via a dip belt didn’t increase rectus abdominis activity—it lowered it. If you’re aiming to get a great core workout via chin ups, I recommend performing slow, controlled repetitions while focusing on keeping the hips and spine perfectly neutral throughout the set.
Another surprise is that sagittal plane anti-extension core exercises were the leaders in external oblique and internal oblique activity. Most individuals assume that frontal plane lateral flexion (think side bend), lateral stabilization (think side plank) core exercises, or transverse plane rotary (think woodchop) core exercises activate the obliques the best.
This is simply not true. If you look at the directions of the fibers, especially the external obliques, you’ll notice that many have almost a vertical line of pull which lends support to the data.
I was extremely surprised to see the results for the erector spinae. First, spinal rotation exercises were the leaders in erector spinae activity. It appears that even when rotating at the thoracic spine, the lumbar erectors have to work overtime to stabilize the spine. Louie Simmons has mentioned that using the grappler (like a landmine) will strengthen one’s deadlift, and now we have some clear data as to why this would happen.
More on the erector spinae: I was shocked to see such high levels of activation from the Bulgarian squat. I assumed that the reduced load in comparison to that used in a bilateral squat would greatly reduce the erector spinae activity, but it appears that that notion may not be true. The erector spinae activity was indeed reduced but not by as much as I’d assumed.
Another shocking finding was the low back activity of a heavy barbell curl. The barbell curl appears to be an excellent total body lift when you factor in the upper back and biceps activity seen in the third part of this article series. Now you have some data to justify isolating your biceps via barbell curls and no longer have to tell people, “I do them because Jim Wendler told me to.”
Very surprising was the fact that back squats, front squats, and measly plate squats activated more lumbar erector muscle than deadlifts, good mornings, and Zercher squats. I would have never guessed that. Arnold always felt that back squats were his best lower back exercise; it looks like he might have been right.
Finally, I was amazed that certain exercises that cause me to feel a deep burn in my core such as cable triceps extensions, dumbbell pullovers, and bodyweight push-ups didn’t elicit much core activation. I would have guessed that these exercises would have turned out higher levels for sure.
During experiments like these, one is often left with much curiosity. How exactly would all of the exercises fared had I placed the electrodes in different areas. For example, what if I had positioned the electrodes on the upper rectus abdominis as opposed to the lower rectus abdominis? How about the thoracic extensors as opposed to the lumbar extensors?
Stuart McGill has stated in Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation that the thoracic extensors are actually the most efficient lumbar extensors since they have the largest moment arms and their tendons pass over the lumbar region thereby giving them extreme mechanical advantages.
To back this up, In Musculoskeletal Interventions: Techniques for Therapeutic Exercise, the authors state that the proportion of contribution during round-back lifting breaks down to 20 percent for the multifidi, 30 percent for the lumbar erectors, and 50 percent for the thoracic extensors.
Had I tested the thoracic extensor activity of the same exercises in the chart above, I have a hard time seeing how any exercise could beat out the deadlift and good morning in muscle activation.
What if I had tested opposite directions in rotational movements? Would the activity in the external obliques been significantly higher?
What if I had been able to test the multifidi, quadrati lumborum, and transverse abdominis? Wouldn’t that have been an extensive study? Oh well!
All in all, it was still an extremely productive experiment, and there’s always time for more testing down the road. Clearly more research is needed, as it’s impossible to anticipate everything prior to an experiment, no matter how prepared and organized you seem.
Based on the results of this experiment, I bet the following would be one kick-ass workout that’d target the abdominals, obliques, and lower back. Enjoy!