When you’re chasing ab strength, it’s easy to fall for the cult of crunches. The secret to a strong core seems to be as simple as it is boring - doing sit-ups all day, every day for the rest of your life.
But the road to a rock-hard core is both more complex and a whole lot more interesting than you’ve been told. Unsurprisingly, your abs were not just built to crunch.
Instead of targeting one muscle group at a time, compound exercises work a range of muscles. This will build insane ab strength, give your core the challenge it craves, and make your workout a whole lot more intense. It’s time to sit up straight, engage your core, and read on.
We all know what a six-pack (or eight-pack) looks like, but there’s a lot of hard-working muscle behind a chiseled torso. Understanding your abdominal muscles is crucial if you want to level up your core workout and build serious core strength.
Your core is made up of four key sets of muscles:
So why bother building anything except that sweet six-pack? Because your abs are no slackers - they do a whole lot more than just look good. Pretty much every body movement you can think of involves the core.
Whether you’re standing, jumping, running, lifting, throwing, or, well, moving any part of your body, your core is critically important for balance, posture, and stability even when it’s not directly targeted.
Think of the core as your body’s foundations, allowing you to build upper and lower body strength on top of it and keeping the two halves of your body working together.
Because of this, building abdominal strength can be a gamechanger. A strong and flexible core will increase your functional fitness, improve posture, prevent injury, and take your lifts to the next level. All that, and you’ll look great at the beach.
Because the abs are such a multifunctional set of muscles, the best way to strengthen them is to work allof them in ways that mimic their movements in the real world. Enter compound exercises.
Unlike isolation exercises which focus on a single muscle or muscle group, compound exercises get different groups of muscles working together. Firing up multiple muscle groups at the same time has a huge range of benefits, whether you’re gunning for gains or looking to lift heavier. The awesome advantages of compound exercises include:
Compound movements can also step up your mobility and flexibility, raise your heart rate more than isolation exercises, and improve your focus.
Adding ab-focused compound movements to your strength training or abs workout also allows you to carve out the core of your dreams without ever having to do another crunch again. So if you’re ready to build insane ab strength and whole-body fitness, let’s get to it.
The dumbbell squat and press or ‘thruster’ is an incredible full-body exercise that builds muscle and power in the legs, hips, and core, and burns up your quads and glutes.
The addition of a shoulder press (or overhead press) to the classic dumbbell squat gets your upper body working. It fires up your shoulders, triceps, and upper back, and sends your core strength and stability sky-rocketing.
The standard deadlift is already a ruthlessly effective lower-body compound lift that will tear up your glutes, lower back, core and hamstrings. Lifting a leg amps up the challenge, demanding massive strength and stability in your core and hips and leaving your abs aching.
This movement is complex, so it’s worth practicing it without weights at first, until you are comfortable and can maintain good form.
It’s no surprise that pull-ups are an incredible functional exercise for working your upper body and a great way to show off at the gym. More surprising is that they’re also an insanely effective way to sculpt your six-pack.
In fact, a 2018 study found that of all the muscles used during pull-ups, the most activation was shown in the rectus abdominis. If you’re just starting out, try negatives or chin-ups to build up your upper body strength.
But if pull-ups seem easy and you really want to kick the core challenge into overdrive, try variations like walking pull-ups and knee-twist pull-ups. Be warned, these will destroy your core.
The ab wheel may not look like much, but it packs a punch. An ab wheel is one of the most effective core-training tools out there, giving you a range of compound exercises that will set every part of your core on fire. They’re also inexpensive and compact, so a great addition to a home gym.
Ab wheel rollouts build muscle in the abs, obliques, and glutes, while also improving core stabilization, training anti-extension, and decreasing lower back pain. There are a huge number of variations on the standard ab wheel rollout, allowing you to target your move to your fitness level and goals.
If you don’t have access to an ab wheel, you can use a barbell with rounded plates as a DIY wheel.
No equipment, so no excuses. This bodyweight move is a viciously effective ab exercise that will build strength in your rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, and internal obliques.
It’s particularly good at targeting your lower abs, making sure you get the full six-pack and not a four-pack. This exercise also builds strength and flexibility in the hips and lower back, so is a great way to prevent and fix office-chair back pain.
Bodyweight exercises are a perfect addition to a home workout, and an efficient way to keep your abs active when traveling.
All of the exercises above are suitable for both the gym and your home, and a great addition to any workout routine. As with any exercise, make sure to warm up before you get moving, cool down afterward, and give your body the rest and fuel it needs to recover.
For exercises that use weights, start with lighter weights until you are sure you can maintain good form throughout an exercise, and then increase the weight of your dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell to up the intensity.
While compound exercises work multiple muscle groups, you still need to keep things varied if you’re aiming for total body fitness. Try mixing strength exercises in with your cardio workout for a majorly effective way to build muscle fast. Combining strength and cardio work is also a fast track to weight loss, giving you core definition that shows off the abs you’ve been working for.
To see more gains in less time, complete several compound exercises with very short rest periods in between to build an ab-blasting HIIT workout. For example, complete four of the exercises above in 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps, rest for a minute, and then repeat.
Always pay attention to how your body feels. If you experience any pain, stop what you are doing and seek medical advice. When you’re first trying a new move, consider working with a coach or personal trainer to make sure you’re maintaining good form and avoiding injury.
One major benefit of the core’s multifunctionality is that almost all bodyweight exercises engage the core as it works to keep your body aligned and stable. To amp up your ab engagement, brace your core as you perform the move, making sure to keep it tight throughout the exercise.
Bracing forces your abs to do more work, which strengthens your core without a single sit-up. If you’re properly engaging your core, your core should start to feel fatigued. If you’re not feeling the burn try squeezing your glutes too, as this can help to engage your core. Familiar exercises that are secret core-killers include:
Abdominal strength really is ‘core’ to your body’s function. Providing balance and stability, keeping you upright, supporting upper and lower body strength, and helping you lift heavy, strong abdominal muscles are vital.
And given the range of roles they play, trying to crunch out your core isn’t just boring, it’s also bad for your core’s functionality. Compound exercises will train your abs in a way that gets them working optimally and ready for anything, as well as leaving you with a shredded six-pack that’ll be the envy of everyone at the gym.
So if you’re after abs that look good and feel good, it’s time to work your entire core with the compound exercise routine you’ve been waiting for.