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April 12, 2021 9 min read

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. 

What are we working?

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:

  • Rectus abdominis: When I say ‘abs’, you think ‘rectus abdominis’. These two paired sheets of muscle run from the ribs to the pelvis, and when built big and contracted, give you the classic six-pack look. This muscle helps to flex the spinal column, helps you bend to the sides, and stabilizes the torso in movements that involve the extremities and head. 
  • Transversus abdominis: This is the deepest muscle layer in the abs. It wraps around your waist to support your spine, stabilize the trunk, and maintain internal abdominal pressure. 
  • External obliques: The outer muscles on the sides of your midsection, running diagonally downward on either side of your abs. The external obliques contract to let you twist your body, as well as helping you to bend sideways. 
  • Internal obliques: These muscles live just under the external obliques, and run diagonally up your sides. The internal obliques play a role in flexing the spinal column, bending sideways, rotating your torso, and compressing the abdomen. 

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. 

Compounding out the reps

Because the abs are such a multifunctional set of muscles, the best way to strengthen them is to work all of 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:

  • More bang for your buck: Working more than one muscle at once, you get more workouts in the time it takes to do one. Time-saving and effective? Sign us up. 
  • Functional fitness: Whether you’re looking to upgrade your overhand, score a slam-dunk, or run a marathon, you’ll be using huge numbers of muscles at the same time. Training your muscles using compound movements gets them used to working together. This improves coordination and stability, and translates into major functional fitness gains. 
  • Multitasking muscles: The ab muscles affect a huge range of your body’s functionality including balance, posture, internal organ function, and breathing. Training them all also makes sure they’re all at peak performance, helping you to stand better, move better and breathe better. 
  • Avoiding injury: When you’re only used to working a few muscles with a limited range of movements, an unexpected movement can easily cause serious damage. When all of your muscles are trained and ready, they’re able to stabilize each other and deal with new movements, preventing injury.  
  • Feel the burn: It’s no secret that if you’re looking for serious ab definition, you’re going to have to lower your body fat percentage. Using more muscles allows you to move bigger and lift heavier. This burns more calories both during and after your workout, helping you to chisel out that six-pack.

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. 

Top 5 Compound Exercises for Abdominal Strength

  1. Squat Press
  2. Single-Leg Deadlift
  3. Pull-ups
  4. Ab Wheel Rollouts
  5. Leg Raises

1. Squat Press

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.

  • Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand next to your shoulders, with your palms facing together. 
  • Keeping your back straight and your knees behind your toes, lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground or as low as you can go. As you lower, press down into the floor through your feet to create tension.
  • Extend your hips and knees to drive your body up from the squat, while pressing the dumbbells up above your shoulders until your biceps are by your ears. Engage your core as you move upward. 
  • Lower the weights to return to starting position.
  • Repeat. 


2. Single-Leg Deadlift

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.

  • Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in your right hand. 
  • Lean your torso forward from the hips while lifting your left leg, keeping your body in a straight line. There should be a slight bend in your right leg. Allow the kettlebell to lower toward the ground. 
  • Stop when your body is parallel to the ground. 
  • Keeping your back straight and your core engaged, return to upright position.  
  • Repeat. 


3. Pull-ups

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.

  • Jump up and grip the pullup bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing down. 
  • Hang with your arms fully extended and your feet not touching the floor. Bend your legs at the knee if your feet reach the floor. 
  • Pull yourself up, imagining you are pulling your elbows towards the floor. Keep your shoulders back and your core engaged throughout this exercise.
  • Slowly lift yourself until your chin is above the bar, then slowly lower yourself back down into starting position.
  • Repeat. 


4. Ab Wheel Rollouts

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.

  • Start kneeling on a mat with an ab wheel in front of you.
  • Grip the handles of the ab wheel, and press your weight on the device. 
  • Cross your legs behind you and lift your feet off the mat. Your back should be straight. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes.
  • Start rolling the wheel out in front of you, making sure to engage your core muscles throughout.
  • Roll out as far as you are able to go while keeping your back straight.
  • Hold for a moment at the fully extended position.
  • Pull the wheel back towards you, fully engaging your core and keeping your back straight, until you have returned to starting position.
  • Repeat.


5. Leg Raises 

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.

  • Start lying down on a mat or flat bench. Lie flat on your back, with your arms at your sides and your legs straight and together.
  • Start to raise your legs, keeping them straight. Press your lower back into the floor as you do this. 
  • Keep lifting your legs until your lower back rises off the floor. As you do this, keep your core and inner thighs engaged. 
  • Slowly lower your legs until they are almost touching the floor. Hold this position for a moment. 
  • Raise your legs back up. 
  • Repeat. 


Putting it into practice

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. 

Additional exercises

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:

  • Push-ups
  • Ground crawling
  • Squats
  • Burpees
  • Lunges
  • Bird dogs
  • Hip thrusts
  • Planks and side planks

Absolute strength

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.