|By Big Jeff Pearce|
I was sitting on a bench with the plates loaded up, looking around the gym for a spot. It was midday and the gym was practically empty except for a few dudes. The biggest of them all was a stuntman named Rob. I asked him over to give me a spot. Rob is a behemoth of a man, standing well above my puny 6’3” (well, 6’2.5”). That being said, he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet; as such, he obliged my request for a spot. Afterwards, we were chatting about diet/training; we had both trained with Darren Oliver so there was some common ground there. It was during that conversation that Rob imparted to me some wisdom that I have yet to forget: “Nothing tastes better than abs.”
That being said, if your diet isn’t on point, you can do any exercise you want until the cows come home; you’ll still look like one of the cows. This article is about the 5 best abdominal exercises to help you with both strength and aesthetics. Let’s clear up a few things that most of us already know but some may not. First, you aren’t going to have “take off your shirt in the middle of winter because you think its kinda hot outside” abs if your diet & cardio isn’t on point. Second, if you aren’t training on a regular basis and being consistent in your approach, don’t expect to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club (OMFG, so dreamy). Third, aesthetics aren’t the most important thing. Fourth, if you have any injuries that would prevent you from executing these exercises safely, don’t do them. Exercise caution and know your limitations. I’ll get off my soap box now and get to why you’re reading this in the first place.
#1 – The Ab Wheel
The Ab Wheel is one of the best exercises you can do for your mid-section. If you haven’t done it before, first start by being able to hold a plank for at least a minute. Once you can do that, try to do the Ab Wheel movement with an exercise ball instead of the real deal. If you can do that, you should be ready to give the real deal a shot. To use the Ab Wheel, get on your knees, hold the wheel out in front of you. Roll out keeping your arms fairly straight until you reach the bottom position. Keep your mid-section tight like when you are executing a plank and keep your body straight. Use your mid-section to pull yourself back into the starting position. Try to do sets of roughly 10 reps. A few notes:
- Use your feet as anchors.
- Don’t use momentum and use your mid-section to pull yourself back up, not your hamstrings.
- Go through the entirety of the movement.
- Don’t sit back too far.
As this movement becomes easier for you there are a number of variations that will set you on fire, here are some:
- Replace the Ab Wheel with a barbell with weights on the end. Start out with 25 pounders first (This can also be done with dumbbells if you have ones where the weight rolls).
- Use resistance bands to make it harder to go from the bottom of the movement back up to the top.
- Try the exercise from standing. Yes, get off your knees and do it from standing. Try to keep your legs as straight as possible.
- Get rid of the Ab Wheel and walk out with your hands instead.
- Have a partner rest plates on your back and roll out like the legendary powerlifter Konstantin Konstantinovs does below:
#2 – Dragon Flags
In all honesty, I was watching a Rocky movie a number of years ago when I saw him doing dragon flags and it peaked my interest immediately; it was bad ass. I did some looking around and discovered that it was one of the best exercises you can do. Frankly, if you aren’t an advanced abdominologist, this is going to be pretty difficult; but, work on it and you’ll get it. First things first, lie down on a sturdy bench and pike your body into an L-shape or 90 degree angle with the bench coming from your traps. From this point, you will want to keep your body straight and lower it down to about 45 degrees or lower if you can manage. From there, you can hold the movement or practice going up and down. Here are a couple notes:
- Hold on tight, you don’t want to let go in the middle.
- If you can’t get it at first (most can’t), get a spot to help guide you and give a push if need be.
- This can be paired up with other movements like leg raises, bicycle kicks or crunches.
#3 – Swiss Ball Knee Tucks & Swiss Ball Pike
I know, I know; serious strength athletes shouldn’t use exercise balls because they cause catabolism and you’ll get tiny. Also, when was the last time you saw World’s Strongest Bodybuilder Johnnie Jackson doing anything on an exercise ball. Here’s the truth; they can be useful even if you haven’t seen Johnnie using one.
To perform this exercise, get into a push-up position with your feet on top of the exercise ball. From this position, pull your feet into your chest (your butt should go up into the air) and then roll the ball back out again. Keep your body straight and your mid-section tight like you would during a plank. A few notes:
- Use a ball that is appropriate for your height.
- Do this movement in an area clear of obstructions just in case you lose balance.
- If this movement gets too easy, you can do a variation where instead of bending your knees, you keep your legs straight, as shown below:
#4 – Incline Russian Twists
Every trainer out there that ever got a weekend personal trainer certification and wants to look revolutionary in his/her approach to training makes his client do planks. The thing is, they suck and they’re boring. This exercise sucks because it hurts. To do these, you will need to find an ab board that is on an incline or a roman chair. Sitting in the board/chair, put your arms out in front of you holding a weight plate or dumbbell. Twist your torso from the mid-point to either side, doing an even amount for each side. Your arms should not move and it should only be your mid-section twisting. A few notes:
- Stay in a rep range that is comfortable for you and don’t use too much weight.
- Don’t round your back and maintain good posture.
- This can also be done on an exercise ball. Place your shoulder blades on the ball and execute the similar motion.
#5 – Seated Cable Crunches
These crunches are relatively easy to execute and they definitely allow you to load up the weight relatively safely. To perform this exercise, place an incline bench facing away from a cable stack. Place the pulley with a rope attachment behind your head. Grab the handles of the rope attachment and perform a crunch forward. You don’t have to go far; just enough to crunch down and feel the contraction. Also, your lower back should never leave the seat. Here are a few notes:
- Perform this slowly, don’t jerk and use a weight you can control but is still heavy.
- Grab the rope and keep it around ear level.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, if you have any medical conditions that would prevent you from safely executing these exercises – don’t do them. These are fairly advanced movements and require a higher level of proficiency to perform them safely and effectively. Other than that, remember to keep your diet/cardio tight and those abs will be popping so hard you’ll be able to see them through that sweater your grandmother knitted you for your birthday. Stay Strong!
Big Jeffrey Pearce, is a physical culture writer, editor, personal trainer, and a lifetime natural bodybuilder from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has been bodybuilding and strength training since he was 16 years old and remains a dedicated gym rat to this day. Big Jeff is one of the strongest athletes you will ever meet, routinely bench pressing 500lbs and tossing up 150lb dumbbells for reps in a typical workout. An honors graduate from the University of Toronto, Jeff’s brains also match his brawn. Jeff has a passion for writing and has been in featured in Muscular Development. Jeff also coaches high school kids on the benefits of strength training and nutrition.