Ab Training for Absolute Bada$$es!

Many lifters are interested in progressively training the core as they advance in strength. The typical workout consisting of sit-ups, crunches, and side bends becomes boring, and more advanced variations are desirable. Below are some of my favorite ab/core exercises.

abs

Human Loaded Front Plank

Last year I conducted an EMG experiment with an extensive variety of ab exercises and found that the ultimate ab and oblique exercise was the weighted front plank – it outperformed every single core exercise I could think of (total of around 50 exercises). If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of high-rep training. I have nothing against high-reppers, I just hate feeling the burn. To me, heavy singles are the cat’s pajamas. Much of my innovative approach to training stems from the fact that I can’t stand doing sets of 10 reps or more or performing sustained isometrics for longer than 20 seconds. Because of this hatred, I often create ways to make exercises more challenging. I did this with the hip thrust, which is just a glute bridge with extra weight and extra range of motion, and I did this with the plank by adding weight in the form of another human being directly over the low back.

This should go without saying, but it is critical that one uses proper form and begins at the simplest variation before attempting this exercise. Proper form involves controlling the lumbar spine and preventing the low back from being pulled downward into extension (arching). Start off with a basic front plank, and once you master it begin adding weight gradually in the form of plates. You’ll need a partner to put plates onto your back. When a couple of 45 lb plates is no longer challenging for you, it’s time to move up to a human being.

In the video above I perform a 23-second isohold with my 220 lb training-partner named Rob on my back. I could probably work my way up to a minute within a month or so if I really wanted to but I guess it’s just not that important to me at this time as I feel that my core is “strong enough.”

Band Anti-Rotary Hold

Physical therapist John Pallof created the “Pallof press” many years ago. I love the Pallof press, but I like performing anti-rotation core stability exercises for time as well. We can hold a front plank (anti-extension) or side plank (anti-lateral flexion) for extended time, so why not do the same isometric-style with anti-rotation training?

I prefer the band or cable anti-rotary hold to the Pallof press – I believe it works the muscles much harder since they can’t rest. Start off with the Pallof press, but when you master it move onto the band anti-rotary hold and don’t be afraid to move out really far when using bands. If you’re a strong guy like me you can move way out and challenge your core very hard with this movement. It may not appear like it, but this exercise is absolutely brutal! It makes people want to puke it’s so hard.

Negative Standing Ab-Wheel Rollout

Start off with the basic front plank. When that gets easy, move onto the stability ball rollout or TRX fallout. As soon as that gets easy, move onto the ab wheel rollout from the knees. And when that gets easy, it’s time to give the negative standing ab-wheel rollout a try. I’m not strong enough to perform a concentric repetition from the standing position but I can get an excellent eccentric repetition in without allowing my lumbar spine to enter into extension. Height plays a large role in determining your strength on this exercise. Shorter guys will have a much easier time than taller guys in eventually performing a standing ab wheel rollout (or even a weighted vest standing ab wheel rollout).

Barbell Suitcase Isometric Hold

The barbell suitcase hold is the ultimate anti-lateral flexion exercise. It’s also a great grip exercise once you get really strong. If you’re not very strong, you can just use a dumbbell. But once you outgrow the dumbbells, you must move on to a barbell. I’ve used 185 lbs for this movement in the past.

Weighted Dead Bugs

Dead bugs are an awesome exercise, just like planks side planks, glute bridges, and bird dogs. However, all of these exercises have one inherent flaw; they’re too easy for advanced individuals. The remedy for this is simple. Once you master bodyweight add resistance in the form of ankle weights and dumbbells. In this video I’m using 10-lb ankle weights and 10-lb dumbbells. Don’t allow the lumbar spine to extend or flex.

Weighted Bird Dogs

Bird dogs are not an abdominal exercise – I threw them into the mix here for balance. They’re like dead bugs for the posterior chain, and it’s always good to have balanced core development. Perform them in the quadruped position and make sure to control the amount of lumbar extension. Some is acceptable, but don’t go overboard. Squeeze the glutes and don’t let the pelvis move excessively into anterior tilt. Once you master bodyweight add resistance in the form of ankle weights and dumbbells. In this video I’m using 10-lb ankle weights and 10-lb dumbbells.

Cable Chops and Lifts

Chops and lifts are kickass exercises that integrate a ton of muscle and help the entire body to become more coordinated. They work large, global muscles and really challenge the glute medius, upper glute maximus, adductors, multifidi, external obliques, and internal obliques.

Here is a quote from Gray Cook, the physical therapist/strength coach who really brought these movements to the forefront of the strength training industry:

Chopping and lifting can be used as corrective exercise, core conditioning, or generalized strengthening. Many use the chop and lift as a complete upper body program while others use it to complement the big pushing and pulling lifts. The moves are often hard to classify because they incorporate pushing and pulling. There is much more going on in a chop or lift than pushing and pulling though. Chopping and lifting is based on PNF patterns that are spiral and diagonal. When two hands are involved together in the same direction crossing the mid-line of the body in a downward or upward movement, it is called a chop or lift. -Gray Cook

There are many different ways to perform chops and lifts. Technically chops and lifts only include upward and downward diagonal patterns, but I feel like the pure rotational variations in the transverse plane have tremendous merit even though they aren’t multi-planar or true “chops and lifts.” Similarly, you’re supposed to chop to the bottom knee or rear leg and lift to the upward knee or front leg (if using a half-kneeling or staggered inline stance), but rules were always made to be broken. Here are some ways to tinker with the exercises:

Stance

1. Tall Kneeling (On Both Knees)
2. Half Kneeling Front Leg Inside (On One Knee)
3. Half Kneeling Front Leg Outside (On One Knee)
4. Parallel Stance (Both Feet Parallel With Another in an Athletic Stance)
5. Inline Stance Front Leg Inside (One Leg in Front of the Other)
6. Inline Stance Front Leg Outside (One Leg in Front of the Other)
7. Single Leg (I Don’t Like this Option)

Movement Angle

1. High to Low (Chop)
2. Low to High (Lift)
3. Straight Across (Rotation Press)

Stance Orientation

1. Facing Perpendicular to the Cable
2. Facing at a 45 Degree Angle Away from the Cable
3. Facing the Cable Column
4. Facing Away from the Cable Column

Handles/Implements

1. Long Rope Handle
3. Cook Bar
4. JC Bands
5. Long Chain
6. Medicine Balls (I like the dynamic method where you throw the ball, not where you hold onto it throughout the movements)

Rep Styles

1. Sequential Pull then Press Straight Out Without Crossing Midline of Body
2. Sequential Pull then Press While Crossing Midline of Body
3. Flowing Movement (My Favorite)

As you may know I used to teach high school mathematics. The way you figure out the number of total combinations possible is to multiply the number of combinations in each category together. So 7 x 3 x 4 x 6 x 3 = 1,512 different combinations of chop & lift movements! Here is a video detailing chops, lifts, and Pallof presses, but if you’re in a hurry just watch the 4 videos below it that showcase just a few reps of my favorite variations.

Half Kneeling Cable Chop

Half Kneeling Cable Lift

Half Kneeling Cable Anti-Rotation Press

Parallel Stance Cable Rotation

If you like this article, then you’ll like a very similar one here:

Core Stability Training for the Advanced Lifter

There you have it – 11 challenging core exercises for total badasses. I hope you enjoyed the article!

26 Comments

  • PJ says:

    Hey Bret,

    I’ve read all of your inside the muscles article on T-Nation and just wanted to say that I really liked the follow up info in this blog post.

    I’m 100% with you on the anti-rotary holds. I’ve actually found this easy to teach clients right off the bat and have been using it successfully for a while… it’s somewhat reassuring to see a trainer with a bunch more know-how than myself doing the same thing!

    Also, loved the human loaded plank! That video got linked straight on my facebook page… the challenge is on in my gym!

    Great blog you’ve got going here, Bret. Keep up the good work!

  • Neal W. says:

    Loved the article, Bret.

    If you had to guess, how do you think the side flag would fare in EMG as an anti-lateral flexion exercise?

    Also, one thing I like about this ab article is it tells you what exercises are the weakest for obliques, which is a good thing for women who don’t want to hypertrophy their obliques and lose their waist/hip ratio. Would you agree?

    • I think it would be an amazing anti-lateral flexion exercise. I would have tested it but I can’t do one! At 6’4″ that seems tough.

      I agree with you about the waist/hip ratio for women. It’s always a constant battle; you know that extra core work would benefit a woman by increasing core stability which could transfer to increased strength on compound lifts (which would improve the physique), but if you do too much they can start getting thicker obliques and ruining their hourglass figure. For this reason, I never focus on progressive overload on core exercises for women. They like working their cores but I don’t let them get too strong as I have had female clients whose obliques got thicker.

  • Amanda says:

    Question – do you think doing chops and lifts will add thickness through the waistline? I feel like when I do these I see growth but its wasn’t say a lot…1.2-1in…

    • I think they’re relatively safe; you won’t see added growth unless you get really strong at them. I really like them for teaching timing/coordinative sequences and improving whole body integration. If you indeed saw an inch of growth around your waistline then I wouldn’t do them anymore as that’s a lot of growth.

      Of course, I always tell women that if they’re dieting down and losing weight then it’s hard to keep all your muscle mass. In the case of dieting vs. bulking (which most men do) it’s not as easy to put on mass. Also, the core gets worked hard with common upper body and lower body exercises which could theoretically add growth as well.

  • Core stability exercises have sold all of my clients on the benefits of core stability versus the traditional outdated spinal flexion movements they all beg for.

  • Chris Matsui says:

    Great post again Bret!
    I really like the Negative Standing Ab-Wheel Rollout- You should also try Band Falls outs- those are pretty tough!

  • Chris says:

    Great article! Love it!

    Quick question: what brand of bands are you using on the anti-rotary holds?

    Thanks! Keep up the fantastic work!

    • Jumpstretch bands. They have a website but I got mine long ago from Elitefts. I don’t know if they sell them anymore. I believe the red one is the monster-mini band, not positive though.

  • Paul says:

    Bret,

    Top blog post. I really like how you perform the chop and lift with some decent weight. Too often core work is performed with an irrational fear of loading it up. If we only train to resist at low resistance we won’t be prepared for high resistance in real life!

    I also really admire your way of thinking and approach to training, really looking forward t reading more of your blog posts.

    Paul

  • Paula says:

    Bret,

    I’ve been reading your blogs and trying to absorb and learn. But, since I’m not a power lifter or strength person, etc. I can’t always relate. I love all the information you give though and can see the passion in your work and writing. Love it! I have a question for you. You throw so much information our way (and thank you for that) but I have a hard time knowing where to start. I want to start incorporating glute and hip work into my routine, but I honestly don’t know what I should do, how to progress, how many reps, how many exercises, which exercises, etc.

    Thanks again for your blogs and the videos. Great work!

    • Paula, of course it depends on your current level of strength and activity. Assuming that you currently work out and have some sort of baseline strength, then you can just start off with basic movement patterns and determine where you stand on the progression scheme. For example, consider the squat…should you be doing bodyweight squats or loaded squats? Consider the deadilft…should you be doing rack pulls or dumbbell RDL’s or do you have the mobility to start doing deadlifts from the floor with a barbell? Consider bridging movements…do you belong doing basic bodyweight glute bridges or can you start out with hip thrusts and can you add resistance? Pick a few basic movements for your dynamic warm-up like side lying clams, bridges, and lunges. Then, for your actual strength workout you just start wherever you belong and progress gradually over time. For one person this may mean bodyweight squats, dumbbell deadlifts, and bodyweight hip thrusts. For another person this might mean barbell walking lunges, barbell full squats, barbell deadlifts, and barbell hip thrusts. I also like to add in a type of abduction or external rotation movement like clams, side lying abduction, band seated abduction, band hip rotations, etc.

      It also depends what type of routine you perform. I believe that most women respond best to full body routines where they alternate between paired supersets of lower body and upper body/core exercises. Hope this helps!

  • Paula says:

    Thanks Bret – this helps a lot. Yes, I’ve been working out for many, many years – lifting weights, cardio, playing sports, etc. But I haven’t consistently followed a “program” or tried to progress systematically. And I haven’t worked out with real goals other than to work out to stay in shape. But now, after reading your blogs, I want to set a goal of improving my “posterior chain” (love that), and I want to do it correctly. In another post you had a picture of a client, a lady, who went from a flabby/flat butt to a terrific backside. That was a great visual and motivational tool for us ladies. So of course, now I’m thinking that maybe I can do that too – or at least work towards it and come somewhat close. Thanks for reply and your blogs!

    • Well Paula, know that it’s not just about “going through the motions,” the lady in that pic utilized progressive overload and went from using just bodyweight to 95 lb squats, 135 lb deadlifts, 85 lb walking lunges, and 135 lb hip thrusts for reps over the course of a year by gradually increasing the load or number of reps over time. And of course, her form stayed excellent all throughout. I’m sure you already knew this but just wanted to mention it just in case. Best of luck!

  • Good stuff as always man!

    Perhaps I missed this or I am just being dense, but the rationale for including a suitcase deadlift down as an isometric hold only?

    I understand the function of the core these days is anti rotation, but by performing the exercise through a range of motion (reps), isn’t it more movement based (better to transfer to sport) AND the core is still performing an anti rotation task?

    Just wondering
    rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

    • Thanks Mike! I definitely wouldn’t call anyone who is a candidate for their PhD dense! 🙂

      I’m glad you brought this up. I gave suitcase deadlifts a whirl years ago and didn’t like them at all. Now that I’m more “mature,” I realize that I didn’t like them because I couldn’t go heavy enough to perceive that they’d be of value in terms of transfer to the deadlift. I now realize that it’s not just about the amount of resistance. I haven’t performed them in years, nor have I performed suitcase carries (unilateral farmer’s walks) much simply due to the fact that my garage is so cluttered. But I suspect that if I tried suitcase deadlifts again I’d love them. As a matter of fact, I’m going to try them out in the next few days.

  • You’ve done it again! Amazing post.

  • Iris Collado says:

    Hi Bret! What type of cardio (slow running, sprinting, spinning or jump rope) do you believe the best for fat loss?

    Thank You!

  • Me says:

    I wonder how supported L-seats (either on hands, e.g. parallel bars) or in captains chair (on elbows) would compare to the hanging leg lifts?

    Also, many years ago, I worked out with some guys that would do ten standing back flips (rapidly) at the end of gymnastics practice. Very hard on the abs. Don’t really notice the strain since it is such a technical endevour. Have suddenly lost strength and landed on knees though.

  • Tracey says:

    Hey Bret, great info here..my only question is, how can I incorporate this into my routine? Should I pick two..three..do them back to back..how many sets and reps? I loved your “template” on how to create a balanced training routine..but do you have one for abs?
    Thanks!

  • David says:

    Hi Bret, what where the emg numbers on the weighted front plank ? Thank you.

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