The Best Abs Workout: Circuits For Upper Abs, Lower Abs, And Obliques And Core


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If you’re looking to train your abs, the good news is that there are a huge variety of exercises that will help you achieve that goal. Even if you’re not doing moves that focus on them directly, the location of your abs means that they are worked hard by compound exercises that hit both the upper and lower body. Your core is also key to any exercise in which you have to keep your body stable, such as static holds like the plank or tricky balancing acts like the single-leg Romanian deadlift.

Whether your goal is a six-pack or just a little more definition around your midsection, compound lifts like squats, overhead presses and deadlifts will help get you there, and they’ll build strength all over your body at the same time. That said, there’s also room for more focused abs work too, especially if you have designs on achieving a cover model-style six-pack.

The four-move circuits below provide both isolation exercises and compound moves, and the three options target different areas of your abs to ensure you’re hitting them from every angle. The first workout concentrates on your upper abs, the second focuses on the lower abs, and the final routine works the often neglected side abs – or obliques – along with your deeper core muscles.

Though each circuit works as quick stand-alone abs blast, you can also tack them on to the end of your main training session to ensure your abs are getting the attention they merit.

The really good news is that you don’t need access to a gym to complete these workouts, so you can keep pursuing your six-pack dream during the COVID-19 lockdown. This is one area of the body that you can absolutely whip into shape at home, with minimal equipment required to get you really feeling the burn in your midsection.

We say minimal, rather than no, equipment, because for the workouts below you will need a pull-up bar for moves like the hanging leg raise. Bars are affordable and usually easy to find, though during the lockdown demand has exceeded supply at times, so check our pick of the best pull-up bars for options that are still available. The dumbbell crunch calls for a dumbbell, but if you don’t have one then any kind of weight you can hold by your chest will do – it doesn’t have to be too heavy.

How To Do Each Abs Workout

Each of these abs workouts is a mini-circuit you can do at the end of your main workout. The circuits are designed to work the maximum number of muscle fibres as quickly and effectively as possible, so you’ll do all four moves in order, sticking to the reps and rest periods detailed. The first move of each circuit is the hardest, then they get progressively easier as the number of reps per move increases. This works your abs harder and places them under greater tension for longer, which is ultimately what stimulates muscle growth. After the final move, rest for the allotted time, then repeat the circuit. Do three circuits in total.

Upper Abs Workout

1 Dumbbell crunch

Upper abs workout: Dumbbell crunch

Reps 10 Rest 10sec

Lie on your back, holding a dumbbell or weight plate across your chest in both hands. Raise your torso, then lower it, maintaining tension in your uppers abs throughout.

2 Tuck and crunch

Upper abs workout: Modified V-sit

Reps 15 Rest 10sec

Lie down with your hands by your head and your legs raised with your knees bent at a 90° angle. Simultaneously raise your torso and draw your knees towards your chest. Keep your fingers by your temples throughout and initiate each rep smoothly without jerking your torso up. Don’t let your feet touch the floor between reps.

3 Modified V-sit

Upper abs workout: Tuck and crunch

Reps 12 Rest 10sec

Lie with your legs raised off the floor and extended away from you so they’re parallel with the floor, and your arms straight by your sides, held off the floor. Keep your arms straight as you raise your torso and bring your legs in, bending at the knees, so that your chest meets your knees at the top of the move. Then lower under control.

Crunch

Upper abs workout: Crunch

Reps 20 Rest 90sec

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted, and your arms crossed across your chest. Raise your torso using your abs, then lower. Your upper abs will already be close to fatigue but try to hold the top position of each rep for at least one second to make them work as hard as possible.

Lower Abs Workout

Hanging leg raise

Lower abs workout: Hanging leg raise

Reps 10 Rest 10sec

Fair warning, this tough exercise sets the tone for what is going to be a brutal workout involving four different hanging exercises. Start in a dead hang with your legs straight and your knees and ankles touching. Keep them together as your use your lower abs to raise them, then lower back to the start under control.

2 Hanging knee raise twist

Lower abs workout: Hanging knee raise twist

Reps 12 each side Rest 10sec

Start in a dead hang with your legs straight and knees together. Twist your body and raise your knees to one side, then return to the start. Continue, alternating sides.

Hanging knee raise

Lower abs workout: Hanging knee raise

Reps 15 Rest 10sec

This slightly easier variation on the hanging leg raise still puts a lot of pressure on your lower abs. Start in a dead hang and raise your knees powerfully to activate more of the muscle fibres in the lower abs. Lower back to the start under control to prevent swinging.

4 Garhammer raise

Lower abs workout: Garhammer raise

Reps 20 Rest 90sec

Start hanging from the bar but with your knees already raised to around your midsection, then lift them as high as you can. Lower back to the start under control, keeping your abs engaged throughout.

Obliques And Core Workout

1 Decline plank with foot touch

Obliques and core workout: Decline plank with foot touch

Reps 10 each side Rest 10sec

Get into a decline plank position, supporting yourself on your forearms with your feet raised on a bench. Your body should form a straight line from heels to head and the aim is to maintain that position throughout the exercise. Lift one foot off the bench and move it to the side to touch the floor, then return it to the bench. Continue, alternating sides.

2 Seated Russian twist

Obliques and core workout: Seated Russian twist

Reps 12 each side Rest 10sec

Sit on the floor with your knees bent and heels on the ground. Your torso should be at the top of the crunch position, forming a 45° angle to the ground. Twist your torso from side to side, moving in a smooth and controlled manner.

Bicycle crunches

Obliques and core workout: Bicycle

Reps 15 each side Rest 10sec

Lie on your back with your hands by your temples and your legs raised with your knees bent at a 90° angle. Bring your right knee up towards your chest while raising your torso and twisting so your left elbow comes to meet your knee. Then lower and do the same on the opposite side. Keep your shoulders and feet off the ground to force your abs to work hard to stabilise your torso.

Plank

Obliques and core workout: Plank

Time Max Rest 90sec

Maintain a strict plank position, with your hips up, your glutes and core braced, and your head and neck relaxed. Breathing slowly and deeply, hold the position for as long as possible.

Abs Training Tips

Look beyond deadlifts

In this CrossFit-and-strongman era, it’s a common claim that deadlifts are all the abs work you need. Dead wrong. In fact, the most recent study to compare key exercises found that press-ups and plank holds beat even heavy back squats and deadlifts for core activation. Although the weighted movements produced the most force on the lower back, the bodyweight moves proved most effective for the rectus abdominis and external obliques.

What’s the frequency?

Once upon a time, the myth was that, as “endurance” muscles, the abs should be trained every day. Now it’s more common to encounter claims that you only need one dedicated core workout a week – but the truth lies somewhere in between. “Two or three abs workouts a week might be optimal for most people,” says trainer Jonny Jacobs. “Breaking it up into separate days – for static, anti-rotation work and dynamic movements – is one good option.”

Bringing flexion back

You should know by now that doing hundreds of sit-ups is doing nothing good for your back, but that doesn’t mean you ought to ditch spinal flexion entirely. In 2017, back health expert Dr Stuart McGill co-authored a paper explaining: “If flexibility is important… the trainer may want to select full-range curl-ups and crunches…if maximal muscular development is the goal, including the crunch and its variations may help.” Translation: A few are fine.

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