These are the best ab workouts. There’s a strange thing about abs. They’re either over-emphasized or ignored, and sometimes both, intermittently, by the same person. Ab definition is widely regarded as the best visual indicator of leanness. And yet, unless you’re shirtless, abs can’t convey anything to anyone; and, if you’re not buff, they still remain unseen even when you’re in the buff. For the latter reason, even many pro bodybuilders skip ab training until the final weeks before a contest. 

Another key cause of ab workout avoidance is boredom. Trainers slog away at the same low-intensity one or two exercises, predictably never see much change, and eventually decide it makes little difference whether they work abs or not. In their case, this is true, but it doesn’t have to be. The Barbell comes to the rescue, as we present the five best ab workouts for revitalizing your abdominal workouts.

To make noticeable improvements, neither overtrain nor ignore abs, but instead give them the same variety, intensity, and focus you apply to any other bodypart. Our five best ab workouts could be your ab-solution.


One reason so many people get burnt out on ab training is they tend to do only one type of movement targeting one area of their midsection. Just as you shouldn’t do only leg curls for your legs, don’t get trapped focusing on a limited area and range of motion for your abs. Our all-around midsection routine hits your lower abs with leg raises, upper abs with crunches, side abs (obliques) with cable side bends, inner abs (transversus abdominus) with vacuums and your lower back (spinal erectors) with back extensions. Most people train their lower back with their upper back, which is perfectly acceptable, but working your rear midsection with your front and side midsection hits all of your central trunk stabilizers in the same workout.

Breon Ansley does leg raises with a captain’s chair. / Instagram

The other thing that makes this core routine unique is the inclusion of the vacuum. Your internal abs aid in your breathing and posture, and strengthening them can help prevent or relieve lower back pain, assist stabilization during lifts like squats and deadlifts, and even slim your waistline. You may have noticed that even some ripped bodybuilders have trouble holding their bellies in. This is, in part, because of structural weakness in their transversus abs. The best way to strengthen this area is the vacuum—an isometric exercise you can perform anywhere.  Exhale and simultaneously suck your midsection in as far as possible, and hold for as long as you can (up to one minute) while you continue breathing. If this starts to feel easy, pull your waist in harder. Each hold is one set.


Leg Raises  —  3 x 12-15 reps

Machine or Cable Crunches  —  3 x 12-15 reps

Vacuums  —  2 x holds

Cable Side Bends  — 2 x 15-20 reps per side

Back Extensions  —  3-4 x 10-12 reps


The four exercises in our giant sets routine were selected because they each target a different ab area and each can be done with the same equipment. In this case, we should say lack of equipment, because all you need is a flat bench, exercise ball, or even just the floor. Do the four exercises in one circuit without resting between exercises.  After completing one circuit, rest for one minute and then begin the circuit again until three such giant sets are finished.


Crunches  —  3 x 15-25 reps

Leg or Knee Raises  — 3 x 15-25 reps

Side Crunches  —  3 x 15-25 reps per side

Vacuums  —  3 x holds


If you’re like most people, you probably do sets of 12 reps or more per set for your abs. The shock of heavy ab training may be just what you need to muscle-up your middle. Our sample low-rep routine includes hanging leg or knee raises. Do knee raises if you’re not yet strong enough to get six reps of leg raises, and if you can do more than 10 reps of leg raises, wear ankle weights or hold a dumbbell between your feet. On each exercise, use the maximum resistance for 6-10 rep sets.

best ab workouts
Contraction of cable crunch / YouTube


Machine or Cable Crunches  —  3 x 6-10 reps

Hanging Leg or Knee Raises  —  3 x 6-10 reps

Dumbbell Side Bends  —  3 x 6-10 reps


In generations past virtually everyone did high reps for abdominals. How high? Renown for his ice cube abs, Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski pumped out 500 continuous reps of sit-ups and 500 continuous reps of leg raises before every workout. Bodybuilding legend Serge Nubret upped Zabo by cranking out 2000 continuous reps of sit-ups (plus four sets of 20-30 reps of seated leg raises) daily! Most trainers didn’t do 1000 reps in the good ol’ days, but low-intensity, high reps (20 or more per set), and daily training were the ab workout norm.

ab workouts Serge Nubret
Serge Nubret in the 1970s.

Partly this was done to remove or deflect fat. In recent decades the mantra has been “you can’t spot reduce,” and thus triple-digit reps have gone the way of VHS tapes. Newer research indicates the targeted loss of fat via high reps may indeed be a reality. Furthermore, Zabo, Nubret, and some other ab-endurance trainers sported midsections that could hold their own against anyone today.

On occasion, choose two non-weight exercises you can get at least 50 reps per set in and pump out the volume. We don’t recommend sit-ups, which work the hip flexors too much and the abs not enough.


Incline Crunches  —  2 x 50-100 reps

     superset with

Seated Knee Raises  —  2 x 50-100 reps


The Barbell previously examined the scientific studies to determine the four best ab exercises for maximum muscle activation. (You can read that article here.) We’ll briefly explain those four exercises and compile them into a routine.


Whether performed hanging with arm straps or in a captain’s chair with your forearms balanced on pads, leg raise with your upper body vertical ranked high in every study. (You can also do these while simply gripping an overhead bar, but don’t if your grip is the weakest link.) The important thing is to raise your knees as high as possible so that your butt comes up and your spine curls forward. Doing it in this way, without swinging, maximally activates your abs. (It’s also contrary to much “expert advice,” which incorrectly tells you to keep your torso rigidly horizontal.) The straighter (and longer) your legs are, the greater the resistance. Keep your legs bent until you’re strong enough to use straight legs. You can also start a set with straight legs and bend them as you fatigue.


Also called: incline reverse crunch or decline bench curl-up. This ranked high in the studies for overall abs but especially upper abs. The curl-up is sort of a combination of a knee raise and a crunch. Just as we preached curling your spine up during the vertical leg raise, this is all about that. Lie face-up on a decline bench with your head near the top. Grip the support or pads behind your head. Start with your knees bent. Raise your legs, butt, and back up while contracting your abs and curling your torso. At the top, your knees should be near or between your elbows, and your thighs should be approximately parallel to the floor. If you get fatigued, shorten the range of motion, turning this into more of a knee raise, but continue focusing on maximal contractions on each rep.


The roll-out ranked high in studies for both lower and upper abs. And it provides some variety from the previous crunching movements, working your deltoids, serratus, and back with your abdominals. You can do this with various equipment: a roller, an exercise ball, a weighted barbell. Whichever you use, kneel down, grab the “roller,” extend so your torso is parallel to and just above the floor (this is the roll-out), and return to the starting position (this is the roll-in). Shorten your reps when you grow fatigued, or if you’re not yet strong enough to do fully extended reps. The key is keeping your back flat and abs contracted throughout each rep. Don’t let your middle sag, because you’ll lose tension on your abs and potentially strain your spinal erectors.

best ab workouts
Roll-outs with a roller / Pexels: Jonathan Borda


The bicycle crunch, which combines a crunch with a leg lift and ads a twisting motion, also ranked high in the studies, but the rhythmic form can be difficult to maintain. Lie on the floor with your hands behind or beside your head and legs straight and, if you can, held a few inches off the floor. Raise one knee towards your chest, and simultaneously raise your torso and twist so the opposite elbow comes toward the raised knee. On the next rep, raise the other knee and twist so the other elbow comes towards it. Resist the temptation to go fast. Instead, focus on a maximal abdominal contraction on each rep.


None of the four best ab exercises are oblique-specific, but if you want to include an oblique exercise like cable side bends or cable woodchoppers, swap it in for one of these. To up intensity and reduce workout time, do these four exercises in three giant sets.

Incline Curl-Ups  — 3 x 15 reps

Vertical Leg Raises — 3 x 15 reps

Roll-outs  —  3 x 15 reps

Bicycle Crunches — 3 x 15 reps (per side) 


Ab training may never be your idea of fun, but it should also not be tedious. Utilize these five strategies to reinvigorate your midsection workouts. Train your abs with the same attention, variety, and intensity you give your arms.