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For strong, sexy abs, you know that you need to think beyond crunching all day and holding planks for a minute. The muscles that make up your abs need a routine that’s as diverse and challenging as the rest of your bodybuilding workout.
We asked fitness experts Liu Gross, Chicago-based C.P.T., and Reebok CrossFit Games competitor Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, who’s competing in this summer’s CrossFit Games, for their alternative abs exercises.
An abs routine needs to be as diverse as the abs movement, says Gross. “If your body turns, there should be turning. If your body crunches, there should be crunching. If your body pivots, there should be pivoting. However your core moves, that’s how wide-ranging your workout should be.”
Here are Gross and Leblanc-Bazinet’s top abs exercises to work your core from every angle.
1. Wood chop (intermediate)
While you can perform a wood chop abs exercise with a dumbbell or kettlebell, Gross suggests using a cable machine so you can change the resistance and really lean down into the movement. Do the wood chop with the cable machine at a downward angle.
Start the movement on one side with the cable up to shoulder height, then bring the cable down to the opposite knee. The first version in the video shows the exercise while standing; the second version of wood chops on a cable machine starts with kneeling and is more difficult.
2. Ball shake (beginner)
Everyone’s heard of the “shake weight”—it was supposed to shape your arms, remember? This concept does more or less the same thing, minus the silly accessory. Grab a weighted ball, dumbbell, or kettlebell, and stand up straight, plant legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with an athletic stance and simply, “Shake the sh*t out of it back and forth,” Gross says—keep the ball by your chest, a few inches away from your body, with your elbows out. “For any piece of equipment, the rules are still the same, shake it vigorously while keeping it in the center of your chest,” advises Gross.
3. Kettlebell side bend (beginner)
Challenge your obliques with this kettlebell abs exercise. Hold one kettlebell in the hand that’s opposite the side you’re training with this side bend exercise.
“Keep working hard all year on using these exercises to strengthen your midline,” suggests Leblanc-Bazinet. “If the summer is what prompted you to start doing these exercises, don’t just stop doing them when September hits. If you keep it up, you’ll be so proud of yourself by next summer and a lot fitter, too.”
4. Incline bench reverse crunch (advanced)
You’re used to doing shoulder presses on the incline bench, but this exercise will challenge your lower half in a whole new way. Hold on to the top of the bench and lift your knees as high in the air as possible from their starting position on the floor, suggests Gross. “The hardest part will be the grip. I added an additional straight leg kick to the end if this advanced isn’t challenging enough for you,” Gross says.
5. Dumbbell overhead squat (intermediate/advanced)
You might think squats are only working your lower body, but they’re actually great for abs. Hold one heavy dumbbell in one hand overhead while reaching the other arm out in front for balance. Squat down as low as possible and drive into your heels while standing back up. Maintaining tension in your core when you squat down and up will work your abs and build strength in your midsection, like Leblanc-Bazinet’s strong core.
6. Elevate hanging leg lifts (intermediate/advanced)
This elevated leg raise can be done on a “captain’s chair” or while hanging in straps. Start off with a regular leg lift with your knees coming up to about waist height. Then, make the movement advanced by pulling knees up higher. You could also do a bicycle movement with the knees alternating up and down, or, take the knees in a swinging movement up as high as possible.
7. Around the world swings (intermediate)
Pick up a ball or kettlebell (aim for a medium-to-heavy weight) and swing it around your head, bringing it to your waistline on the low end of the circle. Do it for a minute, rest, and then change direction to the other side. This movement becomes difficult for your core when your feet remain static.
Get more kettlebell exercises here.
8. V-ups (advanced)
This abs exercise doesn’t require equipment, but the movement will challenge your entire core. You’ll go from lying on the floor with legs and arms extended to bringing them up to a V-shape and then dropping back down to the floor.
“You don’t have to do a million crunches to build a strong core—that would get really boring,” says Leblanc-Bazinet. “There are lot of other movements that are more efficient.”
9. Knee to elbow side plank with contraction (intermediate/advanced)
Start in a side plank with your left side facing the ground. Normally, that left foot is the base foot. But in this cross plank, the top foot is going to be on the ground, so you’re going to work the inner thigh when you do a bicycle movement by bringing that left foot in and pulling your right elbow in to your core. You’re contracting your abs as you pull the leg and arm in to the center. Make the movement bigger and tougher by bringing the moving leg back further before bringing the knee in.
10. Toes to bar (intermediate/advanced)
This advanced toes-to-bar exercise is great for working the entire core, but especially the lower abs. Start with a dead hang, then wing your legs back and forth and lift them until they touch the bar. If you’re a beginner, start with a hanging knee raise on a pullup bar first.
“There are so many health benefits to having a strong core, so regardless of your fitness ability, it’s important to make sure you’re always incorporating movements that work the midline into your workouts,” says Leblanc-Bazinet.