Anti-Crunch Ab Workout Routines – For All Experience Levels
Crunches are the most commonly performed yet one of the least effective exercises for targeting, strengthening, and building the abdominal muscles.
It is true the abdominals engage during the movement of the chest towards the hips, also known as spinal flexion. However, many trainees strain their necks, use excessive momentum, over-exaggerate the spinal flexion, and fail to ensure the abdominals are contracting throughout the crunch motion. As a result, they experience sub-par improvements in abdominal definition and strength but increased lower back and neck injuries. Adding weight to the movement only further exacerbates these issues.
Related: How to Get Six Pack Abs of Granite
The purpose of this article is to provide three routines, based on training experience, that do not involve the traditional crunch movement.
Complete no-crunch ab workout for six pack abs!
The abdominal region is comprised of three key muscles – rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques (internal and external heads). The rectus abdominis, when adequately trained and with low enough body fat levels, is the muscle responsible for six-pack that many trainees desire.
The transverse abdominis, when trained, pulls the abdominal wall inward, increase intra-abdominal pressure, compresses, and supports organs in the abdominals.  Those with a strong transverse abdominis in the bodybuilding community can show the illusion of an extremely tiny waist, as seen with the Golden Era physiques. Those will strong intra-abdominal pressure in the powerlifting and Olympic lifting communities are going to be able to push, pull, and squat more weight with decreased risk of fatigue and injury.
The obliques engage during spinal flexion, left-to-right rotation of the upper body, side-to-side bending of the hips, and the purposeful increasing of intra-abdominal pressure.  Well-defined obliques protect the spine and contribute to the Adonis belt that runs down the sides of the torso towards the front of the pelvis.
The three ab workouts presented below are designed to target, strengthen, build, and shape your abdominals based on your training experience without using crunches. If you’re new to weightlifting start with the beginner workout. If you’re an intermediate lifter but rarely directly train your abdominals, then start with the beginning workout.
For those with one to three years of lifting experience and/or 6+ months of direct abdominal training start with the intermediate workout. Those with 3+ years of lifting experience and/or 12+ months of direct abdominal training should use the advanced anti-crunch workout.
Perform the appropriate workout at least twice per week on non-consecutive days. To maximize routine effectiveness, perform these exercises at the end of weight training or cardiovascular workout, or at the beginning of separate training day dedicated for weak points training.
“Anti-Crunch” Ab Workout Routines
Beginner Anti-Crunch Workout
- Dead Bugs – 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg
Lay down on floor so that your knees are bent, feet are flat on the ground and hip width apart, your arms are down by your sides, and your upper body is in-contact with the ground. Keeping your lower back against the floor keep your arms straight and point them towards the ceiling. Raise your legs so that that your thighs are perpendicular and shins are parallel with the ground. This is your starting position.
Take a deep breath, expand the diaphragm, brace your abdominals for impact and simultaneously extend your left leg and move your right arm down and back towards your head. Ensure your arm remains straight throughout the entire movement. Slowly return your left leg and right arm back to the starting position.
Repeat the same movement with your right leg and left arm. Go slow and focus on keep your lower back in-contact with the ground at all times.
- Bicycle Kick – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps per leg
Lay down on floor so that your knees are extending, feet are facing the wall and hip width apart, your arms are down by your sides, and your upper body is in-contact with the ground. Keeping your lower back against the floor bend your arms and interlock your fingers behind your head. Raise your legs so that that your legs are straight but feet are not touching the ground. This is your starting position.
Take a deep breath, brace your abdominals for impact, and simultaneously move your right elbow towards your left leg. Your upper back and neck should come off of the floor and your left leg should bend towards your torso. Your right leg should remain straight throughout this motion. Attempt to touch your left leg and right elbow before returning to the starting position.
Repeat the same movement with your left leg and right arm. Ensure you’re using your obliques to pull your arm towards your leg.
- RKC Planks – 3 sets of 20 to 30 seconds
Planks are an extremely popular exercise for building abdominals strength and increasing intraabdominal posture but many trainees perform them wrong. Building up to 60+ second holds of the traditional plank position are far from beneficial when compared to a 20 to 30 second RKC plank.
Begin by kneeling on the ground, placing your elbows horizontally in-line with but slightly wider than your shoulders. Place your forearms firmly on the ground and interlock the fingers of both hands. Extend your legs so that your knees are off the floor and toes are in-contact with the ground with a shoulder-width stance. This is your starting position.
Squeeze your glutes and tilt your pelvis forward so that your spine is neutral and lower back is not sagging. Focus on generating as much intra-abdominal tension and pressure as possible for 20 to 30 seconds before resting. Don’t be surprised if you’re shaking after a few sets of this exercise but you will be pleased with the results.
- Lying Ab Vacuum – 3 sets of 8 to 12 breaths
Lay down on floor so that your knees are bent, feet are flat on the ground and hip width apart, your arms are resting on your abdominals, and your upper body is in-contact with the ground. This is your starting position. Push your lower back in to the floor, forcefully exhale, and try to pull your navel upwards and inwards towards your heart. This position should not feel very comfortable but that’s okay.
Be sure not your curl your upper body while getting in to this position. Take regularly breaths while simultaneously focusing on pulling your navel upwards and inwards. You may notice that these breaths will feel shallow but that’s okay; you should also feel a nice burn in the deep abdominal muscles.
The ab vacuum is an excellent exercise for training intra-abdominal pressure, improving posture, and targeting the transverse abdominis.
Intermediate Anti-Crunch Workout
- Bent-Knee Hanging Leg Raise –3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Hanging leg raises are one of the most effective exercises for targeting the lower portion of the rectus abdominis. Set up for the movement by take a neutral (palms facing each other) or pronated (palms facing away from you) grip on the pull-up bar at or slightly wider than shoulder width. Most trainees’ grip fatigues before their abdominals so do not be afraid to use high quality straps like Versa Gripps to secure yourself.
After grabbing the pull-up bar depress and retract your shoulder blades; this will reinforce proper posture and strengthen your upper back. Bend your knees so that your thighs are in-line with your upper body and shins are parallel with the floor; you will maintain this knee angle throughout the entire movement. This is your starting position.
Take a deep breath, brace your abdominals and slowly bring your knees towards your navel. During this raise you should begin exhaling as hard as possible to engage the abdominal muscles. Once your knees reach navel level slowly lower them to the starting position.
Watch out for excessive lower body swinging and momentum as well as your shoulder drifting towards you ears. If you experience either then terminate the set, rest, and attempt another set.
- Mountain Climbers – 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps per leg
Mountain climbers strengthen and build both obliques and rectus abdominis. Set up for this exercise by either taking a traditional push-up position on the floor or on a flat bench. Your head and spine should be neutral, feet roughly hip-width apart, arms should be fully extended, and shoulders should be in-line with your hands. This is your starting position.
Initiate the movement by taking a deep breath, bracing your abdominals for impact and slowly bend and move your left leg towards your left shoulder. Focus on the left oblique pulling your knee towards your shoulder but be sure your spine remains neutral and torso does not rotate.
Exhale forcefully during this movement to fully engage the obliques. Your right leg should remain fully extended and in-contact with the ground. Slowly return your left leg to the starting position and repeat the movement with your right leg.
- Cable Pallof Press – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps per side
The cable Pallof press is an excellent anti-rotation and stabilization exercise that hits the obliques hard. Set up for the movement by approaching a cable tower, moving the pin to lower chest height, and attaching the single handle attachment. Selecting a starting weight for this exercise may take some experimentation. If you traditionally perform cable twists, then start with a 10 to 20% higher weight.
Stand to the side of the cable pulley and grasp the handle using both hands with a neutral grip. Take a few lateral steps away from the pulley and then take a shoulder width stance. Fully extend your arms so that the handle is in-line with your lower chest. This is the starting position.
At this point you should feel the cable trying to pull you to the side but you should resist this motion. The purpose of this exercise is to prevent rotation. Take a deep breath, brace your abdominals and slowly bend your arms so that the handle moves towards your chest. Continue resisting the pull of the weight, pause for one to three seconds, and then slowly extend your arms back to the starting position.
Repeat this movement for both sides of your body so that both the left and right obliques are trained.
- Kneeling Ab Vacuum – 3 sets of 12 to 15 breaths
Kneel so that your knees are fully bent, shins are in-contact with the ground or exercise mat, and torso is fully upright. If you are unable to kneel then stand with a hip width stance. Place both hands on your navel, ensure your shoulders are retracted and your chest is high.
While keeping your spine neural forcefully exhale, and try to pull your navel upwards and inwards towards your heart. Be sure not your curl your upper body while getting in to this position. Take regularly breaths while simultaneously focusing on pulling your navel upwards and inwards.
This variation is more challenging than the lying ab vacuum because you will not be able to form-check by pushing your lower back against the floor.
Advanced Anti-Crunch Workout
- Straight-Leg Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets performed to technical failure
Set up for this exercise using similar form described in bent-knee hanging leg. Take a neutral (palms facing each other) or pronated (palms facing away from you) grip on the pull-up bar at or slightly wider than shoulder width. Using lifting straps is encouraged to minimize set termination due to grip fatigue.
Grab the pull-up bar, depress and retract your shoulder blades. Instead of bending your knees you’re going to keep your legs fully extended. If your feet touch the ground, then either find a higher pull-up bar or move your legs slightly forward and upward so that they’re not touching the ground. This is your starting position.
Brace your abdominals, forcefully exhale and raise your legs until your feet are in-line with your navel. knees towards your navel. Hold at the top for one to three seconds before slowly lowering them back to the starting position.
Keep excessive lower body swinging to a minimum and ensure the shoulders stay packed at all times. Technical failure occurs when you are no longer able to perform repetitions with good form.
- Kneeling Ab Wheel Rollouts – 3 sets performed to technical failure
The ab wheel is an essential gym tool for building abdominal size, strength, and intraabdominal pressure. Set up for the exercise by kneeling on the ground or exercise mat and grasping the wheel with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip.
Fully extend your arms and position your tucked shoulders blades so that they are in-line with your hands. While keeping your knees and shins on the ground elevate your hips so that your spine is neutral and hips are in-line with your upper back. This is your starting position.
Take a deep breath and while keeping the arms straight push the ab wheel forward. Continue pushing until your shoulders slightly above or in-line with your hands and the ab wheel. Hold this bottom position for one to three seconds before using your abdominals to pull your upper body back to the starting position.
During this ascent you may continue holding your breath or forcefully exhale to maximize abdominal engagement. Throughout the movement ensure your spine stays neutral and arms remain straight but not hyperextended. Most trainees will reach technical failure after 5 to 15 reps. If you can perform more than 15 repetitions, then add weight to the upper back using a weight plate.
- Cable Push-Pull – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps per side
The cable push-pull is an underrated exercise for sculpting the obliques. Approach the two-sided cable tower, set both pulleys to shoulder height and attach the side handle attachments. Grab both handles with horizontal pronated grip (palms facing the floor) and stand in between both cable towers. Take a wider than shoulder width stance, turn the torso to the left, fully extend the left arm, and bend the right arm so that your hand is almost touching your chest. This is your starting position.
Initiate the movement by bending the extended left arm and pulling it towards you while simultaneous extending the right arm. Your torso should slightly twist and you should feel significant recruitment of the oblique muscles. Hold at the top position for one second before slowly returning the cables back to the starting position.
Repeat the same movement facing the other direction so that you target the oblique muscles on both sides of your body.
- Breathing Paused Back, Front, or Overhead Squats – 3 sets of 5 reps with 10 to 12 breaths
Paused squats are brutally effective for building confidence at the bottom position or sticking points of the squat. Holding the paused position requires focus, neuromuscular control, and significant amounts of intra-abdominal pressure. By adding a breathing element, you further increase the difficultly and engagement of the abdominal muscles.
First, decide whether you want to perform back, front, or overhead squats. Then select a working weight between 20% and 30% of your one repetition maximum (1RM). You won’t need to go heavy with these to spur some serious abdominal delayed onset muscle soreness. Perform your preferred squat style and while holding the paused position exhale forcefully.
You should maintain proper form as you exhale and terminate the set immediately if you feel dizzy or lightheaded. After full exhalation breath in fully so that your lungs and diaphragm expand as much as comfortably possible. Ensure the pace of your breathing remains constant throughout the set.
Comment below and share your experience with these anti-crunch workouts as well as any personal abdominal-building and strengthening tips and tricks.
Griffing, James, et al. “Transverse Abdominis.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.
Griffing, James, et al. “Obliques.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.