Want an Intense Ab Workout? 7 Exercises Kicked Up a Notch
Achieving a narrow waist and chiseled midsection is one of the most popular goals for those engaging in bodybuilding, general resistance training, and most other fitness activities. Strong abdominal muscles protect your vital organs, improve your posture, stabilize your torso, and decrease your likelihood of muscular strains and injuries.
When training the abdominals select exercises that engage the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques (internal and external heads). The rectus abdominis runs alongside the front of the torso and looks like a six-pack when a trainee has a sufficiently low body fat percentage. The transverse abdominis pulls the abdominal wall inward, increases intra-abdominal pressure when flexed, and supports organs in the abdominal region. 
Related: How to Get Six Pack Abs of Granite
Obliques protect the spine and contribute to the Adonis belt that runs down the sides of the torso towards the front of the pelvis. Many of you may train abdominals once, twice, or at most three times per week, using the same two or three exercises you’ve been using for months or even years. While consistency, proper form, and progression on a given abdominal exercise are key elements for increasing strength and inducing hypertrophy, the introduction of intensity-increasing variations are also important.
By presenting a novel stimulus to the abdominal muscles you can expedite neuromuscular strength increases, blast through plateaus, and increase muscle fiber recruitment. This article discusses a number of popular abdominal exercises and presents variations that increase intensity without significantly changing the movement pattern.
Making Your Ab Workouts and Exercises More Intense
Cable crunches, most commonly performed kneeling, are one of the most popular exercises to target the upper region of the rectus abdominis, commonly referred to as the upper abdominals. The typical set up for this exercise involves placing a towel, exercise pad, or yoga mat on the ground a few steps away from a cable tower, moving the pulley pin as high as possible, and attaching the double-knobbed rope handle.
The trainee then grasps the rope attachment with a neutral grip (palms facing each other), kneels down on to the pad, places the rope knobs in-line with the ears or neck, and then crunches the weight using the abdominal muscles. While this is a fine way to perform the movement many trainees are able to max out the cable tower weight after just a year or so of abdominal training.
To increase the intensity without jacking up the repetition requirement or weight extend the arms and move the rope attachment away from your body. You may have to kneel a few steps further away from the cable tower so that you can fully extend (but not hyperextend) your arms.
Keeping your wrists and elbows in-line with your shoulders, slowly crunch down as far as comfortably possible, focusing on squeezing the abdominal muscles. This variation is humbling and may require you to drop the working weight by up to 50% compared to traditional kneeling cable crunches.
Another popular exercise targeting the upper region of the rectus abdominis is the crunch performed on a decline bench. The decline crunch offers an increased range of motion (ROM) compared crunches perform on the flat ground.
Most trainees start by performing decline crunches with only their bodyweight, arms crossed in front of their chest, and on a relatively small decline. As they improve abdominal strength and muscular control they may increase intensity by slowing down the speed of the movement, increasing the angle of decline, or moving the arms so that they’re clasping behind the head. If you choose to clasp your hands behind your head during this movement then ensure that you’re pulling with your abdominals rather than your arms and elbows during the ascent.
One of the most common form mistakes involves straining the neck and moving the elbows forward to generate momentum and decrease the exercise’s ROM. For those choosing to increase intensity by holding a plate on the chest for added resistance, you have two additional options for increasing the intensity further.
Firstly, you can move the weight plate so that it is behind your head. This increases the torque of the movement because the weight is further away from the hinge point (your hips). Secondly you can set up for the decline crunch by grasping a weight plate, dumbbells, or barbell and fully extending the arms so that they are in-line with your shoulders.
As you perform the crunch focus on keeping the arms straight and in-line with your shoulders so that the weight is completely overhead at the top of the movement. These variations are tough so once again, start with a conservative working weight and increase it as you achieve your repetition goal.
Hanging Leg Raises
Hanging leg raises are one of the most effective exercises for stimulating the lower region of the rectus abdominis, also called the lower abdominals. While spot reduction is a myth, a strong and defined lower abdominal region significantly increases the appearance of a narrow waist. If you’re not already doing so you should be performing hanging leg raises using high quality straps like Versa Gripps.
While there is a time and place for going strap-free and training your grip, you should be performing as many quality repetitions as possible until your abdominals rather than your grip fails. The all variations of the hanging leg raise involve starting with fully extended knees and hips. The lowest load variation requires bending your knees at a 45 to 90-degree angle and drawing the knees in to your chest.
Increase the intensity by keeping the legs straight throughout the entire movement and raising your ankles until they are between hip and navel height. Maintaining straight legs and bringing the toes to the bar will increase the movement’s ROM and intensity. Those looking to add resistance can secure a dumbbell in between or wrap weights around the ankles.
Start off by performing this added-resistance movement using bent knees and then focus on progressing using straight legs. Perform all variations using slow and controlled form. If you find yourself swinging your legs and hips to complete the movement then terminate the set immediately, rest, and then perform another set using proper form.
The most effective ab workout you’ve never tried.
Decline Bench Leg Lifts
Performing leg lifts on the decline bench are a simple-setup movement used to target the lower region of the rectus abdominis. If you are new to this movement then you may set up by lying flat and face-up on a flat or slightly declined bench and grasping either side of the bench near the head or the decline bench footholds. You would then forcefully exhale, flex the abdominals, draw the bent knees towards the navel.
As exercise proficiency increases you may increase the decline of the bench. After the bench reaches the maximum decline perform the exercise using straight legs. Once that becomes too easy the you can place a dumbbell in between or wrap weights around the ankle and perform using bent knees and progress towards straight legs. If you’re a true masochist, then you can perform dragon flags.
Popularized by the martial arts expert and movie star Bruce Lee, the dragon flag requires you to keep your knees and hips extended throughout the entire movement. Your hips should remain in-line with your knees and ankles throughout the entire movement. At the top of the movement only your upper back should be resting on the bench. Dragon flags are tough – don’t be surprised if you can only perform negative/lower repetitions at first.
Ab Wheel Rollout
Even if you are a proponent of dumbbell and barbell exercises for building size and strength, the abdominal wheel is an exceptionally inexpensive, portable, and effective piece of equipment for building a rock-solid midsection. This anti-extension exercise requires serious stabilization and engagement of the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques. Set up for this movement by placing down and kneeling on a towel, exercise pad, or yoga mat.
Grasp the handles of the wheel with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip. Take your starting position by fully extending your arms, positioning your hands so they are in-line with your shoulders, and elevating your hips are in-line with your upper back and spine is neutral. Take a deep breath and slowly push the ab wheel forward, allowing your torso to descend towards the ground while keeping the arms straight.
Continue descending until your shoulders are slightly above or in-line with your hands and the ab wheel. Hold at the bottom for one to three seconds before breathing out and using the abdominals to pull the torso back to the start position. Ratchet up the intensity by asking a training partner to place a weight plate on your upper back, but be sure your spine stays neutral throughout the movement.
You can also significantly increase the intensity by performing the ab wheel rollout from a standing position, ensuring your legs remain straight and knees never touch the ground. You may also substitute a barbell for the ab wheel if your gym does not have that piece of equipment.
Planks are a nearly zero-setup movement you can perform just about anywhere to improve abdominal muscle control and increase intra-abdominal pressure. Unfortunately, many trainees allow their form to decline substantially in an effort to hold the plank position for target time period. While traditional planks are moderately effective at engaging the abdominals they are also downright boring. Anyone who enjoys holding that position for 3 to 5 minutes took one too many scoops of pre-workout.
The RKC plank is an excellent variation for increasing intensity and abdominal muscle stabilization. Take a similar position to the traditional plank except place your elbows slightly wider than your shoulders. Interlock the fingers of both hands and place your forearms firmly on the ground and. Take a shoulder width stance with your legs fully extended and toes on the floor.
Squeeze your glutes and tilt your pelvis forward. Your spine should be neutral and lower back should not be sagging. Flex the abdominals and focus on generating as much intra-abdominal tension and pressure as possible. You should find yourself only able to hold this position for 20 to 45 seconds before resting.
You can further increase the intensity of traditional and RKC planks by asking a spotter to place a weight plate on your upper or mid back. When adding resistance keep your spine and lower back neutral otherwise the likelihood of injury dramatically increases.
The Pallof press is an underrated and extremely effective anti-rotation exercise targeting the oblique muscles. During this movement you should focus on squeezing the abdominals as hard as possible, slowly extending the arms, and resisting the torso’s desire to twist. The lightest load variation of the Pallof press involves wrapping an exercise band around a sturdy vertical pole.
The band should be parallel to the ground and in-line with the lower chest throughout the entire movement. You can initially increase the intensity of the movement by using the same band and taking more lateral steps away from the vertical pole to increase the band tension. Once that becomes too easy you can select a thicker exercise band with more initial tension.
Once you can proficiently perform the Pallof press with the most difficult you can use a cable tower and the single handle attachment. This variation allows for the heaviest loads and provides a numeric weight value that you can use to track progression. Throughout all variations of the movement it is critical to engage the abdominals and ensure the movement is both slow and controlled.
Comment below and share your experience with these intensity-increasing exercise variations as well as any personal abdominal-building and strengthening tips and tricks.
Griffing, James, et al. “Transverse Abdominis.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.