Ok, stop what you're doing.
Enough with the leg raises already. I know you're on your fourth set of 50 crunches, but I'm not impressed and your midsection isn't getting any more powerful.
Are you ready to have strong, thick, functional abs? Then it's time to change your line of thought when it comes to abdominal training. Test yourself with my Top 10 Hardest Core Exercises.
1. Weighted Plank
I consider the plank to be the single most effective core exercise. Despite its basic nature and somewhat beginner level reputation, it's a position that most lifters do incorrectly. The most important thing to remember about a plank position is to keep your abs flexed and do not allow your hips to sag. If your abdominals relax and hips lower, you are putting your lower back at risk.
If you can hold a basic plank for close to 2 minutes, it's time to upgrade to a weighted plank. Start with 1 set with a 45lb plate with a goal of 20 seconds. Once you can hold it for 30 seconds, move up to 2 plates for 20 seconds. Do only 1 set of weighted planks per day. My all-time record is 7 plates (315lbs) for a 10 second hold.
- Beginner: 1 Plate
- Advanced: 2+ Plates
2. Ring Layout
The ring layout is one of my favorite movements because not only do you work every area of your core - from the abdominals to your serratus to your spinal erectors - but you also get a great upper body pump by taxing the lats, delts, and triceps.
Start standing with the rings at waist height and your elbows locked. Keeping your abs flexed, slowly extend the rings out in front of you. Pull the rings back and flex your abs hard at the same time. Shoot for 2 sets of 10 reps. Once you are able to complete 20 unbroken reps, do the movement with your feet elevated so you are starting in a push up position. The goal on the advanced version is 2 x 5.
- Beginner: Standing
- Advanced: Feet elevated, body parallel to the floor
3. Barbell Rollout
Similar to an Ab Wheel, or the ring layouts described above, doing barbell rollouts properly uses your abs, lower back, serratus, and even your lats and triceps. If you are able to do 25+ reps with good form then it's time to test the waters with the standing version.
Like the majority of extreme core movements, the most crucial thing is keeping your abs flexed and hips tilted forward. Most people fail at the bottom of the rep because their abs can't stay contracted and they strain their lower back. Start with 5 x 5 for 25 total reps, work up to 25 unbroken reps.
- Beginner: From knees
- Advanced: Standing
4. Walk Outs
Start in a push up position and walk your hands out as far as possible. The goal is to keep your back flat and touch your nose to the ground before walking back up. Goal is 1 set of 10 reps.
- Beginner: From knees
- Advanced: Standing (push up position)
5. Barbell Sit Up
Lie flat on a bench with your feet on the bench as well. Grab a barbell with a close grip and rest it on your chest. Explosively sit up as you press the bar up and over head. The bar should travel in a straight line towards the ceiling, not out in front of you. Slowly lower to the starting position. Do 1 set of 5 - 10 reps, depending on the weight used.
- Beginner: 10 reps with an empty bar
- Advanced: 5 reps with a loaded barbell
6. Plate Layout
Place a 5 or 10lb plate on a concrete floor or another surface that will allow it to slide. Get in a push up position with your feet on the plate. Keeping your body stiff and parallel to the floor, drift back and let your arms extend out in front of you. Pull yourself back up to the starting position. Even one perfect rep is a challenge, a good goal to work for is 3 sets of 5 layouts.
- Beginner: Lie back into a plank (but no further), then pop back up
- Advanced: Try not to let your elbows touch the ground
7. Barbell Climb
Place an empty barbell in a corner or on a non-slip surface. Stand back a few feet with your feet spread apart and the bar slanted towards you at a slight angle. Climb down the bar hand over hand as low as possible or until the bar is straight up and down. Keep your abs tight and don't let your hips sag as you climb back up. It's a good idea to use a spotter on this movement to watch the bar and make sure it doesn't kick out. The goal on this killer is 3 sets of 3.
- Beginner: Climb down halfway or until your body is at a 45-degree angle
- Advanced: Use a PVC pipe or dowel rod and climb until one first is on the ground
8. 90 Degree Toes to Bar
This is a great variation of the common "toes to bar" leg raise, albeit a much harder one. Start by raising your toes to the bar then slowly lower your legs to 90 degrees and parallel to the floor (L-Sit position). Keep your hips locked and curl them up, raising your feet back towards your hands. Once you can no longer stop your legs at 90 degrees, the set is over. Work up to 2 sets of 5 slow and controlled reps.
- Beginner: Knees bent instead of straight
- Advanced: Legs straight
9. L-Sit Pull Up
Start in an L-Sit position with your legs extended straight and parallel to the floor. Keep them locked in place as perform pull ups of any grip. A good goal to work towards is 3 sets of 10 perfectly strict reps.
- Beginner: Legs bent at the knees
- Advanced: Legs straight
10. Medicine Ball Wheelbarrow
While most of these core movements are purely strength based, the Med Ball Wheelbarrow also requires a healthy dose of balance and coordination. Start with your feet on a medicine ball or swiss ball and your hands on the ground in a push up position. Slowly walk forward and use your feet to walk the ball along with you. Do 1 set for max distance.
- Beginner: As described above
- Advanced: Also place your hands on separate medicine balls. Good luck!
Well there you have it, 10 of my toughest core exercises. Keep in mind, these are true power/strength movements so it's not advisable to do them every day or to perform them if your abs are already sore. I typically pick 2 or 3 of them to do at the end of a workout, and then take a day off from training core before I attack it again.
If you have mastered the advanced versions of each one, congratulations! But don't spend too long patting yourself on the back…stay tuned to Muscle & Strength for some new crazy core challenges coming soon!