Training the Abs Without Ab Exercises

February 04, 2013

It has gotten very popular to recommend squats and deadlifts as "abdominal" strengthening exercises, but like a lot of ideas that are appealing and sound good, this approach is not quite correct although this is mostly dependent on what type of ab training you are after.

In general, I'm not inclined to recommend heavier, bilateral back squats or deadlifts as "abdominal" exercises.  The distinction is critical.  The traditional versions of these exercises don’t develop abdominal strength so much as display it.  Or, if you use a heavy enough weight beyond what the abs are prepared for, they display a lack of it – and doing so would typically put one at risk.  The same appealing but faulty logic is used to make people think they jump higher from doing box jumps…box jumps demonstrate how high you are already capable of jumping, they don’t magically make you able to jump higher from putting a box in front of you.

If you are seeking abdominal strength to support your back and to be able to move, live, work, and play without hurting yourself, then you may be able to use strength training exercises (as described below, not above) to strengthen the abs.  However, if you are after that ripped look for the abs, you need to do targeted abdominal training and eat a very clean diet – period.  To get that look, the muscles have to be targeted and well-developed so they stick out a bit.  And without removing the layers of body fat beneath the skin that cover up muscle definition, the lean look will be elusive.  For more details on how to do this, try the workouts, exercises, and nutrition recommendations in my top-selling fitness book, Abs Revealed.  Check out Abs Revealed on iTunes for the iPhone app.

To use non-abdominal exercises to develop strength (and stability) in the abs for general fitness and “everyday” strength, then you need to use asymmetrical loading.  Some examples…

  1. “Suitcase” Deadlift – standing holding the middle of a barbell (hold it like a dumbbell) on one side of your body. Perform a deadlift as you traditionally would while holding the weight level.  Bend forward at the hips and then the knees while keeping the back straight – not vertical, but straight.
  2. Rainbow Squat – hold the sides of a dumbbell, medicine ball, or horn of an upside-down kettlebell with both hands.  Start with the weight overhead. As you squat down move the weight to the right, lowering it as far as is comfortable just outside your right leg.  Stand back up and return the weight overhead and repeat to the left side.
  3. Single Arm Dumbbell Row from Lunge Stance – stand holding one dumbbell with the opposite foot forward and lean over the front foot so that very little weight is on the back foot.  Keep the torso in the same alignment as if you were doing the row on a bench while performing a dumbbell row.  Keeping your body up with your own muscles will make the abs (and the glute of the front leg) work very hard.
  4. Single Arm DB Press on Stability Ball – lay down supine on a stability ball with the neck and shoulders supported on the ball, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor.  Hold a dumbbell in one hand and perform a single are DB chest press moving the arm in the same technique with a two-arm press. 

Wrap Up

If you want to get something you need to go after it, not avoid it.  For decades we did too much ab training in the hopes of changing the look of our mid-sections.  The correction for doing too much of something is not to do too little of it.  But if you’re just after general strength and not ripped abs, you can do strength training in certain ways to achieve that goal and may not need much targeted abdominal training.


Jonathan Ross — fitness expert for Discovery Fit & Health and creator of Aion Fitness — was voted Exercise TV's "Top Trainer" and named in Men's Journal magazine's list of Top 100 Trainers in America. His personal experiences with obesity — "800 pounds of parents" — directly inspired his fitness career. His ability to bring fitness to those who need it the most has made him a two-time Personal Trainer of the Year Award-Winner (ACE and IDEA). His book, Abs Revealed, is filled with cutting-edge exercises in a modern, intelligent approach to abdominal training. His leadership and fresh perspectives on fitness earn him praise as a frequent go-to source of credible fitness information.

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