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When you think of compound moves, you typically think of multi-joint movements that target the larger muscle groups in the body, like squats, lunges, bench press or pulldowns. Abs, on the other hand, often get treated like smaller muscle groups with isolation and isometric exercises. Yet the abs — and more generally the core — contribute significantly to your overall strength, posture and fitness.
Which begs the question: Why aren’t you using more compound moves for abs?
If you’ve ever wandered near a CrossFit box or caught highlights from the Games, you know the ladies who forge this level of elite fitness defy the physical norm in one very unique way: Almost all of them have abs. That’s because CrossFit is built on a foundation of heavy, high-volume, compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time, including the abs. As discussed in 7 Moves for Fab Abs, some of the best compound moves for abs are total-body exercises that force you to stabilize your body as you move to lift weight. If there’s a secret formula to building abs, it’s combining compound movement for abs with weight.
Cassie Smith, USA Weightlifting coach and Level 2 CrossFit instructor, agrees.
“For me, a really good core-strength developer would be squats, particularly front squats if you do them right,” Smith says.
As the holder of the American record for the snatch in the 35 to 40 age group, 64-kilogram class, Smith knows how to move a lot of weight really fast, but she warns against using overcomplicated compound moves for abs.
“I wouldn’t suggest moves like a clean-and-jerk,” she says. “But I do think any type of squat is going to engage your core really well and make it really strong as opposed to just doing crunches with no weight.”
Smith explains that ab development doesn’t have to be relegated to the ground. Some of the best compound moves for abs take place in the air, hanging from a bar.
“Pull-ups are a great ab developer,” Smith says. Some of the progressive exercises used to develop a pull-up are hanging variations of several killer ab moves, such as hollow-body holds and leg lifts.
If you want to incorporate more compound moves for abs into your training routine, here’s a quick workout you can try next time you hit the gym:
1. Front Squat
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a barbell across the front of your chest. Keep your arms parallel to the floor with your elbows pointed straight in front of you to create a shelf for the bar. Keeping your back straight and your abs engaged, bend at the hips and knees to lower into a squat. Pause briefly at the bottom, then exhale as you push through your heels to straighten your legs to come up. Use enough weight to reach failure after 10 to 12 reps.
Why it works: Holding weight in the front of your body rather than on your back forces your abs and core to work harder to maintain your form as you move. The barbell version of the front squat is particularly beneficial because you can load the bar with a lot more weight.
2. Overhead Squat
With your feet shoulder-width apart, press a barbell overhead, moving your head forward slightly so the weight is directly over your body. Keeping your back straight, your abs tight and your chest up, bend at the knees and hips as you lower into a squat. Keep your elbows straight and your traps and shoulders active throughout the movement. Pause at the bottom, then exhale as you push through your heels and straighten your legs to come up. Use enough weight to reach failure with 10 to 12 reps, and make sure you have a way to drop or re-rack the bar if you get stuck.
Why it works: Holding the weight overhead creates a tremendous stabilization challenge for your abs, as well as for your shoulders and back. As a staple of the Lean Muscle Training Program, this is one squat variation every strength builder should master.
3. Hanging Knee Tuck
Hang from a bar. Pull your abs toward your spine as you lift your knees up toward your chin. You can even tilt your body back slightly as you round your back and tuck your knees toward your chin. Lower your legs back down with control. Repeat for as many repetitions as you can.
Why it works: In this supped-up version of a reverse crunch, there’s no ground to push against. This forces your abs to do all the work. If your grip tires before your abs do, you also can do this move on a set of parallel bars or use ab-sling straps.
Hang from a bar. Keep your knees straight as you engage your abs and lift your legs up, guiding your toes toward the bar. You may have to tilt your upper body back as your hips come up. Pause and then lower your legs back down with control, keeping your abs engaged throughout the movement. Repeat for as many reps as you can.
Why it works: This underrated compound ab movement uses almost every muscle in your arms, back and core to bend your body into a V and lift nearly half your weight overhead. It’s a great core builder and a fun way to strengthen your arms and back for pull-ups.
5. Floor Wiper
Lie on the ground holding a loaded barbell over your chest with your arms straight (or arms out at your sides for a less intense variation, shown above). Engage your quads to keep your knees straight as you engage your abs and lift your legs off the floor. Sweep your legs toward one side and touch the plate with your toes. Extend your legs back to center in front of you without letting your feet touch the ground, then sweep them up to the other side to touch the opposite plate. Continue alternating for eight to 12 reps on each side for 16 to 24 total reps.
Why it works: This oldie but goodie exercise targets the muscles in the lower abs and obliques by lifting and rotating the legs while the upper abs work to stabilize the rest of the body and hold the barbell up.
You can perform these five exercises for three to four sets each or perform them back-to-back as a circuit. For more ab-training exercise you can do from home, check out The Ultimate Bodyweight Ab Workout.