Key Points

  • Ab exercises should work on activation and spinal flexion
  • A strong and warm core is your best defense against back injuries
  • Ab specific workouts could be the biggest waste of time known to man

When it comes to doing ab exercises people usually fall into one of two categories:

Doing specific ab workouts with 97 different versions of sit ups, or 

Not doing any ab exercises at all because they do heavy squats and deadlifts.

Neither one of these is going to move you closer to having those John Basedow six pack abs.

On the other side, they might move you closer to a date with your couch though due to a back injury.

Take it from a guy that knows, nothing stops your gym progress like a back injury that could have easily been prevented by smart ab training.

In this article I’m going to show you how to 1) attack your core to get those six pack abs, and 2) work your abs smart 3) Bulletproof your back to avoid needless injuries.

The Big Three of Ab Exercises

How many times have you heard of people throwing their backs out doing something simple? 

It’s always playing with their kids, picking up a book off the floor, or in my case lifting the toilet seat for my morning pee. It’s never anything cool like a 800lb squat or throwing a bear.

Your core’s two main jobs are to stabilize your spine, and to transfer force between your upper and lower body.  Everything from squats and deadlifts to picking up your kid to going full-on alpha male by bringing in all the groceries in one shot.  

Doing just the run of the mill crunches and sit ups aren’t working your abs to protect you from these daily death defying tasks, they are just reinforcing muscles that are already working. 

Let’s say for argument’s sake that you sit behind a desk 8-10 hours a day.  Sitting hunched over with your abs contracted. Then you hit the gym for some deadlifts and your body position more resembles my dog dropping heat than a guy that is going to walk out of there crushing a new PR.

So your abs are warm from being contracted all day, but your lower back, glutes and obliques are colder than a witch’s titty.

Like warming up your car on a cold day, your core needs to be warmed up, we’ll call this activation from here on out, to lift optimally and injury free.

When it comes to your core, there are two categories of ab exercise you need to perform.

  1. Activation 
  2. Spinal Flexion

Activation ab exercises strengthen and activate your core when it’s flexed (arched back, bending sideways) or to prevent excess rotation. 

Moving forward we’ll call these anti extension, anti lateral flexion and anti rotation aka the big three of ab exercises.

Lotta anti’s right there.  And it makes sense.  You want your core to resist all those excess movements to protect your spine and to transfer force up and down your body.  When you have a lot of excess movement due to a weak core you sacrifice strength, stability, and safety.

With these activation exercises, bodyweight is more than enough.  The idea is to activate the muscle, not kill it so there’s no need to bro out here.  Sometimes light weights or bands are needed but nothing crazy.

The second category is flexion.  This is what 99% of people are familiar with.  Anything that flexes your spine is going to engage those ab muscles and help you build that six pack.

With the flexion exercises you can stick to bodyweight or add weight if you don’t feel like doing 300 crunches to feel something.

Do You Need Specific Ab Workouts?

So knowing you need to hit activation and spinal flexion ab exercises, does that mean you need to do ab specific workouts?


I honestly can’t think of a bigger waste of your time outside of trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

All you need to do is 1-3 ab exercises to activate your core in your warm up depending what you are doing that day and 1-2 exercises per week that work on flexing your spine.

If you’re busy this is going to be your best course of action.

Let’s talk warmup first.

What you do in your warmup is going to relate to what you plan on working for the day.

Upper Body Focus

Anti Rotation

Anti Extension

Lower Body Focus

Anti Extension

Anti Lateral Flexion

To see the reason behind these exercises all you have to do is think about what could possibly go wrong.

Let’s take your upper body day when you focus on Overhead presses.  The first thing that comes to my mind is over arching your back trying to push the weight up.

Anti extension exercise activates your core to help prevent the need to fold yourself in half backwards to get the weight up.

Same goes for lower days with squats or deadlifts.  You want to keep a neutral spine throughout the movement so anti-extensions will keep you upright rather than hunched over like a bridge troll. 

Ab Exercises At Home

This is your basic layer of ab exercises.  These can be done at home or in a gym with just your bodyweight.

Perform these until form is perfect THEN add complexity with making the exercise unstable or adding weight.  If you can’t do these for 12-15 reps with pristine form or hold a plank for a full minute without your hips sagging DO NOT add weight.

Anti Extension


Anti Lateral Flexion

Side Plank

Anti Rotation

Bird Dog

Spinal Flexion


Intermediate Ab Exercises At Home 

Once you get a little stronger it’s time to add a little instability or weight.  These are still just bodyweight so again, home or gym but it’s the next level up.

Anti Extension

Long Lever Plank

Anti Lateral Flexion

Elevated Side Plank

Anti Rotation

Plank Bird Dog

Spinal Flexion

Lying Leg Lifts

Ab Exercises With Weights

Now we are getting a little more advanced and adding some weights.  The instability and added load really engage your core.

Anti Extension

Weighted Bodysaw

Anti Lateral Flexion

Single Arm Farmers Carry

Anti Rotation

Anti Rotation Landmine

Spinal Flexion

Weighted Situps

Ab Exercises With Dumbbells

Along the same lines as the free weights section just with dumbbells.

Anti Extension

Weighted Deadbugs

Anti Lateral Flexion

Suitcase Deadlift

Anti Rotation

Renegade Row

Spinal Flexion

Weighted Leg Raises

Ab Exercises Machines

These are good to add when you top out with free weights.  Doing weighted crunches balancing 2 45’s seems like an unsafe idea to me.  If that case, I’d opt for a cable crunch.

Anti Extension

Ab Wheels

Anti Lateral Flexion

Cable Overhead Pallof Press

Anti Rotation

Cable Pallof Press

Spinal Flexion

Cable Crunches

Ab Exercises With Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are helpful when machines aren’t available or if you want to switch it up.

Anti Extension

Banded Deadbugs

Anti Lateral Flexion

Resistance Band Suitcase Deadlift

Anti Rotation

Banded Pallof Press

Spinal Flexion

Kneeling banded Crunches

Sample Ab Workout

Here’s an example of what a workout would look like if you added activation and spinal flexion into your workout.

Lower Body Day 

Long Lever Plank 3×15 sec (Anti extension)

Glute Raise 3x 15-20 

Side Plank 3×15 sec (Anti Lateral Flexion)

^^ This warms up your core and glutes to help you perform your best safely on the exercises below.

Deadlift 3×6-8

Split Squat 3×8-10

Staggered Stance Hip Thrusts 3×10-12

Sissy Squats 3×12-15

Hanging Leg Lifts 3×10-12 (Spinal Flexion)

^^ This is to chisel out those abs for your six pack.