Ironclad Ab Training – A Complete Workout Program

A Core Training Plan

Build your abs so they’ll show even if your body fat percentage creeps up. Bonus: These exercises will nail your core to boost athleticism.


When it comes to abs, diet goes a long way. But if you want visible abs that stay visible even at a higher body fat percentage, you need to build stronger, more muscular abdominals.

The Biggest Ab Training Mistake

Some lifters don’t train their abs like other muscle groups, then wonder why they don’t see results. You don’t need 1,000 crunches per day, just like you don’t need 1,000 curls per day. And like any other muscle, you can’t just throw in a random exercise at the end of a workout and hope to get results.

What you need is ironclad ab training that hits the three core components of muscular hypertrophy:

  • High Tension
  • Metabolic Stress
  • Muscular Damage

Here are five exercises that get the job done:

Exercise 1 – Hollow Body Hold

A popular gymnastics move, this is an effective exercise for improving core strength and stability. It scorches the muscles of the abdomen and helps to support the spine, increasing strength and flexibility while training lower back anti-extension. In addition to demolishing your abs, holds work the glutes, hamstrings, and hips, helping to improve overall muscular coordination. Hollow body holds look simple, but they’re one hell of a challenge.

The exercise’s ability to train all these different muscles and functions makes it a great addition to your ab training.

How to Do It

  1. Lie flat on your back with your arms extended above your head and your legs straight.
  2. Lift your arms, legs, and head 6-12 inches off the ground, keeping your shoulder blades and lower back pressed into the floor.
  3. Hold this position for 3 sets of 30 seconds while maintaining the hollow shape of your body.
  4. Lower your arms, legs, and head back down to the starting position and repeat.

Note: Engage your core and keep your body in a tight, hollow position throughout. Avoid arching your lower back or allowing your legs or arms to touch the ground. The longer you hold the hollow body position, the more advanced the exercise becomes.

  • To increase difficulty, lower down until just your shoulder blades touch the ground and then come back up.
  • To reduce the difficulty, bring your arms back down towards your sides or bring your knees back towards your torso.

Exercise 2 – Toes to Bar (Controlled Eccentric)

Toes to bar raises are a next-level challenge. While often performed rapidly in CrossFit competitions, it’s more effective as an ab exercise to go slow and under control, increasing the time under tension and overall tension.

This exercise trains your entire rectus abdominis through a full range of motion. It particularly targets the notoriously difficult-to-hit “lower abs” with a hard contraction. Plus, it’ll increase core strength, improve shoulder stability and range of motion, and improve grip strength. Good for posture, too.

How to Do It

  1. Grab a pull-up bar with a double-overhand grip, squeezing the bar as tightly as possible and keeping the elbows slightly bent.
  2. Keep your shoulder blades retracted as if you’re tucking them into your back pocket and holding them there.
  3. From this position, flex your quads and bring your legs up past 90 degrees, allowing your hips to roll up, forming an “L” shape with your body.
  4. Pause at the top range of motion and lower under control.

Note: Don’t swing or lose eccentric control on the way down. Keeping your upper body stationary and stable is what helps activate your abs. If you’re allowing your body to swing or moving too quickly through the exercise, you’re losing the tension that makes this such an effective movement.

Regression: Hanging Leg Raise

If these are too difficult, regress the exercise by doing standard hanging leg raises.

How to Do It

  1. Keep your legs slightly bent.
  2. Instead of bringing your toes all the way up to the bar, pause briefly when your lower legs are parallel to the floor.
  3. Lower back down under control.

If you’re struggling with toes to bar, program 20 hanging leg raises as part of a daily warm-up. Add 5 raises per week. After 6 weeks, your grip strength, shoulder mobility, and abs will be exponentially stronger.

The Anti-Movements

As the functional folks never tire of preaching, one goal of core training is to prevent unnecessary movement through your spine. Your core must provide a stable base to transfer force between the upper and lower body. Preventing unwanted movement is crucial, as is the ability to rotate and generate force when needed.

Your core must provide a stable base to transfer force. To do that, you need anti-movements.

Exercise 3 – Kneeling Ab Wheel Rollout (Anti-Extension)

This exercise builds core strength but also smokes your lats and upper back. It’s also great for shoulder stability. Any ab wheel will do, like this one (on Amazon).

How to Do It

  1. Slowly roll the ab wheel out in front of you as far as possible while keeping your core engaged throughout the motion.
  2. Keep your back flat and shoulders pulled back, pause at the furthest point of the movement (your nose shouldn’t smash the floor), then roll back to the starting position.

Note: Only bring the wheel back until it’s underneath your shoulders while keeping your core engaged. If you shift your weight back on your heels, you’ll lose tension and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.

Progression: Standing Ab Wheel Rollout

Too easy? Progress by starting the movement from a standing position:

  1. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping your back straight, bend forward at the waist while pushing the wheel away from you until your arms are fully extended in front.
  3. Keep your core engaged and pause at the extended position for a second before rolling back to the start.

Exercise 4 – Suitcase Carry (Anti-Lateral Flexion)

Suitcase carries are a brutally effective anti-lateral flexion exercise that smashes your obliques and deep stabilizers, like your quadratus lumborum.

One benefit to training your obliques with the anti-movements? You train them isometrically instead of with high-volume flexion and rotation training. This builds strong, defined obliques without building a blocky waist.

Think of this as a one-armed farmer’s walk. The form cues are the exact same, but with suitcase carries you have the added focus of not letting the offset weight create lateral flexion of the abdominals.

How to Do It

  1. Focus on engaging the obliques opposite the weight and maintaining a neutral spine.
  2. Stand tall with your chest up and shoulders square.
  3. Take slow and controlled steps, focusing on walking heel to toe.

Progression: Suitcase Deadlift

Suitcase deadlifts are not only a great exercise for training anti-lateral flexion, they’ll also train the hamstrings, glutes, lats, and upper back. Depending on your grip strength, mobility, and stability, you can use a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. In the video, I’m using a dumbbell, but a barbell with bumper plates is usually superior due to the height of the bar.

How to Do It

  1. Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place the implement on one side of your body.
  2. Brace your core and bend down to grab the weight with one hand. Maintain a neutral spine throughout.
  3. Drive through your feet and stand up straight, squeezing your glutes at the top of the motion. Keep your core tight and avoid swaying or rotating as you lift.
  4. Lower under control, pause briefly, and repeat. Then switch sides.

Exercise 5 – Dragon Flag (Anti-Rotation)

The dragon flag will set your abs on fire like Dragon’s Landing in the season finale of The Game of Thrones. Luckily, the pain isn’t for naught. Dragon flags build your abs, obliques, and lower back. They’ll improve your posture, balance, and stability. They also strengthen the core muscles that help support your spine and protect it from injury.

The downside? Dragon flags are very advanced. You’ll need to train them like a compound lift, using low reps and plenty of rest.

How to Do It

  1. Get into the proper position by locking your arms in a fixed overhead position. Lay on a slightly declined bench or on the floor with something stable to hold behind your head.
  2. Contract your torso and drive your legs up as if you’re doing a reverse crunch, but keep your body stiff and legs straight.
  3. Using the strength of your core, raise your hips off the ground and press your lower body up while keeping your legs straight.
  4. Lower your body until it’s hovering just over the bench and repeat.

How to Program These Exercises

Remember, this program emphasizes your core, which means most of the exercises are going to be targeting the abs.

Split your workouts into upper and lower-body sessions. Do 3-4 big compound movements each day.

Upper-Body Days: End your workout with the three anti-movements. Start with rollouts, then dragon flags, for 3 sets of 6-10 each. (If you can’t get 6 reps yet, just do more sets of fewer reps, like 5 sets of 3.) Finish with suitcase carries for 3 sets of 30 seconds per side or do suitcase deadlifts for 3 sets of 6 reps each side. The goal to train these exercises heavier than normal ab work, hence the 10 reps or less.

Lower-Body Days: End your session with hollow body holds (3 sets of 30 seconds) and toes to bars or hanging leg raises. Since these are bodyweight movements, train them in the higher rep range if you can: 4 sets of 10-15 reps each.

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