Why an “Ab Routine” Isn’t Necessary (and What I Do Instead)

One of the first things people do when they start working out is focus on their abs—crunches, sit-ups, leg lifts, bicycles, and the like. I mean, who doesn’t want a six-pack? Entire fitness schools have sprung up around the idea of targeting your abs with direct work. Take Pilates. In its purest iterations, it’s considered a “total body” philosophy, but the way most classes seem to go you end up spending all your time doing a bunch of complicated crunches and other targeted ab work (and grimacing every time you cough for the next week).

Let me make a radical proposal here. All this ab work isn’t necessary.

Don’t get me wrong. The “abs” are extremely important. Not only do they round out the physique and look great, but abdominal strength also provides stability, supports good posture, and improves movement. Strong abdominals allow and enhance the full expression of a person’s athleticism. Running, jumping, lifting, throwing (balls, spears, or punches), and basically any movement all require—and are improved by—strong abs (i.e. a strong “core”).

When you think about training the abs, consider what the abdominals’ purpose is: to provide a stable foundation for the rest of your body as it moves. They can move, but it’s not their primary function. As such, the way most people train abs is completely superfluous and ignores that essential function—maintaining stability and resisting movement. When you think about it that way, crunches and sit-ups don’t make a whole lot of sense.

What Kinds of Ab Work Make Sense?

  • Deadlifts make sense because your hips are designed to hinge to allow you to pick up objects.
  • Squats make sense because your knees are meant to flex and extend under load.
  • Pull-ups make sense because your lats and biceps are designed to pull your body’s weight upward.

But crunches? Abs are best at holding steady and supporting all the other tissues and limbs as they move through space. Using your abs to move heavy weight a few inches is just weird. It “works,” but is it ideal? No.

If you insist on direct ab work, focus on movements where the abs don’t actually move all that much.

  • Instead of crunches (abs moving), do bicycle crunches (abs stationary, legs moving).
  • Instead of sit-ups (abs moving), do hanging leg raises (abs stationary, legs moving).

In both cases, you’ll be blasting the hell out of your abdominals, but you won’t be flexing and extending your spine.

Okay, with all that out of the way…

What Do I Do For Ab Work?

I don’t do much direct ab work. You won’t find me doing crunches or bicycles. Instead, I’m using my abs all the time.

  • When I’m doing pushups, I’m tightening my abs. A strong, stable, cohesive abdominal complex makes my pushups better and stronger. Do a pushup without tight abs, and your hips will dip toward the ground. You’ll be sloppy and weak.
  • When I’m doing deadlifts, I’m tightening my abs. My abs are resisting the pull of the heavy bar. They’re preventing my spine from rounding and hurting itself.
  • When I’m doing pull-ups, I’m using my abs to maintain a cohesive frame. Try it. Instead of kicking your legs or flopping them around to propel yourself upward, keep them straight and tight. Tighten your abs. Think of your entire body, from top to bottom, as a single piece. Pull that piece up past the bar. Feeling it in the core, are you?
  • When I’m standup paddling, I’m using my obliques, my “outer abs.” They support the paddling motion. They’re my base of support. Go paddle for an hour as a beginner, then see how your sides feel the next day.
  • When I’m doing band pull-aparts (a great shoulder pre/rehab movement, by the way), I’m tightening my abs.

Heck, when I’m driving my car or carrying my groceries or walking the dogs, I’m tightening my abs.

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. The abs figure prominently.

There’s probably one exercise I do specifically for my abs, and that’s the plank. But again, the planks work the abs by resisting movement, by keeping your body straight and solid against the pull of gravity. They aren’t moving.

I made a short video on how I work my abdominals without a specific abs routine. Take a look.

Finally, the single most important thing you can do for your abs in terms of looks, of course, is to become a better fat-burner. Hidden underneath even the most sedentary, flabby exterior is a rippling six pack. Simply possessing basic human anatomy means you have visible abdominals somewhere under there. Get lean enough and you’ll see them.

Thanks for stopping in today. Questions, thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

TAGS:  mobility

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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35 thoughts on “Why an “Ab Routine” Isn’t Necessary (and What I Do Instead)”

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  1. We’re the same age but I don’t have your abs Mark so you’re doing something right for sure! There’s an old saying “abs are made in the kitchen”. I stopped doing hanging leg raises, it puts pressure on my lower spine (tailbone). I used to train with a guy who owned a gym and had a degree in Kinesiology; he would not allow his clients to do hanging leg raises. I think planks are the best standalone ab exercise.

    1. Haven’t we concluded that he uses testosterone? That would explain the figure that doesn’t seem possible for even healthy men his age.

      1. I’m on T also (as almost every anti-aging focused person eventually will be) and I haven’t noticed any miraculous slimming affect, but I wasn’t that low in T or out of shape to begin with. If anything, some men (over-aromatizers) may get a degree of bloating. That said, many report a wide array of benefits that include fat loss (partly as a result of increased exercise capacity) but those are usually people who were really low to start with.

        Also saying that one factor alone explains Mark’s physique is clearly wrong (and disrespectful) since he had the physique before the T, and no one is reporting big physical improvements from T without a lot of work put in as well.

      2. Well I’m sure the T helps but there’s no better way to reveal abs than a low carb and low fat diet. You can’t sustain both low carb and low fat for too long so once you get your abs, go back to low carb but don’t put sticks of butter in your coffee. Also, standing ab wheel rollouts are a good exercise to do on alternate days as go leg raises.

  2. I agree that using Abs to stabilize and micro-adjust in gross movements such as Squats and DL’s, but there is certainly room for a crunch and its variations: ball, reverse, side, etc. just as there is room for L. Back work and rotation to maintain a resilient and pliable spinal column.
    I disagree with Bicycles and H. leg Raises as they are primarily hip flexor exercises, (even if post pelvic tilt is maintained), and overtraining can lead to excess lumbar lordosis, which is quite contrary to a stable and strong trunk column.

    1. Totally agree with you on all points you’ve just made especially re bicycles and HLRs. They are strong hip flexion exercises with the posts attached to the lumbar spine. Can seriously aggravate low back pain. Am a PT

  3. Awesome article Mark! Thank you for the continuelly great and relative articles.

  4. Thank you for this post. You have it exactly correct! And those are great abs exercises, but as you say, you are using your abs with all these other exercises and activities. As rehab for back pain, I always have to get a client to hold the pelvis still while moving the hips. Not always an easy thing.


  5. Couldn’t agree more, Mark. I do zero ab-specific work. My absolute favorite full-body exercise (including abs) is the TRX push-up followed immediately by a pike. Four sets of 8-10 reps and my entire body is begging for mercy. By following the Primal diet and lifestyle, I still have a six-pack at age 54 (and zero back problems).

    1. I have a difficult time doing planks and pikes, etc. when doing TRX because my lower back starts complaining. Any advice?

      1. I’d leave it to the expert (Mark) to weigh in with definitive advice because I’ve never really had back pain.

      2. Hi Shelia,

        I have been teaching TRX for over 10 years and most of the time when people feel low back during planks it is often the inability to engage your glutes. Your glutes will really support your low back in those positions. Or it is simply to advanced of an exercise for you at this point. If that is the case just work up to it. Try only holding a 10 second plank or even 5 seconds and work up to more.

  6. Nice post, Mark.

    FYI: I’m older than Mark but have basically the same abs he does. My thing is swimming, and a strong core (with abs) is important for that. And for flip turns, abs are essential. Maybe that’s why my abs are in good shape! 😉

  7. I’m 64, do planks and also use a stability ball doing roll outs. That will nail your lower abs big time! You can also do knee tucks as well.

    1. I don’t think it is possible to stimulate your lower abs without also hitting the upper portion. They contract together.

  8. Hi Mark, how about lying on a bench, gripping bench over my head, then lifting legs and back off bench so legs vertical. Now the hard bit- lower legs until in line with back, so you are straight through the hips, holding for s long as possible (5 to 10 seconds for me) at an angle of approx 45 degrees. Like a flag.
    The feeling is such that one repition is fine, particularly as have already held body position in dips etc

  9. The emphasis on developing core stability is a key point. Stabilizing free weight overhead with exercises such as snatches (full depth), overhead squats and overhead walking lunges is extremely effective for this. The weights don’t have to be heavy and these can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells. Most folks who think they have good abs will likely be challenged by these movements with very little weight. Also, gymnastics movements such as double unders, knees to elbow, toes to bar, muscle ups, etc… are excellent for developing core stability (once the basic skills are acquired). Assisted exercises or those where your body is stabilized by the ground, a bench or a machine are mostly missing the stability aspect.

  10. Hi Mark,
    I am 63 and I am certain I don’t look at all like you, where do I start on a road to a trim, vibrant life

  11. I’ve been doing Pilates for several years. The very basic classes may be abs oriented, but as you advance, all the exercises assume strong abs.

    My focus has been working on the Pilates machines, which are not abs oriented.

  12. I don’t specifically train abs and have very well developed abs at 46 years young. I do exactly what you suggest Mark. Deadlifts, squats,pull ups. I have found that Kettlebell Swings and Turkish get ups are a great way to train your body to recruit the core muscles to perform every excercise.

  13. I love to think that under all my blubber there are muscles. In fact my PT had me do jumps up onto a box. And blimey I could hardly move the following morning! Much to my surprise, there’s actually muscles under all that blubber… as a woman I doubt I’ll ever look particularly 6-packy but a flatter tummy and visible muscles would be awesome. I’m only 6 months into my journey and I’ve got a long way to go yet but I’m making good progress…

  14. This is a fun article and I like the videos Mark! I hope I can look that good at that age!

    As a fitness director for the last 12 years I agree with Mark about not really needing to do specific ab work.

    That being said the push I will make for Pilates is it tends to teach folks better than almost anything else I have found the way to engage their core. It is an excellent tool that translates over to other ways of exercising.

    I would also add that rotational exercises that are functional in nature are a tremendous way to strength the full body while hitting the abs (think wood choppers, med ball throws, and others).

    Finally it really is what you eat! No way around it.

  15. Hi,
    what kind of expander are you using in the video…


  16. No Pilates Teacher would object to your video illustrating how “I’m using my abs all the time,” but Mark, consider the Plank (which is included in Pilates): with your strong shoulders and small hips, it is a much easier exercise than it is for my typical beginning client (usually referred by a p.t.) who has smaller shoulders, heavier hips, has had abdominal surgery for endometriosis or fibroids or one or two caesareans and went right back to job/children/caring for elderly parents with no significant recovery time & now has cracked vertebrae or herniated discs or various forms of nerve pain and/or numbness.My job, then, is to work that woman up to planks (and even paddle boarding or surfing, in some cases) a “Return to Life” as Mr. Pilates put it, starting with finding the ways to even feel her abs and/or pelvic floor again, beginning with the breath (& not, usually, with a “classic” mat class.) That’s why Pilates designed & built so much specialized equipment, starting from his first altered hospital bed.There are no cookie cutter approaches, no “one size fits all.” You have to help the person toward the goal of “using (her) abs all the time” with every tool in your toolbox, and Pilates (and related disciplines) have come up with many.

  17. I am 70, and believing a strong core supports a strong back, after years of all sorts of ab work – pilates double leg stretch, roll downs with medicine ball, side crunches, straight crunches, bicycles, leg raises etc. etc – I have extremely tight and painful hip flexors and low back pain. Am now only doing a 4 min. plank, 30 sec. side planks, and my partner has just set up a pull-up bar so have tentatively begun leg raises. Am doing yoga to try and stretch out hips, foam roller, hamstring stretches, and simply hanging on my pull-up bar with tips of toes on ground – a great stretch! I stand at my desk, do 3 x 60 fast squats several times a day which relieves back pain. Any tips to improve would be gratefully received!

    1. Glenda, it pains me that you were taught Pilates in a way that overworked & failed to stretch hip flexors! This is a common error in the very first Pilates sessions which should have been caught & corrected early on.

      1. P.S. to Glenda: it sounds like you’re doing a lot of good things for the tight hip flexors. You might also try bodywork, especially if you’re dealing with chronic illiopsoas tightness/spasms.

        1. Thanks Kathleen. I have actually been doing heaps of yoga and stretching along the way – considering I started over 30 years ago I suppose some side effects could be expected 🙂 And yes, illiopsoas tightness, relieved with foam roller. Can you elaborate on bodywork please? (And does the Au stand for Australia by any chance?!)

          1. No, Au is my surname (Chinese). I live in Eugene, Oregon. The bodywork I’m most familiar with is Rolfing and Hendrickson Method massage, but there are many types. Really, everything depends on finding a knowledgeable, skilled and caring practitioner —- whatever the label.