The Most Effective Ab Workouts to Do at the Gym

09 Sep 2023
The Most Effective Ab Workouts to Do at the Gym

We’re all for planking your way to a stronger core. And odds are you have a handful of go-to bodyweight abs exercises that you do on the mat when you’re cooling down.

But if you’ve ever wondered how you can work your abs with the equipment available at your gym, we’ve got you covered with 17 creative and effective ways to take your abs routine up a notch.

We worked with Equinox trainer Gerren Liles to round up killer core moves using some of the most common gym equipment: a pull-up bar, a cable machine, a Bosu ball, an abs roller, TRX straps, and a barbell. And you can adjust them to fit any fitness level.

Next time you’re at the gym (and dread doing another crunch), pick three of the moves below and do 2 to 3 sets for the recommended number of reps. Stick to it, and we promise you’ll feel the burn — and see results.

Pull-up bar
1. Hanging leg circles
Grip a pull-up bar with palms parallel, arms extended. The bar should be high enough to hang from with legs extended, without feet touching the floor. Engaging core and keeping legs straight, draw a big circle in the air with your feet.

Be sure to brace your abs tight so your body doesn’t swing back and forth. Reverse the circle. One circle in each direction equals 1 rep. Do 8 to 10 reps.

Make it easier: Work up to the pull-up bar by doing the move in a captain’s chair first, which will provide more stability.

2. Hanging bicycles
This one may look like you’re running in the air, but hey, it works. Grip a pull-up bar with palms parallel, arms extended. Engage core and pull knees up to a 90-degree angle, thighs parallel to the floor.

From here, pedal your flexed feet as if riding a bicycle. Repeat as quickly as possible while maintaining control for 30 seconds.

3. Hanging side-to-side knees
Grip a pull-up bar. Engage core and lift knees toward right side of your torso, allowing your legs to bend naturally. Pull knees as close to right side of chest as possible, then slowly lower back to starting position.

Repeat by pulling knees to left side of chest. Completing both the right and left sides counts as 1 rep. Do 8 to 10 reps.

Make it easier: Draw both legs straight up to center of your chest.

Cable machine
4. Cable isometric hold
Don’t let the cable machine intimidate you — it’s easier to use than you think. Stack on a light weight (start with 10 pounds or fewer) and position the carriage so it’s even with your chest. Stand next to the machine, left side facing away from it.

Next, hold 1 cable handle with both hands. Take 1 big step away from the machine. Extend both arms fully at chest height, come into a comfortable half-squat, and hold the weight steady.

Engage your abs to hold the handle straight in front of your body — don’t twist toward the machine. Aim for perfect posture. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.

5. Cable oblique crunch
Stack a medium weight onto the cable machine and slide the carriage down to a setting close to the floor. Standing with right side perpendicular to the machine, take hold of cable handle with right hand. Place left hand behind head.

Now, engage your obliques and lean to the left, away from the machine, performing a standing side crunch. Return to starting position. Do 10 to 15 reps, then repeat on the other side.

6. Side plank with cable hold
As long as you’ve mastered a bodyweight side plank, you’re good to go on this one. Load a light weight onto the cable machine, slide the carriage down to a low setting, and position yourself a few feet from the machine.

Take cable handle in left hand and come into a side plank on right forearm, bracing core and stacking feet. Extend left arm so body forms a T shape. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

7. Overhead kneeling cable hold
Load a light weight onto the cable machine and slide the carriage down to a setting close to the floor. Start with the right side of your body facing the machine, right foot and left knee on the floor.

Hold cable handle in both hands. Pull handle overhead, using your hands to hold cable in place on top of your head. The goal is to stay perfectly straight (don’t lean toward the machine), with core engaged.

Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side, this time with your left side closer to the machine.

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Bosu ball
8. Mountain climbers
Place the Bosu ball bubble side down. Start in a plank position, gripping the edges of the flat side of the ball.

Bring right knee in toward left elbow, then left knee in toward right elbow (like mountain climbers). Repeat, running legs to opposite elbows as quickly as possible for 30 seconds.

Make it easier: Run legs straight in toward chest, instead of to opposite elbows.

9. C-sit
Place the Bosu ball flat side down. Sit in the center of the bubble side, knees together and bent. Keep core engaged, back straight, and feet on the floor.

Once you have your balance, slowly lift feet off the floor and lean back slightly to keep balanced. Raise arms straight at your sides so your body forms a V shape. Hold for 30 seconds.

10. Side crunch
Place the Bosu ball flat side down. Rest right hip on the ball, legs extended straight. Place hands behind head with bent elbows. Place right hand on the floor if you need more support.

Crunch up to the left, engaging your obliques and using your whole core to help you stabilize. Think about bringing left elbow to left hip to engage obliques. Do 10 to 12 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Abs roller
11. Abs roll with side rotation
If you’ve never tried this piece of equipment, you’re in for a treat — it’s actually fun to use. Kneel on a mat with knees hip-width apart. Grip the handles of the abs roller and roll forward, engaging your core.

As you come forward, rotate abs roller toward the right in an arch, so you engage your obliques. Roll out as far as you can without letting your hips fall to the floor or hiking your hips up.

Slowly roll back to starting position and roll out again, this time arching to the left. One roll to each side counts as 1 rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.

TRX straps
12. Trunk twist
Place TRX straps at waist height. Stand facing TRX with feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Hold both handles, making a fist around each handle. Take a few steps back and lean away from the straps so your arms are fully extended, core engaged.

Keeping arms straight, pull yourself toward the straps, driving hands to the right. Return to starting position, then repeat, this time driving hands to the left. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.

Make it easier or harder: For an easier exercise, walk feet away from the straps (so your body is at less of an angle). For more of a challenge, walk feet toward the straps (so your body is at more of an angle).

13. Double-knee drive
Lower TRX straps so the bottoms of the straps fall just below your knees. Kneel on the floor, facing away from the straps. Carefully place each foot into a strap and get into high plank position so your weight is supported by your hands and your feet are suspended off the floor in the straps.

Squeeze thighs to keep feet close together. Engage core and pull both knees in toward right elbow. Return to starting position, then repeat, pulling both knees toward left elbow. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.

Make it easier: Pull in 1 knee at a time straight to your chest.

14. TRX pike
Start in the same high plank position as above. Engage your core. With straight legs, pull feet toward chest, raising hips while keeping shoulders over wrists and back as straight as possible.

It may feel like you’re in a handstand, and that’s OK. Slowly release and return to starting position. Do 10 to 12 reps.

Barbell or body bar
These moves are ideal for the intermediate or advanced fitness fan. You can use a weighted body bar or a barbell with weight (as shown), or you can use a barbell without weight if you’re not quite at Liles’s level. Make any of the below moves easier by eliminating equipment entirely.

15. Lying side raise
Lie faceup and hold barbell overhead with arms fully extended, hands shoulder-width apart. Lift straight legs up and toward right hand, engaging core so as not to place any stress on low back.

Keep back and rear flat against the mat, not allowing your body to roll to the right or onto your right hip. Aim to tap toes to right hand, then slowly lower feet back to floor. Repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.

Make it easier: Lose the barbell and extend your arms straight up, trying to tap both toes to hands.

16. Barbell overhead situp
You’ll need an incline bench for this move. Lie faceup on the bench and hook your feet under the foot holds. Take hold of the barbell (keep it handy!) and extend it overhead with straight arms, hands shoulder-width apart.

Perform a situp, so the bar is extended overhead. Keep biceps in line with ears and back straight. Slowly lower and return to starting position. Do 8 to 10 reps with a heavier weight or 10 to 12 reps with a lighter weight.

Make it easier: Perform situps on the incline bench without a barbell. Work on raising your arms overhead as you sit up in order to prepare for the next step.

17. Barbell situp with chest press
Start in the same position as above. Sit up halfway, so your core is engaged, then slowly lower the barbell so it’s in front of your chest.

With core engaged, perform a chest press by pushing the bar out in front of your chest. Slowly lower bar to chest. Repeat chest press for 8 to 10 reps, then lower back to starting position.

Make it easier: Practice sitting up halfway and extending your arms in a chest press motion without weight.