It doesn’t matter if you’re aspiring to get your bodybuilding pro card or simply build the best body on the beach—abs are essential. But unlike, say, your delts or your biceps, your abs don’t simply show up just because you train them hard. If you want to see your abs, you also need to completely strip away all the belly fat obscuring them.
No wonder six-pack abs are the ultimate symbol of fitnessO—your diet and your workout need to be on point for them to show up.
And that’s especially true if you’re preparing for a bodybuilding competition. Under the hot lights, when judges are scrutinizing your every feature, even the slightest physique flaw can seem glaringly obvious. That means the abs demand extra attention ahead of competition day.
To get some secrets of competition-ready abs training, we spoke with to Ridge Davis, C.P.T. (NCSF), the founder of Ridgid Fitness in West Hollywood, CA, (and the owner of an impressive set of abs himself). A Puma-sponsored personal trainer and national-qualified NPC Men’s Physique Competitor, Davis knows firsthand how to craft formidable abdominal muscles.
Here are Davis’s 10 favorite abs exercises for bodybuilders looking to get a competition edge.
Why It Works: “This is great for building the transverse abdominus,” Davis says, “which helps make the waist smaller.” This exercise also takes some strain off your lower back and requires intense balancing ability.
How to Do It: Set up in a plank position with your shins on a Swiss ball. Keeping your entire core tight and your spine neutral, hinge your hips and fold yourself into a pike, letting your legs and feet roll on the Swiss ball until you’re on your toes. Pause at the top, then slowly return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Why It Works: “This exercise is great for building the rectus abdominus without too much bulk,” Davis says. That translates to a lean, light, aesthetic physique.
How to Do It: Lie on the floor, face-up, with a medicine ball in your hands. Fully extend your arms toward the ceiling. Fire your core and, keeping your spine neutral, bring your shoulders and feet off the ground at the same time. If you’re flexible enough, try to touch your feet to the medicine ball. Don’t pulse or jerk at the top—aim for a smooth motion. Slowly reverse the motion until your shoulders and feet are back on the ground. That’s one rep.
Why It Works: This humble abs exercise is “great for developing beautiful tapered obliques,” Davis says. “The obliques cradle the ‘six-pack’ abdominals, so it’s important that your obliques are slim and beautifully toned for aesthetics.”
How to Do It: There are several ways to do the side plank, but they all boil down to the same basic function. Place one forearm on the floor, using it to brace and support your weight. You can place your other arm to your ear, as if you were talking on the phone. Your same-side foot should be on its side, supporting your legs. Your legs should be stacked evenly, so your hips are perpendicular to the ground. Keep your spine neutral (set up in front of a mirror if it helps) and tense your obliques. After an allotted time (60 seconds is pretty good), switch sides and side plank on the other side.
Why It Works: “This exercise is like a side plank,” Davis says, “but the crunches shape and add definition to your obliques through each contraction.” It’s a wicked combo when paired with the regular side plank: Plank almost to failure, then do five or 10 side crunches.
How to Do It: Start as you would for a side plank. Once you’re in position, dip your hips toward the ground. Before your hips reach the ground, fire your obliques and return to starting position. That’s one rep.
Why It Works: By working your shoulders and core in tandem, there’s no escaping the burn during this exercise. “This is great for preventing your core from collapsing and working the control of flexing your abdominals on command,” Davis says.
How to Do It: Set up a suspension trainer with the loops at about mid-calf height. Get down on the ground and put your feet through each loop. Get into plank position with your forearms about shoulder-width apart and slightly ahead of your shoulders. Fire your core to support your body weight and maintain an even plank. Brace your arms and slowly “saw” your body back and forth
Why It Works: Contrary to popular belief, you can’t train individual abs—the rectus abdominus is one big muscle with distinct portions. That said, you can focus on different parts of the muscle. “This directly works the lower fibers of the rectus abdominus,” Davis says.
How to Do It: Perform the dumbbell reverse crunch as you would a traditional reverse crunch—check out the reverse crunch instructional video here—but hold a dumbbell between your feet. Make sure you keep your head flat on the floor
Why It Works: “This is a great move to load your obliques and help build muscle definition,” Davis says.
How to Do It: Set up a cable machine with the pulley at its highest point. Use a rope attachment. Grab the rope attachment in both hands (leave some space between them). Get down on one knee, with your elevated knee closer to the machine. Fire your abs and “chop” the cable down and to the side. Slowly return the cable to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Why It Works: “Isometric holds are always great for any body part and this one definitely takes the cake,” Davis says. Not that you’re allowed to eat cake ahead of your bodybuilding competition, but you knew that already.
How to Do It: This is about as simple as it gets. Lie down on the ground, facing up. Point your toes and lift your feet slightly above the ground. As you do, pick up your shoulders slightly, making sure to keep your head and neck neutral with the rest of your spine. Hold that position for as long as you can, then relax.
Why It Works: Leg raises are classic six-pack builders, with the added benefit of testing your grip strength and total-body control. You can also modify them to simple knee raises if you get tired, or do half-range reps to hit certain parts of the rectus abdominus muscle. This exercise is easier after you’ve warmed up your hamstrings, as hamstring flexibility will help increase your range of motion.
How to Do It: Grab a pullup bar with an over hand grip and lift yourself off the ground. (You can use straps if you want.) Keeping your spine neutral, hinge at the hips and lift your legs until they are parallel with the floor. Try to keep them as straight as possible. Slowly lower your legs again. That’s one rep.
Why It Works: “The BOSU creates a bigger stretch and range of motion in the movement,” Davis says. “BOSU crunches will stimulate greater growth for the abdominals.”
How to Do It: This exercise is essentially a regular old crunch, except done on the round side of a BOSU. As with all crunches, make sure you keep your head and neck neutral, and to control the entire motion.