The 13 Best Compound Exercises for Stronger Abdominals

Compound Exercises for Abs

When it comes to abs training, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of doing the same old crunches and leg raises. While these exercises can be effective, doing them over and over again can soon lead to abs training boredom.

You may also find you need to do hundreds of reps to fatigue your abs, and that’s not a very efficient way to work out.

Or, you may not even have time to train your abs at all and have been neglecting them lately.

While your abs are involved in many of the exercises in your workouts, they usually don’t work all that hard. You brace them to maintain core stability, but that may not be enough to develop the six-pack of your dreams.

In this article, we reveal 13 of the best compound abs exercises. These awesome moves don’t just train your abs but also involve many other important muscle groups. As such, they train your abs as they work in nature, i.e., as dynamic stabilizers, and also burn more calories than abs isolation exercises, so you can get leaner, quicker.

You don’t need to quit isolating your abs, but if you want a strong, lean, functional midsection in less training time, including these exercises to your workouts will undoubtedly help.

Abdominal Anatomy 101

Muscular Anatomy of Core

The word abs means different things to different people. On the one hand, it’s short for rectus abdominus, which is the large, flat muscle on the front of your stomach.

However, other people say abs when what they really mean is core, which is the collective name for the muscles of the midsection.

Thankfully, compound abdominal exercises work your core, and that includes your abs. These muscles are:

Rectus abdominus

The rectus abdominus is the long, flat muscle on the front of your abdomen. It’s separated by lines of ligamentous tissue, which gives it that famous six-pack appearance. However, it’s important to note that this six-pack shape is only visible if body fat levels are low enough. How low depends on gender and genetics, but 10% is typical for men and 15% for women.

 The main functions of the rectus abdominus are:

  • Spinal flexion – bending your spine forward
  • Lateral flexion – bending your spine to the side
  • Compression of the abdominal contents – such as when you cough or exhale


The obliques are located on the side of your abdomen. There are external oblique muscles and internal oblique muscles. Still, because they work together, most people refer to them as one muscle simply called the obliques.

The main functions of the obliques are:

  • Spinal rotation – twisting your spine
  • Lateral flexion – bending your spine to the side
  • Compression of the abdominal contents – such as when you cough or exhale

Transverse abdominus

Where the rectus abdominus runs vertically up the front of your abdomen, the transverse abdominus runs horizontally around it.

Acting a lot like a weightlifting belt, your transverse abdominus encircles your abdominal contents. When it contracts and squeezes inward, it increases intra-abdominal pressure to support and stabilize your spine.

While you can’t see the transverse abdominus, no matter how lean you get, it is still a critical muscle. It is directly involved in every abs exercise you do, especially those that require bracing your midsection, i.e., planks.

The main functions of the transverse abdominus are:

  • Compression of the abdominal contents – such as when you cough or exhale
  • Stabilizing the lumbar spine and pelvis before movement of the lower and upper limbs can occur

Top Compound Exercises for Stronger Abdominals

Are you bored of crunches? Got no time for side bends? Save time, burn more calories, and get stronger with the 13 best compound abs exercises!

1. Single-arm farmer’s walk

Regular farmer’s walks, where you carry two dumbbells or kettlebells, are an excellent full-body strength and conditioning exercise. Your abs are involved, too, but they don’t really have too much work to do. That all changes when you switch to single-arm farmer’s walks.

With just one weight to balance, your abs will have to work overtime to stabilize your spine and keep your torso upright.

How to do it:

  1. Lift and hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand – the heavier, the better. Pull your shoulder down and back, and brace your core to keep your torso upright.
  2. Without leaning to either side, take a walk around your training area.
  3. Continue for the prescribed duration or distance.
  4. Swap arms and repeat.

2. Single-arm waiter’s walk

The waiter’s walk is similar to the farmer’s walk, except you hold your dumbbell or kettlebell over your head. This increases core and upper body engagement, making this a more demanding exercise. Take extra care to stabilize the weight so it won’t come crashing down on your head!

How to do it:

  1. Curl and press a dumbbell or kettlebell overhead. Hold it with your arm straight and vertical. Brace your core to keep your torso upright.
  2. Without leaning to either side, take a walk around your training area.
  3. Continue for the prescribed duration or distance.
  4. Swap arms and repeat.

Read more about weighted carries in our comprehensive guide.

3. Single-arm dumbbell bench press

Dumbbell bench presses are one of the best chest exercises around. But, if you do them one-handed, you’ll also feel them in your abdominals. That’s because you’ll need to use your abs to stabilize your midsection and stop the weight from pulling you off balance.

How to do it:

  1. Grab one dumbbell and set up for the dumbbell bench press as usual. Plant your feet firmly on the floor and brace your abs hard to keep your body tight.
  2. Without twisting your shoulders or your hips, press the weight up to full arm extension and then lower it again.
  3. Do the same number of reps on each arm.
  4. This exercise can be done using a flat, incline, or decline bench as preferred.

4. Ab rollout

It goes without saying that ab rollouts work your abs. Still, they also engage your hip flexors, lats, triceps, and serratus anterior, making it a true compound exercise. You can do rollouts from kneeling or standing and using a barbell, stability ball, or an ab wheel.

Read more about this effective but challenging compound abs workout in our in-depth guide.

5. Suitcase deadlift

All types of deadlifts and squats involve your abs. However, because of the even loading, the abs don’t always have to work all that hard. The suitcase deadlift is a one-sided exercise, which means you’ll need to engage your abs much harder to keep your torso upright.

How to do it:

  1. Place a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell on the floor and stand next to it. Ideally, the handle should reach your mid-shin, so you won’t round your back to reach it.
  2. Bend your knees and squat down to grab the weight. Your palm should be facing your leg.
  3. Pull your shoulders down and back, lift your chest, and brace your core.
  4. Keeping your arm straight, and without turning your hips or shoulders, drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Do not lean sideways.
  5. Bend your legs and lower the weight back to the floor, reset your core and grip, and then repeat.
  6. On completion, swap sides and do the same number of reps with your other arm.

6. Javelin press

Overhead presses work your deltoids (shoulders) and triceps. But, if you switch from using a barbell or two dumbbells to a single weight, your abs will get a workout too. That said, using a barbell and one arm, as in the Javelin press, makes for a much more challenging workout.

How to do it:

  1. Place a barbell in a squat rack set to shoulder height; use an empty bar initially as this exercise is quite tricky!
  2. Stand sideways on the bar and grab the center so your palm faces your ear. Brace your core, pull your shoulder down and back, and unrack the bar.
  3. Keeping your torso vertical, press the weight up and overhead.
  4. Lower it back to your shoulder and repeat.
  5. Rerack the bar, swap sides and do the same number of reps with your other arm.

7. L-sit pull-ups and chin-ups

Pull-ups and chin-ups both work your lats and biceps and involve your abs, too. However, abs engagement is not very significant and is limited to stabilizing your legs and stopping them from swinging. L-sit pull-ups and chin-ups are much more core-centric.

How to do them:

  1. Grab the bar with an underhand (chin-up) or overhand (pull-up) grip as preferred. Lift your legs and hold them parallel to the floor.
  2. Bend your arms and pull your chin up and over the bar.
  3. Lower yourself down smoothly and repeat.
  4. Keep your legs up for the duration of your set or raise and lower them rep by rep as preferred.
  5. Make this exercise easier by bending your legs and tucking your knees to your chest.

8. Medicine ball slam

Medicine ball slams are a fun, functional strength and conditioning exercise that also engages your abs. If you imagine a bow and arrow, your abs act like the bowstring as you hurl the ball down at your feet. This exercise is also an excellent stress buster!

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and hold your medicine ball in both hands.
  2. Lift the ball above your head and come up onto your toes.
  3. Using your whole body, hurl the ball down at the floor about 12-18 inches in front of your feet.
  4. Catch the ball as it bounces and repeat.

9. Paloff press

The Pallof press, invented by physical therapist John Pallof, is an anti-rotational core exercise that also involves your chest, shoulders, triceps, and legs, making it an excellent full-body movement.

You can do Pallof presses using a cable machine or, at home, with a resistance band fixed to a waist-high anchor. However you do it, this is an awesome compound abs and core stability exercise.

Read all about Pallof presses here.

11. RKC plank

A lot of people think that planks are an abs isolation exercise. They’re not! In fact, planks involve almost every muscle in your body, making them the epitome of a compound exercise.

Save time and get better results from your plank workouts by doing the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) plank, also known as a hardstyle plank. With this variation, instead of seeing how long you can plank for, you tense your muscles as hard as possible, so you exhaust them in 10-20 seconds.

Learn how to do the RKC plank here.

10. Renegade row

Renegade rows combine the benefits of the RKC plank with single-arm dumbbell rows to work your abs, lats, and biceps at the same time. You can also mix in a push-up to work your pecs, triceps, and deltoids too. This really is a very comprehensive compound abs exercise!

How to do it:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. You can also use kettlebells. Squat down and place the weights on the floor, roughly shoulder-width apart.
  2. Brace your abs and walk your feet out and back into the push-up position. Your body should form a straight line. Keep your wrists straight, and do not allow them to collapse.
  3. Move your feet out so that they are wider than shoulder-width apart to increase balance and stability. Look straight down at the floor to ensure your neck is neutral.
  4. Keeping one arm straight, bend the other arm and row the weight up and into your lower ribs. Do NOT allow your hips or shoulders to twist.
  5. Lower the weight back to the floor, swap sides, and repeat. Alternate arms for the duration of your set, keeping your core braced throughout.
  6. You can also do this exercise with your legs bent and knees resting on the floor to take pressure off your core.

11. Bear crawl

The bear crawl is basically a moving plank. Transferring your weight from limb to limb as you move forward increases core engagement while also working your arms and legs. With so many muscles involved, this full-body exercise is also great for building fitness and endurance.

How to do it:

  1. Kneel down on all fours so your hands are directly under your shoulders and your knees are under your hips. Pull your toes up and press the balls of your feet into the floor.
  2. Brace your abs, pull your shoulders down and back, and rotate your elbows inward to engage your lats. Your lower back and neck should be neutral. Lift your knees a few inches off the floor while keeping your hips level with your shoulders.
  3. Without lifting your hips, move your left hand and right foot forward, and then your right hand and left foot.
  4. Continue crawling forward over the specified distance or number of steps.
  5. You can also bear crawl backward, sideways, and diagonally.

Read more about Bear Crawl. 

12. Floor press with hollow hold

Hollow holds are a traditional gymnastics abs exercise. Think of them like a plank, but you do them while laying on your back. Turn this abs exercise into a full-body move by combining it with dumbbell floor presses. This two-exercise combo involves virtually every muscle on the front of your body. Start light; the floor press with hollow hold is a lot harder than it sounds and looks!

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight and together, toes pointed. Brace your abs and press your lower back into the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and press them up to arms’ length. Raise your feet a few inches off the floor, pressing your lower back into the ground. This is your starting position.
  2. Bend your arms and lower the weights until your triceps lightly touch the floor.
  3. Press the weights back up and repeat.
  4. Add an extra element of instability and difficulty to this exercise by using an alternating arm action.


13. Turkish get-up

No one is really sure how the Turkish Get Up got its name. It’s not especially well-known in Turkey, and you don’t look much like a turkey when you are doing it! It may be linked to Turkish wrestlers, famed for their strength and agility, but this is not a proven fact.

Regardless, the Turkish get-up could be the ultimate compound abs exercise as it involves almost every muscle and joint in your body. Each reps starts with a half sit-up, so you’ll really feel it in your abs, too.

While far from easy, once mastered, this exercise will improve full-body stability and mobility and provide your entire core with a unique workout.

Read more about Turkish get-ups here.

Wrapping Up

While exercises like crunches, sit-ups, leg lifts, and side-bends allow you to target your abs in isolation, that’s not how they work in nature. In most cases, your abs work with the rest of your body and act as stabilizers.

That’s not to say that abs isolation exercises are in any way bad. In fact, they can be incredibly useful for producing localized hypertrophy or increased muscular endurance.

That said, if you want plenty of abs show AND go, compound abs exercises deserve a place in your workout. As an added benefit, they’re also very time efficient and burn more calories than most isolation exercises, so they could help you get ripped faster.

Regardless of your training goal, adding compound abs exercises to your workouts will add some very welcome variety to your core training program.


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