When you search for an ab workout, you end up with repetitions on a theme – lots of people doing bodyweight exercises on a mat, promising you the earth. Descriptions such as ‘strong’, ‘chiseled’, ‘rock solid’ etc are used for, let’s be honest, variations on a Pilates theme.
Now there’s nothing wrong with Pilates. It’s fantastic. When used appropriately, as a therapeutic approach to improving core function.
BUT… If you want your core to be ‘strong’, ‘chiseled’, ‘rock solid’ etc, well you’re going to have to raise your game. And that’s where this crossover dumbbell ab workout comes in. It’s not a basic workout you can do with a mat and gentle music.
This workout needs dumbbells. It needs effort. It probably needs loud music to accompany it.
Follow this abdominal workout to build a strong, functional and muscular core. It’ll serve you as a fully-functional and injury-proof body part.
You’ll be more athletic, you’ll look better and you’ll enjoy the results that these other workouts often promise, but seldom deliver.
So what’s a Crossover dumbbell ab workout?
It’s a dumbbell ab workout that uses global (as in all-body) strength training principles to strengthen the core, but not in isolation.
The exercises we do in the Crossover workout will also improve force generation, injury resistance and movement quality across several different body parts.
- Crossover Dumbbell Ab Workout: Benefits of the approach
- 5 Steps to Use the ‘The Crossover’ Dumbbell Ab Workout to Build a Stronger Core
- Training notes for the crossover dumbbell ab workout
- The Crossover dumbbell ab workout – the exercises
- Dumbbell ab workout FAQs
- The Crossover Dumbbell Ab Workout: The bottom line
Crossover Dumbbell Ab Workout: Benefits of the approach
Strengthen your core… and your body.
As a personal trainer and weightlifting coach, I don’t really believe in training body parts in isolation for most people. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link after all.
With this in mind, the Crossover dumbbell ab workout will train the core, but benefit other body parts at the same time.
Here’s three of the benefits you’ll get from the workout…
Benefit 1: Injury resistance
So many of the back injuries we suffer from originate from a weak core. The link between abdominal weakness and back pain has been proven time and again in the research.
Here’s an example from 2015 research by Kumar et al…
‘Core muscle strengthening exercise along with lumbar flexibility and gluteus maximus strengthening is an effective rehabilitation technique for all chronic low back pain patients irrespective of duration of their pain.’
There are many other studies that conclude the same thing. It highlights that strength doesn’t just serve an aesthetic purpose, it serves a structural one too.
Too many people forget about this very important function – they think of strength training being about big muscles. There’s so much more to it than that.
Benefit 2: You’ll generate more force, strength and athletic power
Legendary kettlebell coach Pavel Tsatsouline once said ‘strength is a skill, and has to be practiced as such’. In this context, it means that if you want to be truly strong in your athletic endeavors, you can’t rely on exercises that don’t demand much from you.
In the Crossover dumbbell ab workout you’ll be performing carries, rotations, extensions etc – all with a view to forcing your body to be strong in a variety of planes of movement.
There’s evidence in support of using core training to help develop athletic abilities as well, with 2022 research by Luo et al concluding…
‘Core training could increase stability and stiffness in the spine to reduce unrequired “energy leaks” and torso movement during the exertion of external loads. This mechanism could help athletes achieve better skill performance.’
A strong, functional core doesn’t just make you look better – it makes you perform better too!
Benefit 3: You’ll improve your balance and endurance
A strong core helps with balance. It does this via helping us ‘correct’ our alignment when we are off balance. In a sporting context, we’re off-balance a lot, so a strong core keeps us on our feet better.
If the muscles were weak, they’d be less able to respond effectively to these off-balance moments quickly, meaning we fall over more.
One of the more surprising benefits of a strong core is how it can improve your endurance as well as your balance. Research into the effect of core training on running economy was carried out by Hung et al in 2019. The researchers concluded…
‘The results reveal that 8-week core training may improve static balance, core endurance, and running economy’.
This research is interesting because it explains in more detail why a stronger core helps to improve endurance running performance…
‘Effective core muscle function may reduce excessive limb motion during exercise, because proximal core activation enhances the efficiency of distal segment function. This may be caused by the higher precision and stability of distal extremities.’
In English, this means that a stronger, more effective core reduces the excessive movement of the limbs, reducing the amount of energy wasted by the body during running.
A stronger core allows for more efficient technique, meaning less energy is wasted.
5 Steps to Use the ‘The Crossover’ Dumbbell Ab Workout to Build a Stronger Core
These five steps are the most important part of the article. It’s here we look at the details of the program – it’s your roadmap to making the Crossover dumbbell ab workout as effective as possible.
Step 1: Perform the workout twice per week
The Crossover dumbbell ab workout is a stand alone workout, designed to be performed alongside your normal training. It’s not a full program in itself, so bolt it onto the end of your normal training.
It’s also a long abdominal workout that contains different types of abdominal exercises – not all of them are going to be the traditional, single plane of movement movements.
This means you could use it as a full day of training, perhaps saving it for a day when you’re doing mostly cardio work.
If you want to do it on a day when you’re not doing cardio, maybe keep it to a day when you’re not doing too much in the way of back training either – you don’t want to be fatigued in your back when doing abs work.
The muscles of the back support the spine, so you want them to be fresh to help with spinal stability during ab work.
Step 2: Leave a couple of days between Crossover dumbbell ab workouts
Focussing this much attention on one single area is fine, as long as the area is allowed sufficient time to rest and recover.
Too many people chase great abs by repeatedly training them, but it doesn’t work like that. You have to train the abs in the same way you would any other body part you want to grow.
Train them hard, with progressively more challenging weights, but leave them to rest and recover.
With 21 sets focussed on one area, it needs time to recover. Give it two days minimum. This means a training week could look like this…
Monday: Weight training + Crossover dumbbell abs workout
Tuesday: Weight training
Thursday: Cardio + Crossover dumbbell abs workout
Friday: Weight training
This approach allows you to train the abs properly, but gives you plenty of time for rest and recovery between sessions.
Step 3: Perform the ab workout after your main session
As a general rule, you should be performing your abdominal work after your main session work.
This is especially the case if the workout contains a lot of technical lifts, or compound movements. The reason for this is that your core is integral to the technique, positioning and stability during these lifts, so you want it to be fresh.
If you do a lot of intense abdominal work first, your core will be tired and this can impact your technique. It can also make the lifts potentially less safe.
You should allow around 40 minutes to complete the crossover dumbbell ab workout. It’s 25 sets, so this will allow for a short rest period of around 30 seconds after each set.
Whilst this may seem like a lot of time spent on abs, bear in mind some of these exercises have other benefits too, so it’s not just abdominal training.
Step 4: Technique has to be perfect
Form is important in any kind of training, but when it comes to strength training the abs, it takes on an even more important role.
This is purely anecdotal, but I think the potential risk of injury when lifting with a weight using the abdominals is increased. That’s not to say anything we’re doing here is dangerous – far from it.
We just have to be careful, that’s all. Weighted abdominal exercise is no place for lazy or complacent form.
Execute each of the movements with slow, controlled and deliberate form. This approach not only makes the exercise safer, it’ll also make them more effective.
It’ll increase the time under tension, which as we know from 2011 research by Burd et al, helps to optimize muscle growth…
‘Results suggest that the time the muscle is under tension during exercise may be important in optimizing muscle growth.’
It’s important to remember that the abdominals are no different to other muscles in how they respond to resistance training. All of the same principles that you’d use to grow and strengthen any other body part apply to the abs as well.
Step 5: Do the workout in its entirety
With a long workout like this one, you may be tempted to split the workout up, but I don’t want you to do that. The workout is designed to be a complete, 360 approach to training the abdominals.
The workout will cover the three major core movements of flexion, extension and rotation (more on this later) and does so with focus and intensity.
The concern with breaking the workout up is that you’d lose some of the intensity, rendering the program less effective. You’d be doing 2 to 4 exercises per session, rather than the full 7.
It’s also spreading the focussed abdominal work over more days, giving the area less time to recover ahead of the next session.
I’d also be concerned you’ll only focus on your ‘favorite’ exercises, rather than the whole program. Sometimes in training you have to do the exercises you don’t like, rather than just the ones that you enjoy!
Training notes for the crossover dumbbell ab workout
I like to give you an insight into my thinking with these programs, so you’ve got an idea about why the program has been put together the way it has.
It’s also an opportunity for you to learn a little more about how a personal trainer thinks about exercise programming…
Training the core in the different planes of movement
There are essentially four main types of spinal movement…
- Flexion (hinge at the waist, hips traveling backwards)
- Extension (hips forward)
- Rotation (turning at the waist)
- Lateral flexion (standing upright, bending side to side)
In order to make an abdominal workout comprehensive, it needs to cover all of these bases. That’s what I’ve done with this workout – we train every single one of these movements. A few of them, we train multiple times.
Bones and joints only move when the muscles act on them, so although we refer to them as ‘spinal’ movements, that’s tantamount to ‘abdominal exercise’ movements too.
Including the ‘anti’ movements
As well as making the spine move, the muscles also work to prevent certain movements. In this case, we call this action ‘anti’ movements.
Ab workouts often contain anti movements – anti-extension and anti-rotation being the two most common ones. This workout is no different, because it includes Farmer’s Carry.
This not only engages the core, it acts as an anti lateral flexion exercise, making the core work to stay upright.
The anti movements are every bit as important as other exercises. In some cases, they’re important because they’re excellent at injury prevention.
Train for all eventualities
A thorough workout for a body part has to prepare it for a series of outcomes. You can’t train a body part solely in one plane of movement, in one rep range or for one job. If you do, the moment it is required to do anything else, it’s not ready or able to.
You might think ‘well I don’t compete in any sports – my abs only need to look good, I’m not bothered about function!’
And that’s flawed thinking, because your abs are involved in everything. Let me say that again… e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Get up from the sofa? Core involved. Pick up your kids? Core involved. Walk with a wheelbarrow full of dirt? Core involved. You get the point…
We never know what demands our core will have to face, whether in an athletic arena or not. With this in mind, we train for all eventualities.
Training as a system
Despite what the bro’s in the gym say, it’s really difficult to isolate muscles when we train – especially when we’re doing an ab workout.
That’s why these exercises train the body ‘globally’, in the sense that they train more than just the abs. In various ways they train the grip, the arms, shoulders, legs, glutes and the back.
This doesn’t mean they are ‘diluted’ away from abdominal work – they’re still training abs, they’re just training other body parts as well!
The secondary benefit of this is that you can substitute some of the other exercises in your workout, because these ab exercises take care of other body parts. You could take out one of your leg exercises thanks to the farmer’s carry for example.
The Crossover dumbbell ab workout – the exercises
So far you’ve heard all about the benefits of the workout and the thinking behind it, so now we’ll dive into the exercises. As the title suggests, this is a dumbbell ab workout, so all you’re going to need is some dumbbells and an area to work in.
These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.
We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.
The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.
The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.
Follow the exercises in the order they’re written, hit every rep and work with control and focus on each rep. Think quality and quantity. You’ll build strong and functional abdominals in no time.
|1. Dumbbell Side Plank Rotations
|15 (per side)
|2. Dumbbell Farmers Carry
|40 yds minimum
|3. Dumbbell Hanging Leg Raises
|4. Dumbbell Crunch
|5. Dumbbell Side Bends
|30 (15 per side)
|6. Dumbbell Single Leg Deadlifts
|10 (per side)
|7. Dumbbell Russian Twists
|20 (10 per side)
1. Dumbbell side plank rotations
This is a great exercise because it trains the abdominals in a static sense (with the plank), and a rotational sense, with the dumbbell rotation.
The side plank element also trains the obliques and upper back as well as the abs, making for a real all-round ab exercise. There’s a useful shoulder element too.
How to do dumbbell side plank rotations
- Assume the side plank position – lie sideways, with your weight on the side of your foot and your forearm
- Suspend your hips from the floor by engaging your abdominals and lifting up
- Hold a dumbbell in your non weight bearing arm, starting the movement from underneath and behind your body, forcing your torso into a rotated position
- Rotate the dumbbell from behind you, around and in front of your body, then directly above you
- Extend the arm straight, with the dumbbell over you
- Once your final position is stabilized, return to the start position and repeat
2. Dumbbell Farmer’s Carry
The farmer’s carry is a really underrated exercise and one that offers core, legs and grip benefits as well. It’s simple, effective and easy to do at home. You’ll need heavy dumbbells for this – there’s not much value in the exercise if the weight you lift is too light.
Walk a minimum of 20 yards out and back (40 yard round trip), keeping your spine bolt upright by engaging the core. Don’t let the shoulders sag at all throughout either.
How to do a dumbbell farmer’s carry
- Take a dumbbell in both hands (it has to be heavy – I’d suggest 50% of your body weight as a minimum)
- Stand up tall – keep your back straight and your core engaged
- Don’t let your shoulders ‘sag’ throughout the exercise at all
- Walk for a set distance – ideally a minimum of 20 yards one way
- Turn around and walk back
3. Dumbbell hanging leg raises
Hanging leg raises are an excellent abdominal exercise and easy to progress. They also help to strengthen grip and stretch the shoulders, so offer multiple wins.
In this case the exercise has been progressed by gripping a dumbbell between the feet, increasing the weight lifted by the abs.
How to do dumbbell hanging leg raises
- Hold on to a pull up bar, dangling with arms and back at full extension
- Take hold of a dumbbell between your feet – this keeps to legs and feet together, engaging the core more
- Keep a stable, still position (no swinging forwards and backwards)
- Lift your legs up to horizontal with the floor. Keep them straight throughout, unless you’re a beginner, in which case lift your knees into your abs and allow the legs to bend
- Pause briefly at the top, then slowly lower them back to the starting position
- Keep the movement slow throughout, otherwise you’ll introduce a lot of swinging into the movement, which you want to avoid
4. Dumbbell crunch
I generally steer away from sit ups or crunches in most ab workouts, because I think there’s a risk/reward issue at play. You need to have decent core stability in order to successfully manage a full range sit up.
The reason I’ve included this crunch in the workout is because it has a limited range of movement, with a very precise targeting of the rectus abdominis.
This makes it safer than a full sit up, which (in my opinion) encourages too much unnecessary lumbar flexion.
If you have problems with your lower back, you might want to consider switching this exercise up with some of our sit up alternatives.
How to do dumbbell crunches
- Lie flat on your back, feet flat on the floor and knees bent
- Hold a dumbbell with straight arms, directly overhead (in front of you when you’re lying down)
- Engage the abs and crunch up, lifting just the upper body off the floor – the lower back stays in contact with the floor throughout
- Keep the arms straight throughout and the dumbbell extended in front
- Return to the floor the second you feel the lower back starting to lift
5. Dumbbell side bends
This is an exercise that challenges the core by resisting lateral flexion. By holding a dumbbell in one hand, we allow the spine to flex laterally, then use the abs and obliques to return the spine to a straight position.
It’s simple to do, and it allows your rectus abdominis to rest after the crunches.
How to do dumbbell side bends
- Take hold of a dumbbell in ONLY one hand – it needs to be fairly heavy in order to work
- The other hand should be empty – we’re only loading on one side
- Keep the dumbbell by your side with a straight arm
- Standing upright, lean to the side, allowing the dumbbell to track down the side of your leg
- Once you reach knee height (or thereabouts), pause and return to the start position
- Repeat as necessary, before swapping sides
6. Dumbbell single leg deadlifts
Single leg deadlifts require excellent balance and single limb stability under load. The exercise really challenges the core and it lights the glutes up.
The reason they’re here isn’t actually for the abs – it’s to provide a lower back and glute benefit, which helps to balance out the work done on the abdominals.
How to do dumbbell single leg deadlifts:
- Hold the dumbbell at your side with one hand, your back straight and both feet on the floor
- Keeping your back straight, tilt forward at the torso, taking the opposite leg straight back as you do
- You will be standing on one leg, so move slowly and keep your balance and the kettlebell moves towards the floor
- When the dumbbell nearly touches the floor and your torso is parallel to it, return to start position with a straight back and controlled movement
- Repeat as many times as required for the set, then switch sides
7. Dumbbell Russian Twists
The dumbbell Russian twist is the go-to rotational exercise for many. The other good thing about it is that the position of the torso forces abdominal engagement as well, meaning there’s a double win. It’s training the rectus abdominis and the obliques at the same time.
It’s a simple, but very challenging exercise when performed correctly.
If you want ideas to potentially switch the dumbbell Russian twists with another adequate exercise, perhaps check out our Russian twist alternatives as well.
How to do dumbbell Russian twists:
- Hold a dumbbell in both hands, slightly away from the body
- Lean your torso back around 45 degrees, extend your legs in front of you with slightly bent knees
- Lift your feet off the floor and keep them there
- Keeping your legs in front of you, twist your torso around to each side, holding the dumbbell throughout
- Make sure your chest moves with you – don’t just move your arms from side to side
- Repeat as many times as necessary
These exercises complete the crossover dumbbell ab workout. They won’t be easy, but they’ll be effective. Treat the workout with the respect it deserves, because if you do it properly you’ll seriously light your midsection up!
Dumbbell ab workout FAQs
To help you get the most from the workout, here’s answers to a few questions you may have…
Could I use this workout to get me a six pack?
Yes, you could, but not in isolation. You only reveal your six pack when your body fat is sufficiently low enough that your abs ‘pop’ through.
What this workout will do is build the underlying muscles, but if they’re covered in a thicker layer of fat than you need, you won’t see your six pack.
Used in conjunction with a great training program and a calorie-controlled diet, it will help build you a six pack.
I love training abs, so can I add to this workout?
If you do this dumbbell ab workout properly, you won’t want to! Nor will you need to. If you still want to do more ab training after this, you should be lifting heavier weights. This should be very tough.
Like any type of training, too much is bad for you. There’s a risk of tightening your hip flexors and potentially developing back issues if you’re not careful. It’s very easy to overtrain abs. Less is often more.
What about a warm up?
You’re advised to do this workout at the end of a session, when you’re already thoroughly warmed up. I’d never suggest any kind of abs work before other lifting, for reasons I’ve explained in the article.
How long should I run the workout for?
I’d suggest a minimum of 8 weeks, but there’s nothing stopping you from using this as your go-to ab workout for much longer.
You’ll always need to freshen things up after a while anyway, but it can form the basis of what you do for a long time.
You can always progress it by lifting heavier weights, or performing more sets and reps if you need to.
The Crossover Dumbbell Ab Workout: The bottom line
The purpose of this program is to elevate your abdominal training. We’re going far beyond the ‘standard’ abdominal programs here, which tend to be an endless mixture of planks and crunches. This workout will challenge you, but it’ll also change you. You’ll learn new exercises and you’ll enjoy new challenges.
Expect to start with light weights, and expect to find even those very tough. Like anything though, with practice and determination you’ll improve.
Give this workout 8 weeks of your time, attention and effort and then see where your abdominal strength lies at the end of it. You’ll be a stronger, more capable athlete and will have grown strong and functional abs.