A strong core provides fundamental support to your back, abdomen, and entire body. But doing any ol’ ab exercise won’t get you the results you’re looking for. In fact, they could even cause injury. “With sit-ups, for instance, you’re activating the muscles on the outside—not the deep transverse abdominis. You can hurt your spine or overuse your hip flexors,” explains Kara Griffith, exercise physiologist at Colorado Canyons Hospital & Medical Center. So what are the best ab exercises? To get the real skinny, we asked a physical therapist, certified personal trainer, and exercise physiologist about the ab exercises that will help you achieve a stronger, more toned core. The best part? You can do all of these exercises at home. No need to pay for a gym membership or carve out time to attend a pilates class.
But first, why is an ab workout routine so important?
“The core is the foundation of the body,” says Griffith. “Just like a house, if the foundation is weak, it will crumble. It’s the same with the body.” Griffith says that when we talk about core, we don’t just mean the abdominal muscles. “The core muscles are meant to stabilize your spine. The core includes abdominal, diaphragm, and pelvic floor musculature,” explains Nina Strang, physical therapist and certified strengthening and conditioning specialist at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. Griffith shares that the benefits of strengthening your core are numerous and include injury prevention, decreased back pain, less fatigue, less pain in other parts of the body, more endurance, and increased strength. “When your core is strong, you have better balance and you’re able to do activities in your daily life using less energy because you have a strong core supporting all of that movement.” That’s right: ab exercises aren’t just about getting a flatter stomach or achieving a 6-pack. And if we’re honest, focusing on just aesthetic results can be misleading. “We’re all different. Some people are tall, some are short, some have big hips. Everyone carries their weight differently,” shares Ann Scheufler, registered dietitian nutritionist who owns and runs Peas and Hoppiness. [pullquote align=”center”]“The core is the foundation of the body. Just like a house, if the foundation is weak, it will crumble. It’s the same with the body.” —Kara Griffith, exercise physiologist[/pullquote] So rather than focusing on a certain “look,” Scheufler encourages women to enjoy their personal fitness journey—knowing that with consistent exercise and proper nutrition, you’ll see results in your weight, inches, and level of toning.
Proper form and variety are essential.
Just like any exercise, ab workouts need to be done properly to get real results. “Our bodies are good at finding the path of least resistance, which isn’t always the best way,” explains Strang. If we’re not mindful of our form, we put ourselves at risk of injury … and of missing out on the intended rewards. “Variety is your best friend with any workout,” says Griffith. “You don’t want to do the same workouts every time because of muscle memory: The body gets too used to doing the same exercises.” To keep improving and strengthening (and to avoid muscle overuse), it’s a good practice to vary your ab workouts.
Best Ab Exercises
1. Pilates 100
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Imprint your pelvis by drawing your belly button up and in to press your lower back against the floor. Lift your head and neck off of the ground in a lifted crunch position, maintaining a neutral neck line by looking at your knees. Extend your arms along your sides and reach away from you. Breathe slowly, using five counts on the inhale and five counts on the exhale, pulsing the arms with each count. “Your arms should be strong and not floppy. Engage your shoulders,” says Griffith. “Hold your legs in the same position, maintaining control of the lower back and pelvis.” Suggested reps: Do as many as you can with good form, or up to 100 counts (per the exercise name) for one set. Advance the movement:
- Beginners: Keep your feet on the ground.
- Intermediate: Lift your legs up to a table top position with your knees and hips at a 90 degree angle.
- Advanced: Extend your legs upward at an angle.
“Do the version that’s appropriate for your level. The better your form, the better your results,” says Griffith.
Face a wall in standing position with both hands on the wall in front of you. “You shouldn’t be leaning or resting on the wall, but stabilizing your body there,” says Megan Williams, certified personal trainer, diet specialist, and founder of Megan Williams Training. Then, squeeze your core, sucking in and straightening your spine, as if you’re putting on a pair of tight pants. Hold this upright, tucked ab position for 30 seconds. “You should feel your entire core, transverse abdominis, and obliques engaging as you hold this elongated spinal position,” says Williams. Suggested reps: Four to five reps. Advance the movement: Hold for 60 seconds instead of 30.
3. The Bridge
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Extend your arms to your sides or cross them over your chest. Your feet should be hip-width apart with your toes facing away from you. Lift your hips toward the ceiling while contracting your abdominal muscles. “Make sure you’re lifting with your hips. Your abdominals should stabilize your spine to prevent lifting with your back,” explains Strang. Hold your hips up for a count of five while stabilizing your ab muscles. Bring your hips slowly back down. Suggested reps: 15 to 20 reps, three or four sets. Advance the movement: Extend one leg upward in line with your hips. Remember to keep your lower back and pelvis tilted toward the ground to keep your form.
The marching exercise is ideal for an ab workout at home. Lie on your back with your neck and shoulders resting comfortably on the floor. Tighten your abs and tilt your pelvis so your lower back touches the floor. Both legs should be bent and resting on the floor. Lift up one leg at a time, focus on keeping your back still and abdominals tight. “Go slow and focus on controlled motion. If you can’t control the motion, limit your leg movement. Remember to keep the focus on engaging your transverse abdominis,” says Strang. Suggested reps: 20 reps, three sets. Advance the movement: Bend both legs in a table top position (90 degree angle from your hips). Slowly lower one leg down at a time and tap your heel to the floor.
5. Backward Crunch
Start in a seated position with your feet on the floor and a straight, neutral spine. Lean backward slowly, counting to 20. Controlled movement is key, says Williams. Once you feel like you could fall backward, plant your hands on the floor and slowly push yourself back up to starting position. “Instead of a normal crunch, you’re only doing the leaning back portion, which elongates the spine and engages the core muscles. It also burns!” says Williams. Suggested reps: Work your way up to 10 reps, but start with three to five. Advance the movement: Lift your feet off of the floor so your knees are closer to your chest.
6. Bird Dogs
Begin in a table top position with your knees on the ground and your hands planted firmly shoulder-width apart. With a flat back, engage your abs by tucking in and keeping your spine straight. Extend one leg straight backward (in line with your spine) while simultaneously extending the opposite arm out straight. Bring them back in to the starting position. Alternate by extending the opposite leg and opposite arm. Suggested reps: 20 to 30 reps, three sets. Advance the movement: Hold your arm and leg in the extended position for five seconds before bringing them back to the starting position.
Lie on the floor with your stomach facing down. Touch your toes to the floor and lift your body using your glutes, core muscles, and arms. Support your body weight on your elbows or hands. For beginners, keep your knees on the ground. “Your elbows or hands should be right under the shoulders, and your legs should be straight out behind you,” says Griffith. Keep your hips in alignment, creating a straight line from the ankles to the knees to the hips to the shoulders. If your hips are too high, you won’t be engaging your core. If they’re too low, it puts stress on your lower back, explains Griffith. Remember that you’re pulling in on your abs and not pushing out. Suggested reps: Hold for up to one minute (or as long as you can), three times. If you need to take a break before one minute, do it. Advance the movement: Engage your obliques with side planks by rotating your body sideways, keeping one foot on the ground and stacking the other on top of it. Rest on your elbow or straighten your arm, planting your palm firmly on the ground. Elevate your hips to remain in line with your body.
8. Banded Obliques
Loop a resistance band with handles around something sturdy that won’t move. Take a few steps away from the object that the band is attached to. Lift both arms above the head while holding the band by the handle. Lock the shoulders so they don’t move. Slowly side bend away from the attachment, then come back to center, but don’t let the band pull you past center. “It’s all about smooth control,” says Griffith. Adjust the resistance of your band as needed by moving closer or further away. Alternate sides to get both sets of obliques. Suggested reps: Perform one set to fatigue with 10 to 20 reps per side. Use a lighter or heavier resistance band as needed. Advance the movement: Increase to 15 reps, but keep your form intact.
9. Rotating Ab Plank
Begin in a plank position (see #7). Bend your knees slightly so your feet are closer to your shoulders than normal. Start in the middle position, and pull in the stomach as you rotate slowly to one side without dropping the knees. Extend your top arm toward the sky. Hold for 20 seconds. Rotate back to the middle slowly, hold for 20 seconds, then rotate to the opposite side for a 20 count. “You should be squeezing your bottom abs and working your obliques as you rotate,” says Williams. Suggested reps: Two reps, three sets. Advance the movement: Hold for 40 seconds on each side and in the center.
10. Knee Tucks
Time to pull out your exercise ball! Start in a plank position with your hands planted firmly on the floor, shoulder-distance apart. Your toes should be secure to the ball for stability. Tuck your knees to your chest, rolling in the ball toward your head. Slowly extend your legs back out. Suggested reps: 10 to 15 reps. Two to three sets. Advance the movement: Hold for a five-second count when your legs are in the extended position.
Incorporate ab exercises into your daily routine.
Building a strong core doesn’t just involve consistent ab workouts. It’s about utilizing your core in your other exercises, says Strang. Engage your core when you do lunges, squats, and while weightlifting. [pullquote]Building a strong core doesn’t just involve consistent ab workouts. It’s about utilizing your core in your other exercises.[/pullquote] “Even when you’re sitting at your desk, your abs can be engaged to support healthy posture. Place both feet on the ground, press your feet lightly as if you’re standing, and straighten your spine,” instructs Griffith. You can even engage your core while you wash dishes or stand in line at the grocery store. Wondering how many times per week to do ab workouts specifically? “Three days a week is recommended for ab workouts,” says Griffith. “You don’t need to do a specific ab workout every day, and you shouldn’t do ab-specific exercises two days in a row. Just like the rest of the body, those muscles need recovery days.”
And don’t forget a crucial ingredient: your nutrition.
“There’s an old adage that says ‘Abs are made in the kitchen,’” says Williams. And others agree. For healthy, toned abs, it’s important to reduce the fat that’s around them. Scheufler explains: “If someone wants to lose weight, especially around the middle, they need to reduce their caloric intake. You want to specifically avoid blood sugar spikes. When the liver doesn’t have enough room to store the excess sugar that isn’t immediately burned (and it maxes out quickly), that excess sugar turns into fat.” Reducing your intake of simple sugars and carbs, like soda, helps reduce your belly fat and your fat overall. “Fruits and veggies are also important when it comes to weight loss because they are full of fiber and water,” says Scheufler. She encourages everyone to get the recommended daily protein amount of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For a person who weighs 150 pounds, that means around 54 grams per day. “You can get protein from meat, dairy, beans, lentils, nuts, tofu, and any soy protein,” Scheufler says. To see the most significant body changes, Griffith suggests the fitness trifecta: healthy eating, balanced strength training with a focus on the core, and cardio that’s not seated.