Every spring, I have the same mission: achieving the perfect summertime beach body. By fall, I’ve given up. (And here come the holidays with all their cookies and pies and savory treats.) I’m sure I’m not alone in this. And while there’s no such thing as a “quick fix,” there are specific exercises that can help tone abdominal muscles and add definition. These easy exercises target core muscle groups, including the rectus abdominis (aka the “six-pack” muscle), the obliques (which run along the sides of your waist), and the transverse abdominis (a deep layer of muscle that helps to stabilize the spine).
Defining the abs is no easy feat — and it can be especially difficult for women. (For various biological reasons, we tend to have more body fat and less muscle mass than men.) But there are workouts that can bring you closer to a six-pack… or at least help you to feel more confident in your skin.
Incorporating these ab exercises into your workout will also help to support back health and improve your overall athletic performance. Without further ado, here are the best ab exercises to incorporate into your next core workout or try at the gym with your personal trainer.
The trusty plank is one of the best bodyweight exercises for women who want to improve their core strength with at-home workouts. This type of core exercise is great for toning core muscles and building strength in the upper body.
Begin by lying on your stomach with your legs extended behind you. Prop yourself up onto your palms and toes so that your body is parallel to the floor and forms a straight line from head to toe. Tighten your glutes, flex your abs, and draw your belly button in toward your spine (without sacrificing your body’s straight line). Hold this position 20 to 60 seconds. If you want to take your planking to the next level, try incorporating some variations into your routine:
- Plank with leg raise: This move targets the abs and glutes. Start in a standard plank position with straight legs and hands shoulder-width apart (as outlined above), then hover your right foot off the ground and hold 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
- Side plank: This move is excellent for targeting the obliques. Lie on your side with your legs extended and prop yourself up on either your left elbow or right elbow. (You can also do this exercise on your palm.) Hold 10 seconds, then switch sides and repeat. Perform two to three times one both left and right sides.
To engage your lower body and entire core at the same time, incorporate mountain climbers into your workout. This popular HIIT exercise not only targets the lower abs, it strengthens the arms and chest while boosting heart rate. To do mountain climbers, come to a full-form plank position with your arms extended and both hands directly underneath your shoulders (as described above). Engage your core and draw one knee to your chest at a time for 30 to 60 seconds.
A Russian twist looks like a simple movement, but it requires a great deal of strength, which is why it’s an extremely effective way to build your core (and your shoulders, too). To do this exercise, sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat. Lean back very slightly, keeping your back straight. Place your hands on your stomach, and twist your torso to the right then to the left. Twist from side to side for 30 to 60 seconds. Keep your core engaged as you twist.
Typically seen in Pilates, barre, and strength training classes, flutter kicks are popular for a reason: They work. This exercise specifically targets the lower abdominal wall and works to strengthen core muscles. To start, lie flat on your back with your legs straight and your arms at your sides. Slowly lift both legs approximately six inches off the ground, keeping your lower back glued to the floor. From here, begin fluttering your legs up and down, keeping them straight and your movement controlled. Be sure to keep your ab muscles engaged through the entire movement.
It’s not the most appealing name for an exercise, but it works. The dead bug is a simple and effective way to build strength and stability throughout the entire body. Begin by lying flat on your back with your arms extended directly overhead. Bend your knees at a 90-degree angle and stack them over your hips. Your torso and thighs should form a right angle, as should your thighs and shins. This is the starting position. Glue your lower back to the floor to engage your core, then slowly extend and lower your left leg while simultaneously raising your right arm. (Extend both limbs until your heel and hand, respectively, are just shy of touching the floor. Pause for a second or two, then return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side. That’s one rep.
Wall Ball Sit-Ups
This challenging CrossFit favorite makes regular sit-ups look like a cake walk. Start off with a five-pound soft medicine ball and work your way up as you get stronger. Begin by sitting in front of a wall with the soles of your feet together and knees out wide. Hold the medicine ball at your chest and lean back slowly until you’re lying flat. Bring your arms overhead and tap the ball on the floor. As you perform a sit-up, bring the medicine ball in front of your face and toss it at the wall. When the ball bounces back, catch it at your chest. That’s one rep.
The reverse crunch is an awesome exercise that engages the “six-pack” ab muscles for a sculpted midsection without putting so much strain on your neck. Unlike the bicycle crunch, which sees you swapping your left leg and right leg while twisting your spine, the reverse crunch is a bit easier for beginners. Start by relaxing flat on your back and bringing your knees up to 90 degrees. Put your hands behind your head. Then lift your chest toward your knees while driving your knees to your chest. Reset and repeat.
Hip lifts may seem like an exercise best suited for beginners, but don’t be fooled — after just a few reps, even those with chiseled six-pack abs and a strong core will feel the burn. To do a hip lift, lie on your back with your left and right knees bent, arms straight beside you, and feet flat on the floor. Your fingertips should barely be able to touch the back of your heels. This is the starting position. Press into your heels to drive your hips up off the ground until your body forms a straight line between your shoulders and knees. Hold for a count of two then slowly lower your hips back to the starting position. Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds.
Dumbbell Crossover Crunch
Adding dumbbells to the classic sit-up brings a whole new level of strengthening to your ab workout. The dumbbell crossover punch — AKA, a weighted “cross-body crunch” — will fire up your core, arms, and shoulders.
Begin by lying on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Hold a lightweight dumbbell in each hand at your chest with your elbows on the floor. Keeping your hands steady at your chest, slowly roll up to a sitting position. Twist your torso to the right as you “punch” your left hand to the outside of the right knee. Bring the left hand back to your chest and your torso back to the center before rolling back down to the ground. Repeat the sit-up, twisting to the left side to complete one rep.
The Final Word
Whether you’re a newbie at the gym or you’ve been working out for ages, these nine exercises can do wonders for your core. Just remember: Dedication and consistency are key. If you don’t put in the work, it’s unlikely you’ll see the results. So, keep your eyes on the prize and don’t forget to drink plenty of water. And as always, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any new workout routine — especially if you have medical conditions that could be impacted by exercise.