There are few people who wouldn’t prefer to have more chiseled abs. And while obtaining a toned physique is certainly a worthy and motivating fitness goal, the truth is that the value of exercises that target the abs far exceeds just aesthetics. The abdominal muscles are a major component of the core, which includes the muscles of the torso and hips (the abs, obliques, back extensors, glutes, and more). And having a strong core improves posture, functional strength, movement efficiency, and physical performance. In fact, fitness experts say that core strength is at the foundation of most movement patterns.
So it should come as no surprise that there are countless exercises for the abs. But which ones actually work? Should we be doing crunches? Full sit-ups? Using ab machines at the gym? Planking for minutes on end? The options can feel bewildering. So, to make sense of all the ab exercises out there, we tapped two fitness pros to help us form a routine that will actually tone, sculpt, and strengthen our abs. With these moves, you can feel confident that your ab workouts are worth your time and will help develop functional and balanced strength in your core muscles.
Meet the Expert
- Megan Martin is an ACE-certified personal trainer and the owner of Live Empowered Fitness.
- Jeanette Jenkins is a health and wellness coach with 30 years of experience and an education in Human Kinetics. As the creator of The Hollywood Trainer Club, she has expertise in several methods of training, from strength training and cardio workouts to yoga and Pilates.
Safety and Precautions
The exercises in this routine should be safe for most people, as long as proper form and technique are used. However, if you have an injury, illness, or are pregnant, you should consult your doctor prior to engaging in the exercises. Our experts also stress the importance of focusing on using your core in each exercise, rather than relying on momentum or pulling up on your head or neck to raise your body. Engaging your core not only makes the exercise more effective, but also mitigates the potential injury risk associated with pulling on your neck.
Health and wellness coach Jeanette Jenkins says it is also important to stay hydrated while exercising, especially during a hot day.
“The key to keeping your energy up is making sure you’re well hydrated before, during and after your workout. During a workout, our sweat glands are activated to help cool down the body, which depletes our internal water levels. Dehydration occurs when fluid losses exceed fluid consumed through both foods and drinks,” Jenkins says, explaining that hydration can impact everything from athletic performance and muscle recovery to mood, alertness, concentration and short-term memory.
Jenkins says that Abbott’s Pedialyte Sport is her “secret sauce” for herself and the athletes she trains because it has five key electrolytes for fast rehydration and muscle support, as well as one-fourth the sugar of the leading sports drink. "It’s specifically formulated for our hydration needs when we exercise. The powder packs are convenient for when I’m on the go, so I always keep a few of them in my bag. You just mix with water and you’re ready to go," she says.
“Many people want to work their core in an attempt to ‘get abs.’ Having visible abdominal muscles is appealing, but very few people will actually attain a six-pack,” notes Megan Martin, who adds that no amount of targeted core work can outwork a poor diet to give you visible abs. “The layer of fat that accumulates over your stomach has to be reduced by proper diet,” she explains. In other words, you can’t spot-reduce fat on your body. Although diet is most important when it comes to fat loss, exercise is helpful too, and a well-rounded program is going to be most effective. According to Martin, “In order to lose fat, you must train your entire body. HIIT, cardio, and weightlifting will all help to reduce the fat in your midsection.”
Jenkins agrees, saying it takes both diet and exercise to achieve your goals of trimming and strengthening your waist. "Whether you’re looking to make gains, burn fat or build up stamina, you have to pay attention to your meal plan just as much as your training schedule," she says. "It is absolutely necessary to have a calorie negative at the end of the day if you are trying to burn off body fat and slim down your midsection."
She says hydrating with water or a low-sugar electrolyte drink like Pedialyte Sport also helps your body work more efficiently. "You need to rehydrate to see those gains and help your muscles recover after an intense workout, and the first step is picking a high-quality drink that has the right ingredients to prevent dehydration," she says.
Keeping both diet and exercise in mind, remember that targeted core work has benefits that extend beyond just appearances, making it important to include in your workout routine. “Having a strong core makes you stronger in all athletic movements. If you are looking to add weight to your squat, deadlift, bench press, or overhead press, building core strength is a basic foundation,” notes Martin. “Having a strong core also helps prevent and ease lower-back pain.”
Ready to get started? Basic crunches, step aside. Jenkins demonstrates 15 of the best exercises for the toned and strong abs you’ve always wanted.
Plank With Front Raise
This is an anti-rotational core exercise, which helps your entire core develop the strength to stabilize your body during movement. It also strengthens the extensor muscles in the lower back.
- Get into a push-up or forearm plank position (either works), maintaining a straight line from your feet to the top of your head.
- Without moving your butt into the air, raise one arm up so that it is parallel to your face. “Raise and lower your arms slowly,” explains Martin. “Keep your legs locked, and don’t allow any swaying side to side as you switch arms.”
- Hold for one full breath, and then return to the starting position.
- Alternate arms, aiming for 10 repetitions on both sides.
This plank variation lifts your leg instead of your arm. You’ll get some added work for your glutes and hamstrings, too.
- Position yourself into a forearm plank, keeping your back straight.
- When your core is stable, lift one leg at a time, toes pointing down, and hold for 30 seconds.
- Alternate to the other side and hold for 30 seconds, keeping your hips parallel with the ground.
This is another anti-rotational exercise, but the focus here is on your obliques. These are the “side” muscles of your abs that help with bending and rotational movements.
- Lay on your side, with your legs stacked on top of each other.
- Extend the arm on the side of your body that is resting on the ground. Your legs remain straight, and your feet stay stacked one on top of the other. Concentrate on pushing your top hip up to the ceiling, advises Martin.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds, or stop early if your form waivers.
- Repeat on the other side. Hold for 30 seconds.
If this move is too difficult, place your knees on the ground and bend to 90 degrees behind you, stacked on top of each other, hips raised. Or, to progress the exercise, lift your top leg up as high as you can.
Martin shares some advice for this exercise: “Most people will not be able to reach their toes, and that’s OK! It’s all about the contraction of the abs.”
- Lay on your back, and lift both legs straight up.
- Keeping your head and shoulders in contact with the floor, extend both arms straight up so they are perpendicular to your torso.
- Engage your abs as you reach to touch your toes, being sure to keep your lower back fully planted on the mat.
- Hold for one second, and then, with control, return your head and shoulders to the floor.
- Repeat 15 to 30 times.
This challenging move targets your abs, obliques, hip stabilizers, and low back muscles.
- While lying on your back, squeeze your hips together, and bring your legs straight up into the air until they are perpendicular to the ground. Your arms should be out to the sides, with palms facing down.
- Bring both legs down to one side (without fully touching the floor), hips stacked, and hold for one second. Then return to the center.
- Alternate sides continuously for 30 seconds.
You might not have done a crab walk since PE class in elementary school, but this variation is a core-toning powerhouse.
- Get into crab-walk position, using your core to keep your hips lifted and off the ground the whole time.
- Kick up your right leg while reaching your left hand up to meet it.
- Lower that leg and hand, and repeat on the other side.
- Do 10-15 repetitions per side.
This move works those hard-to-target lower abs, as well as your hip flexors.
- Lie on your back, with arms at your sides and legs extended.
- Explosively sit up, bringing your right arm and left leg up in a running motion while you exhale.
- Inhale, slowly lowering your body back down to the ground.
- Repeat 10 times on each side.
While this is more of an advanced move, it’ll get your abs burning like crazy once you’ve mastered it.
- Grab an exercise ball and place your shins on top of it, bringing the rest of your body into a standard push-up position.
- Slowly bring the ball in closer toward your body, so that your tiptoes end up on top of the ball.
- As you pull the ball in slightly, use your core to lift your hips up in the air, and bring your head in between your arms so that you’re looking at your hips.
- Repeat 10 times.
If you don’t quite have the stability for this move yet, just start with holding the push-up position on the ball—eventually, you’ll build your way up to the pike.
Though it takes a little coordination to do this exercise, it’s a great move for building functional stability throughout your core.
- Lie on your back, with your arms extended into the air so that they are perpendicular to your torso.
- Lift both feet off the mat, and bend your knees to a 90-degree angle.
- Lower one leg to the ground in a slow and controlled movement, and extend the opposite arm above your head.
- Raise the leg and arm back to starting position, and repeat the exercise with the opposite leg and arm.
- Complete 10-15 repetitions per side.
Martin likes this move because it tones the lower abs, hip flexors, and quads, plus it develops pelvic stability.
- Lie on your back, with your legs extended and your arms at your side.
- Bend one knee, keeping the foot on the ground.
- With your toes flexed, use your core to lift the straight leg off the ground until it is perpendicular to the floor.
- Point the toes and slowly lower the leg, stopping just before it touches the ground, and pause and hold for a second.
- Keep lifting and lowering for 10 repetitions, and then switch legs.
Do not press your arms into the floor, as this will take some of the work away from the abs.
This variation on traditional crunches will work your deep core muscles—in addition to the abs on top of them.
- Lie on your back with your legs in a “butterfly” position—knees bent and dropped open and the soles of the feet pressed together. Interlace your fingers, and place your hands behind your head.
- Engage your abs to lift your head and shoulders off the ground. Don’t use your upper body to pull your neck and head up.
- Crunch up as high as you can, and then slowly lower your head and shoulders back to the ground.
- Complete 15 repetitions.
The key to mastering this exercise and reaping the benefits is to use control and go as slowly as possible, which builds strength, stability, and balance in your core and upper body.
- Get into the push-up position, with your arms fully extended and your wrists under your shoulders.
- Keeping your body in a straight line, bring one knee to your chest, and hold the contraction for one second.
- Perform 10 repetitions with each leg.
Martin likes including this exercise in core routines because it is great for developing functional core stability and balance. It also strengthens the lower back, glutes, shoulders, and abs.
- Kneel on all fours, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Make sure your back is flat like a tabletop.
- Reach straight out in front of you with your right arm while simultaneously extending your left leg straight back.
- Hold for one breath, and then return to the starting position.
- Repeat 10 times on each side.
Martin says if you lose your balance while trying this move, you can modify it by extending only your arm, then returning to the starting position, and then extending only your leg until you gain the strength, balance, and coordination to do both simultaneously.
Your back is part of your core. Your abdominal muscles and spinal extensor muscles work together to create a sort of “girdle” that provides you with stability. You should feel this exercise in the small of your back, notes Martin.
- Lie on your stomach, with your arms extended straight out past your face.
- Bring your arms behind your back in a swimming motion. If you don’t have the flexibility to reach your arms all the way behind you, that’s OK, notes Martin.
- As you pull your arms back, gently lift your head and upper chest off the ground.
- Return your arms to starting position, and lower your head and chest back to the ground.
- Repeat 10-12 times.
“This exercise looks very easy, but it is actually a superior core exercise, as it targets all of the anterior muscles of the core,” notes Martin.
- Lie on your back, with your arms extended behind your head.
- Slowly contract your core and sit up as straight as you can, pulling your arms over your head.
- Extend your arms and reach toward your feet.
- Repeat 10 times.
Go very slowly. The slower the movement, the more challenging this exercise will be.
Harvard Medical School. The real-world benefits of strengthening your core. Published January 24, 2012.
Hung KC, Chung HW, Yu CC, Lai HC, Sun FH. Effects of 8-week core training on core endurance and running economy. PLoS One. 2019;14(3):e0213158. Published 2019 Mar 8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0213158