There are probably very few people who wouldn’t prefer to have more chiseled abs. And while obtaining a more toned physique is certainly a worthy and motivating fitness goal, the truth is that the value of incorporating exercises that target the abs far exceeds just aesthetics. The abdominal muscles, or abs for short, are a major component of the core, which includes the muscles of the torso and hips, such as 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 the core strength is at the foundation of most movement patterns.
With that said, 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 help us make sense of all the ab exercises out there and form a routine that will actually work to tone, sculpt, and strengthen our abs, we tapped two fitness pros for the all the best moves. With this routine, you can feel confident that your ab workouts are worth your time and will help develop functional and balanced strength in your core muscles.
Basic crunches, step aside. Read on for 15 of the best ab-sculpting exercises for the toned and strong abs you’ve always wanted.
Meet the Expert
Safety and Precautions
The ab 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.
“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 Martin, who says that no amount of targeted core work can outwork a poor diet and 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. And although diet is most important when it comes to fat loss, exercise is helpful. But, 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.”
With that said, remember that targeted core work has benefits that extend beyond as aesthetics, which make 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.”
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 low 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.
- 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, keeping your hips parallel with the ground.
This is another anti-rotational exercise, but the focus is on your obliques, which 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 arm remains straight, 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.
If this move is too difficult, bend your knees behind you and place them on the ground. And, 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 okay! 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 up to touch your toes, being sure to keep your low back fully planted on the mat.
- Hold for one second, and then with control, return your head and shoulders to the floor.
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, arms out to the side, palms facing down.
- Bring both legs down to one side (without fully touching the floor), hips stacked, and hold for a second, and 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 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.
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 toward the pike.
Though it takes a little coordination to do this exercise, it’s a great move to include to build 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.
- Keeping your arms in position, lower one foot to the ground in a slow and controlled movement.
- Raise the foot back to starting position and repeat the exercise with the other leg.
- Complete 10 repetitions per side.
Martin likes this move because it tones the lower abs, hip flexors, and quads, and 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 go as slow and controlled 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 shoulders, and your knees directly under hips. Make sure your back is flat like a table top.
- 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, you can modify this movement 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 together.
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 okay," 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.
“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 towards your feet.
Go very slowly. The slower the movement, the more challenging this exercise will be.