If you’re just getting started on your fitness journey or are getting back into a workout routine after some time off, jumping into intense HIIT classes, trying to run several miles per day, or taking on heavy lifts is not only daunting, but also inadvisable. The good news is that the risk of injuring yourself can be reduced by starting with your foundation—the core. Your core muscles—including your abs, glutes, and back and hip muscles—help stabilize and support healthy posture and movement so that your body can handle the other exercises you take on.
The even better news is that you can start your fitness journey—or comeback—with some ab exercises right from the comfort of your own bed. In fact, we reached out to two fitness experts who helped us put together an ab routine that requires no equipment and can help you strengthen and tone your core even while catching up on your favorite shows.
So, whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or just diving into working out, keep reading for 14 effective ab exercises to develop your core strength from the comfort of your bed.
Meet the Expert
- Courtney Kessler is a NASM-certified personal trainer with pre- and postnatal certifications. She’s also the creator and founder of Mindset & Miles.
- David Rosales is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and the co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems.
Safety and Precautions
Kessler says that even though the ab exercises in this routine can be done on your bed, and therefore may seem very easy, it’s still important to consider safety. “Before you start any kind of exercise regimen, think safety first. Talk to your doctor before you begin any new routine,” she advises.
There are also a few core-specific precautions to keep in mind with this routine. “Ensure that you are moving slowly through these movements and engaging the proper muscles. Remember to breathe, maintaining proper spine alignment, focusing on neck safety, and controlling your speed,” explains Kessler. “Never pull your head/neck with your hands when doing traditional sit-up movements.” She also advises that if your neck or lower back hurt at any point during the workout, you should stop the movement.
Rosales says it’s critical to respect your limits, so don’t try progressing an exercise until you are strong enough and have fully mastered the basic version. “One of the biggest mistakes you can make is attempting a variation that you’re not ready for. For example, if you can’t keep your back flat with lying [leg marches] with your knees bent, then an exercise like leg raises might tweak your lower back,” he notes. “Always [err] on the side of a variation that’s too easy—then you can always move to a more difficult option.”
Lastly, although the exercises here are intended to be doable on your bed, not every bed may be the best choice. For one thing, make sure it is wide enough that you have enough room on either side of you so that you won’t fall off during movements. And, according to Kessler, your mattress plays a role too: “A soft or very soft bed is not good for your back or these exercises—they work best with a hard or firm mattress.”
Kessler says a common misconception is that you can’t get in a decent workout without hitting the gym or at least going somewhere other than your bed. “If you love your bed just as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to get out of bed just to get a workout in. In fact, bed exercises can help train your prime mover muscles, while recruiting small stabilizing muscles at the same time,” she says. “Unstable surfaces can also be beneficial for building core strength, improving balance, and strengthening your core canister.” She says the exercises in this routine can even be done in your pajamas—it doesn’t get much more approachable than that.
Rosales says another misconception is that ab exercises are easy and mindless. While you can certainly work your way through your Netflix queue during these exercises once you master them, they do require you to dedicate your attention to proper form when learning the moves. “In order to engage our abdominals, we want to set up our pelvis into a neutral position. Typically, our pelvis sits tilted forward and our spine excessively arched,” explains Rosales. “Before any abdominal exercises, we want to tilt the pelvis backward and flatten the lower back. The muscles that will do this are the abdominals and the hip extensors (glutes).”
Rosales has some tips to ensure you’re properly getting your pelvis into this neutral position. “Your back should be flat while you perform all of your ab exercises. You can easily use the surface you’re lying down on for feedback. If you can reach your hand in between your lower back and the bed, your back isn’t actually flat.” When you’re just beginning to train your abs, make sure to do the exercises with your knees bent because this will make flattening your back easier. “This neutral posture is crucial because otherwise, while performing ‘ab exercises,’ your abs won’t be in a position where they can effectively contract, and other muscles, like the lower-back muscles, will perform the bulk of the movement.”
Lastly, Kessler notes that core exercises have benefits that extend beyond giving your abs a toned and tightened appearance. “Core training’s objective is to cohesively strengthen the deep and superficial muscles that stabilize, align, and move the trunk of the body, including the muscles of the back,” she explains. “A strong core helps maintain proper muscle balance throughout your body.”
Mastering basic crunches with proper form is a good place to start. To incorporate your upper body, squeeze a Pilates ring as your crunch up.
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your feet on the bed. Ensure your feet are shoulder-width apart and pointed straight ahead.
- If you have a Pilates ring, place in straight in front of your body.
- If you don't have a ring, cross your arms on your chest, or place your hands behind your ears or head.
- Slowly crunch your upper body up, raising your shoulder blades off the bed, and pause at the top of the move. If you are using one, squeeze the Pilates ring at the top.
- Slowly lower your upper body back to the starting position.
- Complete three sets of 10 reps or one set of 25 reps.
This move not only works your abdominal muscles, including the side oblique muscles, but also targets your hips.
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the bed, shoulder-width apart and pointed straight ahead. Place your hands behind your ears or head, and point your elbows out to the side.
- Slowly bring your elbow to your opposite knee, pulling the knee in and rotating toward that knee while simultaneously extending the opposite leg out.
- Switch sides in a continuous motion, transitioning smoothly.
- Repeat for a total of 12 slow reps on each side.
Strengthen and tone your upper and lower abdominals with this effective move.
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the bed shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward.
- Place your arms straight out, with palms facing down.
- “Slowly crunch your upper body up just slightly, raising shoulder blades off the bed, using your hands to push through the space [between] your knees,” instructs Kessler.
- Complete 25 reps.
This isometric hold targets your abs, hip flexors, and back. Using a Pilates ring will help strengthen your upper body.
- Lie on your back, with your legs straight and arms straight overhead on the bed.
- If you have a Pilates ring, hold it straight out in front. If you don't have one, extend both arms straight in front of you.
- Engage your core to lift your arms and legs up simultaneously, bending at the waist until your body makes a “V” shape.
- Hold the position for 15–30 seconds, squeezing the Pilates ring as you hold, and then slowly lower back down.
- Repeat the exercise three times.
You’ll really isolate your abs with this move.
- Lie on your back, with your arms at your sides and legs vertical/straight up in the air.
- Place your hands together and reach toward your toes, then pause at the top.
- Slowly lower back down.
- Complete 20 reps.
This final variation on basic crunches targets your side oblique muscles.
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent up and arms behind your head.
- As you crunch up, lift your left leg up slightly as you twist, touching your right elbow to your left knee.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
- Complete 10 reps on each side.
This exercise is the basic move in the series of reverse crunches and leg lifts that follow. Rosales says to make sure you can easily handle this one before taking on the advanced variations.
- Lie on your back, knees bent to 90 degrees and shins up in the air parallel to the bed.
- Exhale slowly, flattening your back against the bed and lowering one heel to tap the mattress.
- Once this heel hits the bed, slowly bring it back up while tapping the other heel to the bed.
- Alternate in this fashion for 30 seconds.
- Repeat three times.
Progress this exercise by moving both legs together (reverse crunches), then straighten each leg and move them individually (alternating straight leg lifts), and then move both straightened legs together (straight leg lifts).
This exercise progresses leg marches, requiring greater abdominal strength and control by moving both legs together.
- Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the bed, toes pointing straight ahead.
- Place your arms behind your neck or by your sides with your palms facing down on the bed.
- “Slowly pull both knees into your chest, tucking them up so your feet are above your head and pulsing at the top,” says Kessler.
- Crunch up as your knees come in.
- Gently lower your legs back down to the starting position and then lift them back up.
- Complete 20 reps.
Alternating Straight Leg Lifts
Now you’ll go back to moving one leg at a time, but by straightening them, your legs act as longer levers, increasing the difficulty of the exercise.
- Lie on your back, with your legs straight up in the air, perpendicular to the bed, and your arms at your side.
- Exhale slowly, flattening your back against the bed and lowering one of your straightened legs toward the mattress.
- Reach up towards the shin of your leg that is straight.
- Once your heel nearly touches the bed (try not to let it actually touch), inhale, and slowly bring it back up.
- Go as slowly as possible, alternating legs, and aim for five repetitions per leg.
Straight Leg Lifts
Now you’ll challenge your core even more by lifting both extended legs together.
- Lie on your back, with your palms under your hips for support, and legs straight out.
- Lift your straightened legs up together, so they’re hovering over the floor.
- The lower your legs are to the floor, the more difficult it is. If you have back pain, lift them up slightly higher.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then relax.
- Repeat three times.
This last progression in the series adds some lateral movement to also work your hips, glutes, and inner thighs.
- Lie on your back, with your legs fully straightened and palms under your hips for back support.
- Engage your abdominals to lift your extended legs about 6 inches off the bed so that they are hovering over the surface of the bed.
- Move your legs up and down in alternating, scissor-like movements. “Do not worry about speed. In fact, go slow, and stay with your breath,” advises Rosales.
- Aim to continue the movement for 30 seconds, or for the length of four to five breaths with slow exhales.
“For many people starting out, doing a plank while being able to maintain a neutral posture is difficult. So, make it easier by using gravity to your advantage,” says Rosales. “Place your forearms on an elevated surface, like your mattress, and keep your feet on the ground.” Once you’ve mastered that modification, you can take on the standard plank.
- Lie on your stomach and prop your upper body up, resting your elbows under your shoulders with your palms pressed together.
- With your legs straight behind you, rise up on your toes, engaging your core muscles and glutes and keeping your back flat.
- Hold the position for 15–30 seconds, and then relax.
- Repeat three times.
This plank variation works your obliques, the muscles on the sides of your torso.
- Lie on your side, with your feet stacked and your body in a straight line and your arm straight.
- Exhale, engaging your core and glutes while you lift your body up, keeping your body in a straight line.
- If it is too difficult with your arm straight, perform the side plank on your forearm instead of straightened arm.
- Rosales says to hold the position for four breaths, trying to extend the length of the exhales to seven to 15 seconds each.
- Switch sides.
One-Leg Ab Plank
This advanced plank variation requires additional balance and core strength.
- Holding a standard high plank, left one leg up.
- Hold for five to 10 seconds, making sure you keep your body in a straight line.
- Switch legs.
- Aim for three to five reps on each side.
Huxel Bliven KC, Anderson BE. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports Health. 2013;5(6):514-522. doi:10.1177/1941738113481200