With spring in full swing and summer right around the corner, beach weather is nearly upon us. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept so many of us indoors for the past year, slowly but surely dissipates, making a safe trip to the beach not only appealing but imminent.
If your fitness routine has taken a bit of a backseat with gyms closed and working out at home often difficult, you might be less-than-enthused about the state of your body. Shedding that “quarantine 15” will be hard work, but with the right mindset and exercises, you can rebuild your regimen in no time.
Bulging biceps and sculpted shoulders often get all the love, but six-pack abs? Synonymous with the “beach body,” they’re so desirable partly because of the discipline and hard work required to attain them. And while those washboard abs are often sought-after for aesthetic reasons, a strong core offers tons of other benefits. As the literal core of your body, the abdominals aid in your balance, stability, posture and back strength, all of which assist both day-to-day tasks and athletic activities. A strong core can greatly improve some of your other lifts in the gym as well. So even if you’re not after a six-pack, there’s plenty of reasons to strengthen your midsection.
Before we get into the best ab exercises, it’s important to understand the anatomy of your core. The abs are actually four different muscles, so you’ll want a dynamic ab exercise routine that targets all of them. Let’s break it down
Rectus Abdominis: The “six-pack,” this is the long sheet of muscle that extends from the pelvis to the sternum. One tendinous sheath splits the abdominis vertically, while three horizontal tendinous sheaths give it that familiar “six-pack” look. The rectus abdominis helps you flex the spine and maintain good posture.
External Obliques: Starting at your ribs, the external obliques sit on either side of the rectus abdominis and run diagonally toward the middle of your body. The external obliques are key for rotating and twisting your body.
Internal Obliques: Essentially the opposite of the external obliques, these muscles originate at your hips and run diagonally upward toward your ribs. They work in tandem with the external obliques for rotational movements.
Transverse Abdominis: Think of it like an internal weight belt. The deepest of the abdominal muscles, this sits underneath the rectus abdominis and obliques — wrapping around the torso — and helps with both breathing and stabilizing the abdominal wall.
The Best Ab Exercises for Home Workouts
The beauty of working out your abs is you don’t need a gym. So many fundamental ab exercises require only your body weight, and if that’s not enough of a challenge, you can creatively add weight to certain ab exercises by grabbing any compact household item that tacks on a few pounds: A heavy book, milk carton or even canned foods can help up the ante.
We’ve broken down the best ab exercises into two categories — simple yet effective movements you can do at home, and more complex exercises that require additional gym quipment.
And it’s important to note: Diligently performing the best ab exercises will surely benefit your abs, but a healthy diet and cardio routine are key components of revealing those tight abs as well.
The best part about planks? You can do them pretty much anywhere, and they’re incredibly simple. While some fitness fanatics can hold planks for minutes on end (the world record is an absolutely ridiculous eight-hour plank), you can start with intervals of 15 or 30 seconds.
Instructions: Lay face down on the ground, and prop yourself up into a plank position with your body weight resting on your outer forearms and toes. Keep your arms parallel with one another, with your elbows in line with your shoulders and your fists balled up. The key here is keeping your torso and legs completely parallel with the ground.
2. Dead Bug
Like the plank, the dead bug is a key stabilization exercise that helps enhance your posture and grow accustomed to engaging alternate limbs. The name might sound gross, but the results definitely won’t be.
Instructions: Lay face up on the floor with your arms extended upwards, perpendicular to the ground. Bring your knees up so they form a 90-degree angle between your calf and quad. Then, extend your left arm above your head so it’s parallel to the ground, and simultaneously do the same with your right leg, bending the knee so it’s fully extended. Hold, then return your limbs to the starting position and repeat with the right arm and left leg.
As it turns out, traditional crunches aren’t that great for you. While they do target and strengthen the abs, they compress the spine in an unnatural way, and conditions a motion that’s not commonly performed in any regular movement. Enter v-ups, a safer alternative that should torch your upper abs and keep your lower abs thoroughly encaged.
Instructions: Lay flat on your back with your legs straight and arms extended above your head. The backs of your hands should touch the ground. Simultaneously raise your arms and legs off the ground, pulling your body up into a V position. Make sure to keep your core tight and engaged throughout the exercise; you want to maintain a steady, controlled motion.
4. Russian Twist
As we discussed earlier, your abs are made up of four different muscles, each of which contribute to different bodily motions. The obliques control twisting and rotations, so it’s critical to make sure those are in shape too. The Russian twist is a great introduction to oblique exercises and can be modified into more difficult variations.
Instructions: For beginners, start seated, with your heels touching the floor, bending your knees so your thighs are at a 45-degree angle from the ground. Lift your torso up so it’s also 45-degrees above the control, engaging your core to keep you steady. With your arms in front of you and hands interlaced, use your abs to rotate your torso to one side and tap the ground with your hands. Return to center and rotate to the alternate side to complete one rep. For a more advanced variation, lift your legs off the ground completely and use your core to keep them steadily hovering above the floor. This is also an ab exercise you can do weighted. If you’re at the gym, try a light dumbbell, small plate or medicine ball and hold it with both hands.
5. Heel Touches
Another simple, gear-less exercise, heel touches will target your obliques in a movement you can tackle pretty much anywhere.
Instructions: Lay on your back with your knees bet and feet flat on the ground. With your arms at your sides, raise your shoulders slightly above the ground, then use your abs to rotate your right hand down to your right heel, then alternate with your left.
The Best Ab Exercises for the Gym
If you’ve mastered the body weight ab exercises and have access to a gym, incorporate the following exercises for a great core workout. In addition to adding weight, gym equipment can help you focus on different angles to make ab exercises more challenging and dynamic. Make sure you have a thorough understanding of the various pieces of gear, though, as they can be dangerous if used incorrectly.
1. Hanging Leg Raise
A simple pull-up bar wields a long list of exercises and variations to target your abs. While you can incorporate different twists and rotations, we really like the simple hanging leg raise to target your abs and hip flexors.
Instructions: Grip a pull-up bar with your arms extended and hands shoulder-width apart. Make sure the bar is high enough to the point where you can hang with your full body extended and not touch the floor. Slowly raise your legs, keeping them straight, until they’re parallel with the ground and form a 90-degree angle with your torso. Slowly return back to the starting position. Take extra care here to keep your core engaged and your torso still — don’t use upper-body strength or any kind of momentum to swing your legs up. You want a stable, controlled movement.
2. Decline Sit-Up
Though traditionally used for chest exercises, workout benches are a super versatile gym tool. The main benefit? Angles. A good workout bench can adjust to various incline and decline angles to help engage your muscles in different ways. If you’re at the gym, look for a decline bench specially meant for abs — it’ll have cushioned slots for your legs. A standard flat bench used for pressing won’t work for this exercise. If you want to try this at home, you can also check out our list of the best adjustable workout benches, many of which have the necessary features for ab exercises.
Instructions: This one’s pretty simple. Secure your legs in the cushions of a decline bench and start with your back flat against it. You can cross your arms over your chest, put them behind your head or secure a dumbbell or plate against your body for an extra challenge. Using your abs, lift your torso up so it’s perpendicular with the bench. Return to the start and repeat, making an effort to keep your core engaged between reps. For an oblique-torching variation, you can add a twist at the top of the movement, rotating to the left and right before laying back down.
3. Kneeling Cable Crunch
Cable machines are a mainstay in any gym, and provide constant tension as you raise and lower the weight, thus keeping your muscles engaged in a way that’s harder to achieve with free weights. This is especially key for ab exercises like the cable crunch, as the consistent tension forces your abs to stay tight throughout the exercise. This is a more advanced move, and one that takes a little practice to really master. Form is crucial, so pay attention.
Instructions: Attach a rope handle to the pully of a cable machine. Get on your knees a few feet from the machine and place the rope evenly behind your head, reaching up to grab the it with both hands. Crunch downward, bringing your forearms to your knees, then return to the starting position. Make sure to keep your back straight throughout. As is the case with most ab exercises, the key is to not use your upper body to pull the weight. Really focus on using your abs to pull the weight. Your hands are just there for support.
4. Cable Wood Chopper
The gym offers a ton of great weighted opportunities to target your obliques. The wood chopper does exactly that, and utilizes our trusted cable machine to add resistance to the simple twisting motion. This exercise is a favorite among golfers and baseball players who rely on a strong core to generate power in their swings. Though it’s not exactly like actually chopping wood, you’ll see where the name comes from. And while there are variations with dumbbells, we think the cable wood chopper is as good as it gets.
Instructions: For a high-to-low wood chopper, set a cable pulley to the highest possible rung and stand facing forward with the pully on the right side of your body. With your knees slightly bent and arms fully extended, grab the handle with both hands and pull it across your body diagonally toward your left foot, then return to the starting point. Make sure your arms remain outstretched and legs remain facing forward the entire time. Resist the urge to let your arms do all the work. You’re here to work on your core, and should feel it in your obliques. Make sure to repeat going the other direction. For a low-to-high wood chopper, set the pulley to the lowest possible rung and work — as the name suggests — upwards.
5. Dumbbell Oblique Crunch
One of the more simple gym ab exercises, the dumbbell oblique crunch only requires one dumbbell to accomplish. Don’t go too heavy on the weight here. The movement, which does a great job targeting your obliques, shouldn’t feel impossible, so find a comfortable weight that works for you. You can also utilize a kettlebell for this exercise.
Instructions: Standing with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in your right hand, crunch to the right, lowering the dumbbell and contracting your oblique in the process. Return to neutral and alternate on the left side. Some folks like to put their free hand on the back of their head for added balance and support.
The Best Products for Working Your Core
There’s plenty of equipment out there for working out your core — from ab wheels to balance boards and even a yoga blanket. I’ve gathered a few of my favorite core-specific products you can order easily on the web and work into your fitness routine.
1. Stealth Core Trainer
This product is a balance board for planking and other core-strengthening activities, and it gamifies the process so you can tone your abs while playing games on your smartphone. It comes with a fitness app you can use to play games like “Space Escape” and “Color Chase” all while using your core to balance, turn and navigate through the game. It’s got proprietary 360 degree motion so you can move at all different angles, and it only takes about three minutes a day of use to tone your core and back. It fits any size smartphone inside and the board features comfortable arm pads for your forearms, and a dynamic planking platform that can support up to 300 lbs.
2. EveryMile Wobble Balance Board
This is another balance board option that’s a bit more versatile than the Stealth. It’s 15.7″ in diameter and comes with handles you can grip with your hands during a plank. It’s got a 15 degree tilting angle and 360 degree rotation. The platform on top is covered in abrasion-resistant ABS and a non-slip textured surface so you can stand, kneel and place your forearms on it with stability. It’s lightweight and easy to transport, and can hold up to 300 lbs.
3. Fitnessery Ab Roller
An ab wheel is an essential part of any gym routine for a core enthusiast. You hold both handles in a kneeling plank and roll back and forth using the strength of your core. It’s a great exercise for 360 degree core strength and is way harder than it sounds, trust me. This roller is made of durable stainless steel, non-slip rubber and durable PVC.
4. Yoga Blanket
Hear me out — a yoga blanket is a fantastic tool for toning your core if you use it in the right way. Fold it in half and place it under your feet. Put your hands on the ground in front of your feet and slide your feet back into a plank. Slide your feet back and forth, towards and away your hands, and you’ve got a fantastic core workout.
5. Fitlaya Fitness Core & Abdominal Trainer
This is a designated core machine for your home gym if you’re in the market to invest a little more in your ab toning. The curved steel track design requires more work from your abs than other exercises and machines, and is a great way to take your training to the next level. This core trainer has a steel frame design, comfortable knee cushions and foam-covered hand grips so you can focus on the exercises and not hand cramps. It has four different height levels and an LCD screen that tracks the duration of the workout, repetitions, calories burned, etc. It’s simple to assemble and can easily be folded up and stored when you’re not using it.