Many people define being in shape or not by the way their abs look, so you would think that ab exercises would be a top priority for all fitness-minded folks. However, ab workouts can be boring and repetitive; crunch, leg raise, plank, then rinse and repeat, right?
But this doesn't have to be the case. Whether you're a beginner or you've trained for years, there are plenty of ways to build up that six-pack. You can use your body weight, weights, or accessories, and you can actually train abs indirectly with other activities, too.
We're going to fill your ab workout toolbox with 10 ways to develop your abs for both aesthetics and functionality. Work them into your routine one or two at a time, or devote an entire session to your core. The way you apply them is up to you, just make sure you find ways to use them on a regular basis.
The 10 Best Ab Exercises
- Full-body crunch
- Mountain climber
- Ab wheel roll-out
- Exercise ball crunch
- Hanging leg raise
- Decline sit-up
Bodyweight Ab Exercises
These are very versatile ab exercises because they can be done anywhere at any time. All you need is yourself and open space. Use these exercises during a home gym workout, during breaks while you're on a run, or as a part of a larger workout session.
You're not moving at all during a plank, but if you perform it correctly, your midsection will certainly feel the effects. The stabilization that improves with planks can transfer to other movements such as squats and overhead presses.
Get into a push-up position and rest your forearms on the ground. They should be parallel with your body and your elbows should be directly below your shoulders. Your body weight should be supported by your toes and your forearms. Keep your spine straight and don't look up.
While staying in this position, pull your stomach in like you want your bellybutton to touch your spine. Hold this position for as long as possible or until you reach your time goal. Beginners should try to reach a goal of 30 seconds. Intermediate and advanced trainees can work up to 2 minutes. Once your time expires or you reach failure, take a brief break, then repeat for the desired number of sets.
Bonus Tip: If doing a plank on your forearms is uncomfortable, try performing a high plank with your arms straight, like at the top of a push-up. You can also have a partner place a weight plate on your back if you want a greater challenge.
The basic crunch you learned in PE class was great, but this version of the classic ab exercise is better because you're using your entire body; both the upper and lower abs are being worked, and the obliques are involved for stability.
Start out by lying flat on the floor. Lift your upper body off the floor to engage the upper portion of your abs. Rest your palms on the floor beside you so you can maintain this position. Lift your legs off the floor a couple of inches. This is your starting position.
Tuck both knees in toward your chest, contracting your lower abs in the process. Perform this movement slowly so your abs are doing the work. Going too fast will engage the hip flexors. Slowly return your legs to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Bonus Tip: When you perform the exercise, count to five before finishing each rep. This will really fatigue your abs quickly.
This exercise requires a lot of movement, but it's very beneficial for the lower abs. You will burn a few extra calories, as well.
Get into the top position of a push-up. Start by bringing each knee toward your midsection, alternating each leg slowly until you get into a rhythm. Then, increase the speed gradually. Once you're at a top speed that you're comfortable with, continue until you've reached your rep or time goal.
Bonus Tip: You can either try to get a goal number of steps in a certain time frame, or wear ankle weights if you really want to burn your lower abs out in a hurry.
Sample Ab Workout
- Plank: 3 sets of 30-60 seconds
- Full-body crunch: 3 sets of 15 reps
- Mountain climber: 3 sets of 15 reps per leg (30 total)
Note: Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Bodyweight Ab Exercises with Accessories
These movements require simple accessories that should be found in almost any gym. You might even have them in your home, as well. Athletes who want to take their ab workouts to a new level of intensity will love (or hate) these options because of their effectiveness.
Ab Wheel Roll-out
The ab wheel (or ab roller) is just a simple wheel with handles, but it will provide quite the challenge to your midsection. Stability, stretching, and contractions are all required for this to be performed successfully. As a bonus, you may also notice stretching benefits for the lats and arms.
Kneel on the floor or on a pad and hold the ab wheel by the handles. Place the wheel on the floor in front of you. Slowly roll the wheel forward as far as you can while keeping your arms straight. Don't force the wheel to go farther if you feel an intense stretch. Your midsection shouldn't touch the floor, but you should stretch out as far as you can or until your abs are hovering close to the ground. Focus on engaging your abs as you bring the wheel back to the starting position. Once the wheel is back at the starting position, you've completed one rep. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Bonus Tip: There are some ab wheels that offer resistance. Using one of these will help improve strength as well as stability.
Exercise Ball Crunch
An exercise ball (or Swiss ball) can provide a comfortable foundation to lie on, as well as help you stretch farther back and engage your core more than a traditional crunch. (They also double as a chair replacement if you want to improve your core stability throughout the day.)
Lie with your lower back on the ball and your feet flat on the floor. You should feel your back curve slightly around the ball at the bottom position. Either cross your arms across your chest or place your fingertips behind your ears. Using your abs, lift your upper body up and off the ball until you feel a solid contraction in your midsection. Slowly return to the starting position. This is one rep. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Bonus Tip: If you have a weight plate or dumbbell, you can hold it across your chest to add extra resistance.
Hanging Leg Raise
This exercise is usually done simply by hanging off a pull-up bar, although rookies can use ab straps to assist with the move. Advanced athletes should try to push themselves by hanging off the bar with their hands only, though, as this move is great for developing grip strength.
Hang from the bar with your legs straight down and your feet off the floor. Contract your abs to lift your legs up until they are above your hips. Beginners can bend their knees in order to make it easier. Intermediate and advanced trainees should try to keep their legs straight. Once your knees or feet are above your hips, slowly return to the starting position. That's one rep. Repeat for as many as the workout calls for.
Bonus Tip: You can also do this in a captain's chair, with your arms resting on the pads and your hands on the handles. If your legs aren't enough resistance, add ankle weights or place a dumbbell between your feet.
Sample Ab Workout
- Ab wheel roll-out: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Hanging leg raise: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
- Exercise ball crunch: 3 sets of 20 reps
Note: Beginners should rest for 60 seconds between sets. Intermediate and advanced athletes should rest for 30 seconds.
Resistance-Based Ab Exercises
The abs are like every other muscle group—challenging the abs with weighted exercise can help maximize your potential in the way you look and perform, and these two exercises can really take your midsection to the next level.
The woodchopper can be done in one of three motions: up, down, or laterally. It will work the obliques and upper abs with the lower abs, serratus, and intercostals providing secondary roles.
You will need a cable machine for this one. If the pulley can be adjusted, position it where you feel comfortable. If you have an upper and lower pulley, try to use both. Attach a single handle pulley to the cable. Load the machine with light resistance until you can gauge your strength accurately. Position your body so the cable is to your right. Grab the handle with both hands and keep your feet shoulder-width apart. Your knees should be slightly bent.
Pull the handle across your body in the opposite direction. If the pulley is high, go low. If it's low, go high. Rotate your entire torso while keeping the arms fully extended. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat. Once you complete all the reps on one side, turn so the cable stack is to your left and repeat.
Bonus Tip: You can do a dropset with this. Go with a challenging weight until you reach failure, reduce the weight, and continue without rest until you reach failure again.
Using a decline bench will make your abs work harder than doing a sit-up from a flat position. Using a weight plate or medicine ball will really force you to give it your all, and you'll reach failure much faster.
Hook your legs into the foot pads of the decline bench and lie back until your entire back is against the bench pad. Have a partner hand you a weighted ball or weight plate. You can hold it against you or above you at arms' length.
Contract your abs and sit up until your back is completely off the bench. Don't round your back while coming up. Once your abs are fully engaged, slowly lower yourself back to the starting position and repeat for the required reps.
Bonus Tip: If you like to target your obliques, as well, do a twist in each direction after you sit up. Going each way before lowering yourself back down would count as one rep.
Sample Ab Workout
Superset: Perform both exercises back to back without rest before moving on to the next set.
- Woodchopper: 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side
- Decline sit-up: 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
Note: Rest for 60 seconds between supersets.
Indirect Ab Activities
You don't have to be focusing on your abs to get a great ab workout in, you can perform other activities and exercises that will take care of two birds with one stone. Add these activities to your fitness regimen, and you'll feel and see your abs reaping the benefits in a hurry.
Swimming is an activity that can help you burn calories without placing a lot of stress on your joints. Whether you want to swim laps for time or do as many laps as possible, kicking your legs out will result in extra reps for the lower portion of your abs. Stretching your arms out during strokes will also briefly stretch the obliques.
Bonus Tip: Do a superset by performing planks after each lap. Hop out of the water and do a plank for 30-45 seconds. Take a brief break, then resume swimming. Ten rounds of laps with planks will make you feel like you got a solid ab session in.
This isn't jogging, or even running for distance, we're talking about running sprints specifically. Have you ever noticed that sprinters have great abs? The reason why is that their core is involved in keeping their body upright while they're running. Also, every time they take a step, their knee is coming up and their lower abs are being engaged. Set up at a football field or somewhere else outside where there is a lot of room to run. If you can't go outside, use a treadmill in a gym or at home. Get into the starting position and run as fast as you can from start to finish.
Bonus Tip: This can be a great form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio. Perform it early in the morning or after a session with the weights to burn calories so you can see those abs you're working on even sooner. This can be a great time-saver as well because you're taking care of both cardio and abs exercises in one session. Using a weighted vest will also provide a challenge because you're moving with weight that you're not used to carrying.
Sprinting or Swimming Workout
- High-intensity interval training (swimming or sprinting): Perform 30 seconds of all-out effort with 60 seconds of rest for 20 minutes total