There might not be a single group of muscles whose reputation and position in the public consciousness ranks as high as your abdominals. Far from being just a visible fitness goal to aspire to, a great core has wide-spanning implications in all aspects of your life. Whether you want to jumpstart your ab workout, or keep the momentum you’ve already got going, below are some great ab workouts that really work.
The Target Muscles
In any core workout, there are three main groups of muscles to focus on.
First are the abdominal muscles. The transversus abdominis is a deep muscle group that helps you maintain internal pressure and stabilizes the body. The rectus abdominis lines the front of your body from your ribs to your pelvis and creates the iconic six-pack abs.
Next up are the obliques. Two sets of obliques exist: internal and external, which are placed alongside the rectus abdominis and help with the lateral movement of the body. The external obliques assist with movement from the opposite side, whereas internal obliques help with movement to the same side. For example, moving to the right utilizes the left external oblique and the right internal obliques.
The last muscle group is your lower back muscles. These combine with the above to assist with movement and, most importantly, protect your spine. While the previous two groups are more commonly associated with core strength, your lower back is also a massively important muscle that has great synergy with a wide variety of core exercises.
Benefits of a Strong Core
Why should you want a better core? There’s more than just a few reasons:
We’ll get the usual suspect off the table immediately. The first reason most people cite is body aesthetics. Targeted core workouts can help improve the way your abs look, which can bolster self-esteem and provide a slew of other physical benefits.
Strong cores are part of an improved balance. Core exercises force a wide range of muscles to work together. This leads to better balance and stability, which can aid in both workout progressions as well as your daily health.
Core workouts protect you in the long run. Better balance can stop nasty falls. Stronger back muscles can help protect you from straining while lifting or otherwise putting pressure on muscles during movement, whether in the gym with a personal trainer or at home.
Cross-training is a great part of developing a strong core. Plenty of exercises rely on your core muscles in some way or can be aided by a strong core. Strength in these muscles radiates outwards, helping improve your overall workout.
While highly visible abs are the goal, keep in mind that visibility isn’t the strongest metric for how strong your core muscles are. All muscles in our body are covered by a healthy layer of fat, and the abdominals are no different. A combination of workouts for muscle growth and decreased body fat may be necessary to get highly visible abs, but the best way to mark your progress is increased strength and ability in your workouts.
The Ab Workout
Probably the classic ab-blasting move, the plank position engages your whole body while remaining laser-focused on your core for the ultimate endurance test.
To start, lay parallel to the floor, with your forearms and elbows on the ground: this is called the forearm plank position. Keep your toes on the floor, and be sure to tuck in your hips to keep everything properly aligned in a straight line.
Try lasting your longest, but be sure to properly breathe to keep oxygen flowing to all your muscles. If you want to add an extra bit of difficulty, you can try doing side planks by holding yourself up with only one arm at a time or try doing plank push-ups for a truly aggressive progression.
Lay on your back, feet planted on the ground, with your knees pointing up at a 90-degree angle. Keep your arms flat with your palms down, stretched downward, then lift your lower back so that your whole body forms an arch.
Repeat this motion eight to 12 times for as many sets as desired. For added difficulty, you can try performing the exercise on the tips or heels of your toes or add weight to your hips for extra resistance.
This workout resembles your basic crunch with a premium upgrade. Lay on your back with the same posture as you would with a crunch, with your hands lightly touching but not tight around your head.
Bring your legs slightly off the ground, then bring your right leg in with a bent knee while extending your left leg. Twist your left arm in the opposite direction of the right leg moving towards you, and repeat the motion while alternating legs eight to 12 reps.
The previous workouts are doable regardless of where you are, so long as you have a little bit of space. With the aid of dumbbells or other gym equipment, a whole new world opens up to challenge your core muscles.
Grab a weight, and get ready to get your abs and obliques in fighting form with this workout. Hold your dumbbell with both hands while standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Squat with your thighs parallel to the ground and move the dumbbell to the outside of either thigh, then raise up, moving the dumbbell to the opposite shoulder in the process. You can either repeat the motion with the same thigh/shoulder combination and follow-up with the other side or alternate as you proceed through your workout.
This lower-ab targeting workout is probably the most challenging exercise on this list, in case you thought everything so far seemed a little too easy. Start by hanging straight down on a pull-up bar, with your legs straight and your ankles and feet together.
Engage your core muscles to raise your legs straight up and lower them in a controlled fashion. For an easier version of the hanging raise that still does wonders for your lower abs instead, bring your legs in so that your knees meet your chest.
This workout can technically be done without any equipment, but we include them as an equipment-based workout for the fact that parallel-bar L-sits are a much easier starting point. With L-Sits, start sitting on the ground with your body in an “L” position, with your torso straight up and your legs straight in front of you.
With your arms on the bar, push down to raise your torso while engaging your core to lift your legs off the ground. Your legs don’t have to be extremely high off the ground to get an effective workout: Simply holding the position is enough. Once you’ve mastered a parallel bar L-sit, try getting into the position from flat on the ground for an exercise that’s as effective as it is impressive.
Other Activities That Give Your Core Attention
The following activities are generally considered their own subset of workouts but give ancillary benefits for your core that are worth a look if you want more unique ways to work out your core.
Swimming doesn’t just use your core. This exercise recruits all your major muscle groups to propel you through your workout and gives you an excellent bit of sunlight if you do your recreation outside. Stay relaxed, and choose your favorite stroke to go a few laps.
While running won’t give you the same impact as a targeted workout, running forces your core muscles to engage as you traverse distances with changing conditions. For best results for your core, trade the treadmill for the open trail. Uneven surfaces like hiking paths or sandy beaches provide the greatest challenge to balance and thus provide the best core benefits.
Lastly, cycling primarily uses your legs to power the bike, but keeping your body and bicycle properly positioned relies on your core muscles. Much like running, cycling also adds an extra challenge depending on the surface that you bike on.
Other Tips To Keep Your Core Lean
It takes a lot more than just a proper workout to get results. Try these healthy habits to aid in your growth.
Whether trying to build your physique, lose weight, or improve your general health, your diet goes a long way in determining what you get out of your body. Hunt down healthy sources of protein and good fats while avoiding high sugar items to maximize your results.
Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc, both physically and mentally. Cut out the distractions before bed and create a set routine to allow your body to quickly ease into restfulness and watch the results speak for themselves.
In workouts, variety is the spice of life. Doing the same workouts day after day can get you running up against a plateau. By varying the workouts you do or the intensity with which you do them, you can get out of a plateau and encourage continual progress.
Getting Your Core Cut and Lean
With the nine exercises listed above, you’ll be well on your way to a better core, whether you're looking to improve it or perfect it.