July 08, 2021 10 min read

Your abs are the single most important muscle group when it comes to stability and strength. If you can sculpt them well, they’re also going to look great during the summertime, giving you that strong slender look you’ve been aiming for all year.

A lot of magazines will have you flailing around with whatever the newest, most absurd exercise is, but we’ve taken the time to pull together the best ab exercises and a couple of additional tips for building a powerful core you can be proud of all year.

muscular young woman wearing sports jacket

All About Abs

If you’re going to work on your core, it’s necessary to totally understand your abs. They’re an interesting set of muscles that technically control every single aspect of your body’s ability to lift, stand, and move.

Your core is broken up into two distinct segments, and these segments together are what we think of when we talk about core strength. If you’re going to be taking the time to tone your abs, it’s important to understand that these are the areas you’re going to be focused on building muscle.

Your rectus abdominis is the part of your core that makes up the famous ab shape. When you’re flexing in the mirror, the little segments that poke up from your tummy are the muscles in your rectus abdominis. The rectus abdominis is set more or less in the center of your torso and kept in place by something called the rectus sheath.

The rectus sheath is a sleeve made up of tendons that have worked their way through the muscles in your rectus abdominis and split it up into neat sections that work together to keep your body upright.

By creating a strong segment of your body that’s capable of taking the kind of punishment that your abs are constantly subjected to without complaint, you center your body around something that will reliably transfer strength and stability throughout your body no matter what exercise you get into.

The rectus sheath has a secondary function, and that is to give you that beautiful washboard effect when you’ve reached the peak of your performance. It’s not easy to show off your abs, it takes a lot of very particular dieting and high-energy workouts to burn off the last bits of stubborn fat, but if you’re willing to get into it, you’ll hit your goal.

We use our rectus abdominis along with the muscles in our backs to keep our bodies upright in daily life. If you could float in the air while you flex your abs, you’d see that they pull on your lumbar spine and your rib cage to bring the two together. When you pick something up from the ground without bending your knees or sit up while you’re lying down on the floor, you’re using your rectus abdominis.

Secondary to your abs are your obliques and the muscles all up and down your back. These are just as important to your core, and if you’re going to be working on your abs, you should even out the effort with some exercises that target your obliques and your back. If your abs grow without supplementing your sides and your back, you’re going to be ruining your posture, and all of that hard work is going to feel like it’s gone to waste.

Your obliques are responsible for putting lateral pressure on your torso. Without them, you’d be flopping around from side to side. These are the muscles you feel engaging when you’re trying to keep your abs steady during exercises like the jackknife or leg lifts.

These exercises we’ve collected for you are going to at least touch on your back and obliques by their nature. We cut out all of the exercises that isolate your rectus abdominis, so you’re going to be feeling it in your sides and your lower back when you begin working your way through these tummy toners.

1. Jackknife

Now that you know all about your abs, you’ll probably see why jackknives are so effective. They essentially isolate the action of your abs and use the weight of your body as resistance.

You’re going to be getting the maximum amount of work out of this workout, and you don’t need to bring in any extra equipment.

If you’re yearning for some extra challenge, you can add more resistance in the form of light dumbbells or ankle weights. Whatever you can do to make your arms and legs harder for your abs to manage is going to be enough to progressively overload your core.

  • Lie down on your back with your legs and arms fully extended on the floor. Your arms should stay near your ears
  • Point your toes and keep your thighs together while using your abs to press your lower back into the floor
  • Squeeze your glutes and keep your arms together while your use your core to crunch your torso together
  • Your body should be making a V shape 
  • Use your core to maintain control while you lower your body back into your starting position and repeat 5-10 times per set

2. Leg Lift

If you don’t want to dedicate any more brainpower to learning any ab exercises designed by contortionists, then you’re going to be able to get by with leg lifts just fine. Ab exercises are about engaging your core in ways that are natural and effective. Leg lifts tick both of those boxes just fine without requiring you to twist and turn unnaturally. It’s simple and it works, and that’s really all you need.

  • Lie down on your back with your arms by your sides on the floor and your legs fully extended in front of you. If your lower back isn’t up to the task, you can support yourself by lifting your butt with your resting hands
  • Keeping your legs together and your core engaged, bring them up towards your torso until they’re about perpendicular to the floor
  • Keeping your core engaged and remembering to keep your feet together, slowly lower your legs to the floor

3. Plank Hop

Plank hops are highly energetic. If you’re trying to get some cardio in while working on your abs, then you’re going to get a lot of utility out of plank hops. 

  • Start in the familiar planking position. If you’ve never done that before, that means palms flat on the floor under your shoulders with your arms fully extended. Your legs should be fully extended behind you while you’re resting on your toes. Keep your core engaged and your back flat
  • Engage your core and keep your legs straight with your upper leg muscles
  • Hop with your feet as a unit underneath your torso while aiming towards your right elbow
  • Hop back into the starting position then repeat while aiming your knees towards your left elbow
  • Hop back to your starting position
  • Repeat this motion 5-10 times per set

4. Reverse Crunch

This is an interesting variant on crunches that solve the lower back problem by flipping the entire exercise on its head. Reverse crunches are great, especially if you’ve been relying on regular crunches to tone your abs, then you’re most likely feeling the effects of repeatedly rolling your body weight over your lower back. This is a great time to relieve that tension while keeping your abs engaged.

  • Start by lying down on your back with your legs up above your hips, bent at 90-degrees at the knee
  • Place your arms behind your head with your elbows pointing out from your body, if this isn’t comfortable you can also opt to lay your arms by your side to provide a little bit of stability once you start raising your lower half up off of the floor
  • Engage your core and bring your shoulders slightly off of the floor
  • Use your abs to curl your hips off of the floor while bringing your knees in towards your chest
  • Slowly return your legs to your starting position, being sure your shoulders stay off the floor throughout this exercise
  • Repeat about 10 - 15 times per set

5. Bicycle Crunch

Bicycle crunches are a great alternative to regular crunches. You’ll be able to take a decent amount of strain roll-Up off of your lower back without sacrificing the mechanical benefits of the exercise. By keeping your lower body up in the air and crunching your two halves together, you force your core to squeeze out a lot of strength.

The key to this exercise is stability and deliberate motion. If you’re not pedaling your way through your range of motion, then you’re not going to be getting the most out of this exercise.

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent as if they were resting on an invisible ceiling
  • Touch your fingers to the back or side of your head, whichever your flexibility allows
  • Use your core to curl your shoulders off of the floor and hold your body like this for a second before you get to work. This is your starting position 
  • Twist while bringing your knee towards its opposite elbow
  • Return your legs and torso to your starting position
  • Extend your leg all the way out as if you were paddling a bike and smoothly transition to making the same motion with your opposite limbs
  • Repeat this set of movements in a single, smooth cycle 

6. Core Roll Up

  • Lie down on your back with your arms extended above your head (resting on the floor)
  • Slowly bring your arms straight up until your wrists are in line with your shoulders
  • Slowly use your core to curl your torso up off of the ground, starting with your shoulders and ending with your lower back until you’re in a sitting position
  • Continue past this sitting position and fold your upper body over your legs, keeping tension on your core
  • Reverse this motion until you’re back in your starting position
  • Repeat 5-8 times per set
 Woman Does Mountain Climber Workout in Stylish Hardcore Gym

7. Mountain Climber

Mountain climbers are one of the most straightforward ab exercises. If you’re going to add anything to your routine, it’s probably going to be these.

  • Plank high on your flat palms with your arms fully extended under your shoulders
  • Keep your core tight
  • Bring your knee up towards your elbow on the same side
  • Quickly return to the starting position and mirror your actions on the other side
  • Alternate as quickly as you can without dropping your form and repeat until you’ve finished a set

8. Twisted Mountain Climbers

The only thing twisted about these mountain climbers is your torso. They’re incredibly similar to regular mountain climbers, but you’re going to be engaging your lats a little bit more here. They’re not a particularly sadistic exercise or anything. As long as you’re ready to put in the effort, you should feel pretty good about these.

  • Start in a high plank, which means palms flat on the floor under your shoulders with your arms fully extended, legs fully extended on your toes with your core fully engaged to keep your back flat
  • Keeping your core tight, bring one of your knees up towards its opposite elbow
  • Bring your leg back into your starting position, quickly, and mirror the motion with the knee on the other leg
  • Alternate quickly until you’ve finished a full set of about 15-20

9. Half Burpee

If you haven’t done them yourself you’ve probably seen burpees at least once. They’re a full-body exercise that requires a lot of stamina, mental and physical. Half burpees take that exercise and reduce it down to the movements that are relevant for your core.

  • Start with a deep squat, your legs should be about shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly outwards for balance. Keep your chest high and rest your hands out in front of your body
  • Reach towards the floor and place your hands in line with your shoulders, fully extended and ready to bear your weight
  • Kick your legs out from under your body backward and land in a planking position
  • Just as quickly as you kicked your legs out, jump to bring them back underneath your body and return to your squatting starter position from step one

10. Mountain Climber

Mountain climbers take advantage of all of the work your abs are responsible for. By planking and bringing your legs up to your chest, you create an environment that’s punishing (in the best way possible) for your core. The key here is your posture, if you can’t keep your back flat and your core engaged, you should try slowing down a little bit

  • Begin by planking, keep your palms flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should find a natural resting position right above your hands
  • Extend your legs out behind yourself and keep your core tight
  • Bring one of your knees to your chest while holding this position
  • Return that leg to your starting position then repeat with your opposite side
  • Be sure to move quickly and deliberately throughout the duration of this exercise

Extra Tips

Diet

The most difficult part about showing off your abs is getting the fat out of the way. Burning fat isn’t just about working out as hard as you can. You need to be figuring out a diet that works well with your workouts. As long as you’re able to keep your protein levels high, your carbs and sugars low, and your meals filling, you’re going to make incredible progress very quickly.

All of the workouts in the world aren’t going to get you any abs if you don’t have the protein to build muscle afterward. That’s the real goal of your workouts after all. Whether your goals are losing weight, getting toned, or bulking up, the underlying key to success is being able to build muscle, be it to get the look you're going for, having an energy-hungry furnace to burn fat with, or sexy muscles to show off.

Rest

Rest is just as important as your diet when it comes to building muscle.

If you’re trying to get toned, you’re going to need to find a day or two to rest your body and allow it to rebuild the damaged muscle tissue you’ve been wearing down all week.

Rest days are when the magic happens. When you give yourself a day to just relax, stretch your muscles, and keep your blood pumping with low-impact activity, you’re actively building muscle. Rest days result in more muscle tissue, so you’re going to be building up the abs you’re trying to show off even during your downtime, if you’re smart about it.

Absolute Abs

Getting your killer abs for the summer (or whichever season you want them for) isn’t as hard as pop media might have told you.

The trick is keeping your routine tight and pairing it with a diet that will give you the energy you need to get through your workouts without burning out.

If you want to tighten up your core, then pick a handful of these exercises to stick with, and you’ll start seeing results in no time. 


x