What’s the secret to a faster 5K or a new squat personal record? A strong core. The muscles of your abdominals are not only responsible for stabilizing your pelvis and spine during any kind of movement (a very important job when you’re sprinting to the finish line or lifting hundreds of pounds), but they also help to maintain your posture, facilitate bodily functions, and keep your internal organs in place.
If you lack adequate core strength, you may be setting yourself up for lower back issues, overcompensation injuries, and misalignment throughout your body. So as tempting as it may be to focus on leg day or a long run, dedicating some of your gym time to core work is essential for a healthy and injury-free body.
Sure, the classic sit-ups or bicycles are great. If you want to strengthen all of your abdominal muscles effectively though, you’ll need to use resistance and work in all planes of motion. Kettlebells are a great tool to do just that, and will also add a bit of variety to the same tired planks and crunches.
Unroll your mat and try these 9 kettlebell ab exercises that will torch your core. Some of them may not look like core work at first glance, but you’ll definitely feel the abdominal-strengthening benefits.
What are your abdominal muscles?
Your abdominals (also known as your “abs” or “core”) are comprised of a few muscles — the rectus abdominis (or “six pack”), located superficially in the middle of your torso; the transverse abdominis, located underneath the rectus abdominis deep within your torso; the internal and external obliques, which frame the sides of your torso; and the pyramidalis, a smaller triangular muscle located low in the pelvis.
9 kettlebell ab exercises that will torch your core
1. Kettlebell Dead Bug
While the dead bug is often used with beginners to build awareness and stability in the core, it’s also frequently programmed as a warm-up for heavy powerlifting sessions. Adding a kettlebell into the mix will turn this somewhat rudimentary movement into an intense challenge for your core.
To perform the dead bug, lie on your back with a light or moderately heavy kettlebell to your side. Pick up the kettlebell by the handle and align your arms directly over your shoulders, with the bell above the center of your chest. Bring your legs into a table top position, with your knees bent and aligned over your hips, and your shins parallel to the floor. Keeping your spine neutral, your core engaged and the kettlebell still, slowly lower your right heel to the ground. Lift it back up to the starting position, and lower your left heel to the ground in the same manner. Continue for a set of 10-12 repetitions on each side. Here's more on how to do a dead bug with perfect form, and what happened when our fitness editor did a weighted dead bug every day for a week.
To make the dead bug even more challenging, align the bell with the top of your head and perform the exercise. You can also choose to move the bell towards the floor behind you as you lower each leg, and lift it back to the starting position as your heels rise back up from the floor.
If you have trouble keeping a neutral spine throughout the exercise, or you start to feel pain or fatigue in your lower back, choose a lighter kettlebell or perform the dead bug unweighted.
2. Kettlebell Suitcase Carry
Have you ever carried a heavy grocery bag in from your car, or as this exercise’s name implies, a big suitcase through the airport? You may not have known it, but you were getting a great ab workout in the process — one that targets all of the muscles of your core in an efficient and functional way.
To perform the suitcase carry, grab a heavy kettlebell and place it to your side. Squat to the floor and pick up the kettlebell in your right hand, and stand tall with both feet aligned under your hips. Keeping your shoulders rolled back, core engaged, and spine tall, slowly walk across the room holding the kettlebell by your side. Don’t allow the weight of the kettlebell to bring your spine out of alignment. Once you’ve reached the end of the room (or around 20 steps), turn around and walk back to the other side. Squat down to drop the kettlebell, and then pick it up with your left hand. Repeat your walk across the floor.
Amp up the difficulty of the suitcase carry by grabbing a heavier kettlebell. You can also turn the suitcase carry into a farmer’s carry by performing the exercise with a kettlebell in each hand.
If you find it difficult to keep from leaning to one side, select a lighter kettlebell for the exercise.
3. Kettlebell Goblet March
The goblet march is a simple yet effective exercise for your deep core muscles. Whether you’re a dedicated distance runner or just enjoy jogging an occasional mile, you’ll want to incorporate the goblet march into your routine.
To perform the goblet march, grab a moderately heavy or heavy kettlebell and place it in front of you. Squat down to the floor and pick the kettlebell up with both hands, grabbing each side of the handle. Stand tall with your feet about hip-width apart, roll your shoulders back, and keep the kettlebell aligned with the center of your chest at a forearm’s length away from your body. Engage your core, keep your spine neutral, and slowly lift your right foot off the ground. Bring your right knee to hip level, with the right leg at a 90-degree angle. Slowly lower the right foot back down to the floor. Repeat with the left foot. Continue for a set of 10-12 repetitions on each side.
The heavier the kettlebell, the bigger challenge you’ll give your abdominals. Just make sure your form stays solid — don’t allow your shoulders to roll forward or your lower back to arch. Drop to a lighter kettlebell if you do find either of those things happening. Here's what happened when our fitness editor did a goblet march every day for a week.
4. Kettlebell Woodchop
Your kettlebell may not be able to chop up any wood for your bonfire, but it can provide a pretty intense burn for your abdominals (especially the obliques).
To perform the woodchop, grab a moderately heavy kettlebell and place it in front of you, standing with your feet about hip-width apart. Squat down and pick up the kettlebell in both hands, grabbing the handle on each side. Set your hips back, lean your torso forward slightly, and take the kettlebell to the outside of your left hip. Engage your core and drive your hips forward, lifting the kettlebell diagonally from the outside of your left hip up to your right shoulder. Set your hips back and return the kettlebell to the outside of your left hip. Continue for a set of 10-12 repetitions, and then repeat the exercise on the other side.
Amp up the woodchop’s difficulty by holding the kettlebell by the top of its handle, bringing it to the outside of one knee, and swinging it across the body in a diagonal motion. If any lower back pain emerges, lighten the kettlebell or perform the exercise kneeling with one knee on the ground and one foot planted in front of you. Here's more on how to do the wood chop exercise, and what happened when we did it every day for a week.
5. Plank Row
The plank is one of the best exercises you can do for core stability and endurance. Once you’ve mastered the standard plank form and want to progress it into more difficult territory, pick up two kettlebells and add some rows.
To perform the plank row, grab two moderately heavy kettlebells and place them in front of you. Come down to the floor on all fours and grab the kettlebell handles with each hand. Keeping your wrists neutral, step your feet behind you and bring yourself to a push-up position, with your hips and spine aligned and your torso at a slightly diagonal angle to the floor. Engage the core and keep your hips square. Slowly lift the kettlebell in your right hand, aiming your right wrist towards your right hip. Lower the kettlebell back down to the floor with control. Continue for 10-12 repetitions, and then repeat on the left side.
When the plank row starts to feel easy, try a renegade row by alternating rowing between your right and left arms. You can also choose heavier kettlebells for the job.
If you find it difficult to keep your hips square, try performing the plank row on your knees instead of your toes. If your wrists feel unstable, use one kettlebell at a time and keep your stabilizing hand on the floor.
6. Kettlebell Goblet Squat
Is this leg day? Nope, although you could definitely incorporate the kettlebell goblet squat into your lower body regimen. This multi-functional exercise will build some serious strength in your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but it will also fire up all of the muscles in your core.
To perform the kettlebell goblet squat, pick up a moderately heavy or heavy kettlebell and hold it a forearm’s length away from the center of your chest (the kettlebell can be held by either the handles or by the bell). Aim your hips behind you, bend your knees, and lower your tailbone towards the floor, keeping your core engaged and your spine neutral. Once you’ve reached the bottom of your range, squeeze your glutes and stand tall. Repeat for a set of 10-12 repetitions.
Make the Kettlebell Goblet Squat more challenging by performing the exercise with a heavier kettlebell. If you find your shoulders wearing out before your abs or your legs, try using a lighter kettlebell. If your squat form is lacking, modify the exercise by sitting on a chair or bench instead of dropping down to full depth. Here's more on how to do a goblet squat, and what happened when we did goblet squats every day for a week.
7. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is one of the most popular kettlebell exercises out there - a low-impact, high intensity movement that improves strength and power in your posterior chain. Your abs will also have to work hard to perform the swing, making it an excellent addition to your fitness routine.
To perform the kettlebell swing, place a moderately heavy kettlebell in front of you. With your feet about shoulder width apart, aim your hips behind you, bend your knees, bring your torso forward, and grab the top of the kettlebell’s handle with both hands. Engage your core and swing the kettlebell back in between your legs. Squeeze your glutes and drive your hips forward, swinging the kettlebell up to chest level. Take your hips behind you and allow the kettlebell to swing back in between your legs. Repeat for a set of 10-15 repetitions.
The name of the game with kettlebell swings is hip drive — you should never feel as if your arms are lifting the weight in front of you. Allow your hips and lower body to power the movement, and use your core to stabilize your body as the kettlebell swings through its range of motion.
If you find it hard to control the movement, drop to a lighter kettlebell. If your kettlebell naturally swings higher than chest level, choose a heavier weight.
8. Kettlebell Windmil
To perform the windmill, grab a light or moderately heavy kettlebell and stand with your feet slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart. Raise your right arm straight into the air, engage your lats, and keep your right shoulder rolled back. Turn both of your feet to the left at a 45-degree angle. Looking up at the kettlebell above you, engage your core and shift your right hip behind you, allowing your left knee to bend slightly. Slide your left arm along the inside of the left leg, reaching your fingertips toward the floor. Once you’ve reached the end of your range, slowly lift back up to the starting position. Continue for a set of 10-12 repetitions, and then repeat on the other side - remember to angle your feet away from the kettlebell.
The windmill may take some time to master, so don’t be afraid to reduce your range or drop to a lower weight when you first begin.
9. Kettlebell Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get-up is last on our list because of its difficulty — it will torch your abs along with nearly every other muscle in your body. You should only attempt the full Turkish get-up if you’ve already implemented a solid fitness routine, and you’ve practiced breaking down each aspect of the movement. If you have the means, consider working with a certified personal trainer to ensure safety and proper form.
To perform the Turkish get-up, place a light or moderately heavy kettlebell to your right, and lie on a mat on your right side. With an underhand grip, grab the kettlebell handle in your right hand, slowly roll onto your back, and press the kettlebell with your right hand into the air. Keep your eye on the kettlebell and your right arm straight throughout the exercise. The bell should sit on top of your right wrist, and your straightened arm should be aligned with your shoulder joint. Bend the right knee and place the right foot on the floor, leaving the left leg long. Elongate your left arm at a slight angle away from your body, keeping your left hand on the floor. Engage your core and lift your head, shoulders and upper back off of the floor, resting on your left elbow. Keep your right arm straight. Push yourself up, resting on your left hand. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings and press your hips into the air, keeping your left leg long. Bend your left leg and place your left knee underneath your left hip, with your left hand and right foot still planted on the floor. Engage your right oblique and slowly lift your left hand off of the floor, bringing yourself to a kneeling position. Square your hips in front of you. Press your right foot into the ground and come to a standing position, bringing your left leg forward and placing your left foot next to your right. Remember to keep your right arm straight and locked. Step behind you with your left leg, lower your left knee to the ground, and return to a kneeling position. Slowly lower your left hand back down to the ground, keeping your eye on the kettlebell above your right shoulder. Lift your left leg off the floor and elongate it in front of you, keeping your right knee bent and right foot pressed into the floor. Lower your hips down onto the mat. Bend your left elbow and place it back down onto the floor. Slowly lower your shoulders and head until you’ve returned to the starting position. Repeat the movement for 3-5 repetitions, then perform on the other side.
As mentioned, it’s best not to try the full Turkish get-up without perfecting each segment. If you’re just starting out, limit this exercise to the first part of the movement - lift your head and shoulders off the ground and rise to your elbow, then slowly lower yourself back down to the floor. Once you’ve got that down, continue the movement by pressing yourself up to your left hand, then return to the starting position. Continue adding more of the movement as you gain confidence and master the form.
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Jennifer Rizzuto is a freelance writer and certified personal trainer based in Long Island, NY. She covers various fitness-related topics and reviews for Tom's Guide. She also writes sketch comedy and short films, and performs frequently as an actor, singer, and improviser. When she's not writing, working out, or performing, you'll find her trying to convince her husband to get a dog.