Most people do ab workouts to achieve a flat stomach with defined ab muscles, but there are reasons other than showing off a six-pack to get yourself into an ab workout routine. Core strength and stability are important to overall fitness. According to a 2019 study published in PLoS One (opens in new tab), strengthening your core may improve athletic performance. The best ab workouts target more than just your abs and are great supplements to your regular fitness schedule. As a bonus, they don't require much time, space, or equipment.
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This workout takes just 10 minutes and can be modified to fit your fitness level. It's a timed workout: the goal is to do as many reps as you can in the allotted time. There are four exercises: do each exercise for 30 seconds and rest for 20 seconds. Go through the circuit three times.
If you've ever done any ab work at all, these exercises are probably familiar to you. Ab workouts — if you're doing them correctly — are pretty difficult, so it's best to keep the moves simple. That said, doing the same thing over and over can get a little tedious, so we're listing two alternatives for each move — a more challenging alternative and an alternative that requires some basic equipment (the original exercises are very quarantine-friendly and require no equipment).
Exercise 1: Plank
When performed correctly, planks are an excellent core exercise that also happen to work most of the major muscles in your body. That said, planks are often performed incorrectly and incorrectly-performed planks are not only easier (and ineffective), they can also cause injury to the lower back. The key to performing a plank correctly is to keep your back relatively straight and your head in a neutral position. All strain should be on your muscles, not your spine.
To perform a basic plank (opens in new tab), get into the push-up position — hands and feet shoulder width apart, back and legs straight. Some people consider this to be the regular plank, but I prefer the forearm plank: Lower your body until you're resting on your forearms with your elbows below your shoulders and your hands pointing forward. Use a mirror, a spotter, or a phone camera to make sure your back isn't arched and your hips aren't dropped. Then focus on engaging your abs and hold it!
You probably won't make it the full 30 seconds the first time. That's fine! If you find yourself getting weak, slowly lower your knees to the ground. You can either rest here for a few seconds and then get back into plank position, or you can continue in this position (called a knee plank (opens in new tab)).
Alternative 1: Elevated Plank
If you want to make the regular plank more difficult, try elevating your feet. Keep your forearms on the floor, but place your feet on something higher. I normally use a workout bench, but if you don't have that, you can also use a chair or a stair.
Alternative 2: Swiss ball roll out
Equipment needed: Equipment: Swiss ball
If you have a Swiss ball (also known as an exercise ball), you can make your planks even harder with the Swiss ball roll out. To perform this exercise, get into a regular plank with your forearms resting on the ball. Slowly roll the ball forward and then bring it back in, keeping your back straight and your abs engaged.
Exercise 2: Side Plank
Don't worry, this workout isn't just planking. But the side plank is a great exercise, and it's different enough from the regular plank — the side plank works out your obliques, which are the ab muscles on your sides.
To do a side plank (opens in new tab), start by lying on the floor on your side. Stack your feet (one foot on top of the other) and keep your body straight (and your spine and head neutral) as you raise yourself up to rest on your elbow. That's it — the move is simple, but form is everything. Focus on keeping your muscles engaged so you don't lose your form.
Alternative 1: Side Plank with Twist
Adding a twist to the side plank makes it much more challenging. Start in side plank position, but bring your free arm up and place your hand next to your head (touching your ear). Now, twist your upper body down until your elbow touches the hand of the forearm you're leaning on. Make sure to keep your ab muscles engaged as you do this: You should be twisting your upper body, not your hips.
Alternative 2: Dumbbell side bend
Equipment needed: Dumbbells
The dumbbell side bend (opens in new tab) is a great alternative oblique exercise if you have access to heavier weights — most people will use heavier weights than they normally use with ab exercises. This is an easy exercise to use with homemade weights — basically any bag filled with books should work.
To perform this exercise, start in a standing position with the dumbbell or weight at your side. Keep your back straight and your abs engaged as you slowly bend to the side. Repeat the motion on the other side. If you're doing this exercise in the circuit, you can also alternate sides in each round instead of switching after each rep.
Exercise 3: Bicycle Crunches
According to a 2001 study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) (opens in new tab), the bicycle crunch is the most effective ab exercise for stimulating the rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle) and the second-most effective ab exercise for stimulating the obliques. The biggest mistake people make when doing bicycle crunches is going too fast — it's an ab workout, not cardio.
To perform this exercise (opens in new tab), lie on the floor with your back flat against the ground. Place your hands next to your head (behind your ears — not behind your head or neck, because you'll be tempted to pull your head up), bring your shoulders off the ground, and bend your knees and draw your legs up off the ground. Bring on knee toward your chest as you straighten the other leg, and twist your body so that your opposite elbow touches your knee. Repeat this motion on the other side, keeping your legs and shoulders off the ground the entire time.
Here's how to do bicycle crunches, and the variations to try.
Alternative 1: Windshield wiper
The windshield wiper (opens in new tab) is another twisty move that targets your obliques, and there are plenty of ways to make it extremely difficult (try the hanging windshield wiper (opens in new tab)). To perform this exercise, lie flat on your back with your arms stretched out perpendicular to your torso. Bring your legs up, keeping them straight, until they're pointing directly at the ceiling. Now lower your legs slowly to one side — go as low as you can go without touching the floor, and then lower them to the other side. Keep your legs off the floor the entire time.
Alternative 2: Russian twist
Equipment: 10-pound dumbbell
The Russian twist (opens in new tab) also targets your obliques, gets that twisting motion in, and is especially fun when you add weight. The dumbbell shortage is mostly over, but you can also use homemade weights for this — a 1-gallon jug of water weighs 8.33 pounds.
To perform this exercise, sit on the floor with your knees bent. Keeping your back straight, lean back and draw your legs up off the ground (this is basically the boat pose (opens in new tab) with bent knees). Pick up your weight and twist to one side — as far as you can go without touching the ground — and then twist to the other side. Keep the movement controlled; don't let the momentum of the weight help you.
Exercise 4: Reverse Crunches
Regular crunches — those sit-ups you did in high school gym class — are generally considered to be…not fantastic. They're not particularly effective, according to an ACE study, and they may even cause lower back pain (opens in new tab).
However, reverse crunches are not regular crunches, and they're a great exercise for working out all of your ab muscles.
To do a reverse crunch (opens in new tab), lie flat on your back with your arms at your side and your palms pressed against the ground. Bend your knees and draw your legs up toward your chest. Now, lift your hips off the ground as you point your toes toward the ceiling (you can keep your legs bent or you can straighten them) and come back down.
The reverse crunch is already a pretty difficult exercise, but you can make it even more challenging by taking your arms off the ground and placing them beside your head.
Here's how to do reverse crunches and the variations to try.
Alternative 1: Dead bug
The dead bug (opens in new tab) is an exercise that works out all of your ab muscles, and also helps with balance (and coordination — it's harder than it looks). To perform this exercise, lie flat on your back and draw your legs up (with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle) until they're perpendicular to your torso. Raise your arms so they're also perpendicular to your torso — this will be your starting position.
From this position, slowly lower and extend one leg until it's straight and hovering just above the floor. At the same time, lower the opposite arm straight back until it's also hovering just above the floor. Return to your starting position and do the same move with the opposite arm and leg. Your arms and legs should never touch the ground during this exercise.
Alternative 2: Hanging Leg Raise
Equipment: Pull-up bar or captain's chair
The hanging leg raise (opens in new tab) (or its variation, the captain's chair leg raise (opens in new tab)) is an excellent exercise, but it didn't make the initial cut because you need a pull-up bar or a captain's chair. But the exercise itself is simple — hang from a pull-up bar using an overhand grip and draw your legs up as far as you can. You can keep your legs straight or bend at the knees — straight legs make the exercise more challenging. If you need even more of a challenge, hold a dumbbell between your feet.