7 of the best ab exercises for sculpting your core

a photo of a woman doing a crunch
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If you’re hoping to build a rock-solid core, knowing which exercises to add to your routine and which to ditch is a good place to start. Not all abdominal exercises are created equal, and some are better than others when it comes to targeting your upper, lower and inner abdominal muscles. But what are the best ab exercises to try, and what are the secrets to a rock-solid core? 

To find out more, we sat down to chat with Luke Zocchi, Head Trainer at Centr (read our Centr app review here), and Chris Hemsworth’s personal trainer. “As a general rule, there are no exercises to be totally avoided as long as you are doing the exercises correctly”, Zocchi says when we ask him which ab exercises you shouldn’t be doing. “The exception to this are any exercises that cause you pain or you have been advised to avoid due to injury etc. Always make sure you are getting advice and being monitored for correct form, and if you are in any pain always consult a professional”, Zocchi says. According to research, this is the one ab exercise you should stop doing

When practicing all of the exercises below, it’s important to think about engaging the core. To engage your core, Zocchi says, “you want to lengthen your spine to make your back straight, breathe in deeply into your rib cage, and draw in your belly button. The best way to engage this final step is to think about what your reaction would be if someone was going to hit you in the stomach."

Looking for more workout inspiration? Read what happened when I added a plank to my morning routine, and when I did 100 dead bugs a day for a week

a photo of personal trainer Luke Zocchi

(Image credit: Centr)

How often should you train your abs? 

If you’re trying to sculpt your dream core, how often should you be hitting your exercise mat? The man behind Thor’s six-pack told us, “It depends if you are directly training your abs and on the intensity and volume of the training. I personally like to directly train my abs 3 times per week”. 

Is it true that abs are made in the kitchen? 

“This is 100% true”, Zocchi confirms. “It doesn’t matter how hard you train your abs if you don’t have a low enough body fat percentage, you stand no chance of seeing that beloved six pack you have been working so hard for. That all comes down to diet and nutrition.  In order to see those washboard abs you have to be lean; we recommend men to have between 8-12% body fat and women around 14-18% body fat for best form.”

What are the best ab exercises? 

So, what ab exercises should you be prioritizing? Here’s what Zocchi recommends. “Make sure you are using slow and controlled movements and activating your core muscles for the duration of the exercises”, he says. 

an illo of a man doing a crunch

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

1. Crunches

To do a crunch, start by lying on your back, with your lower back flat against the floor. Keech brings her legs up to a tabletop position for the crunches in her workout, with her legs crossed. With your hands on either side of your head, engage your abdominal muscles and crunch your torso up towards your knees. Return to starting position and repeat.

an illo of a man doing a hanging leg raise

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

2. Hanging leg raises

This one is tough. To do hanging leg raises, grip a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart in an overhand grip. Keep your legs straight and your feet together as you engage your core, and raise your legs. Don’t swing the body here — the movement should be slow and controlled. Raise your legs until your thighs and feet are above your hips, pause, then lower them back down to your starting position. If you can’t get your legs that high, don’t worry, keep working in your own range of motion. 

bicycle crunch

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

3. Bicycle crunches 

To do a bicycle crunch, start on your back with your feet pressed into the floor, hip-width apart. Think about sucking in your belly button, place your hands lightly behind your head with your elbows wide, and raise your head and neck up off the mat. 

Raise your legs to a table top position, and engage your abdominal muscles, straighten the left leg slowly, out, and away from your body with your toe pointed. As you do this, bend your right knee in towards your torso, and twist your left elbow to touch your right knee (it doesn’t matter too much if it doesn’t actually touch). Then swap sides, rotating and touching your left knee in towards your chest, touching your right elbow to your knee. Keep alternating sides slowly, and in control. 

an illo of a woman doing a plank on an exercise ball

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

4. Standard plank with movement 

Adding movement to a plank really ups the ante. “Once you have mastered the static plank doing a plank with movement or a ball where you create more muscle activation”, Zocchi says. To do this, get into a plank position, with your arms slightly wider than your shoulders and your body weight resting on your hands flat against the floor, or your forearms, depending on which variation you opt for. Think about creating a straight line from your heels to the crown of your head, engaging your core. 

To add movement, try dropping one hip to the ground at a time, alternating sides, or see-sawing the body forward and back. You can also try working an up-down plank into your routine, or doing a plank on a bosu ball, or yoga ball. 

a photo of a woman doing a side plank twist

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

5. Side plank with movement 

To do a side plank, start by lying on your right side, with your legs extended out and stacked on top of one another. Engage your core, and lift your hips off the ground. You can be on your left elbow, or hand in this move. To make the movement easier, lower your left knee to the floor. To make the exercise harder, hover your right leg in the air. 

Once you have mastered the side plank, add some movement to increase the intensity. This might look like hip dips — dropping the left hip down towards the floor and back up again, or pull-throughs, where you thread your left arm under your body, twisting your torso as you do so. 

an image of a man doing a dragon flag exercise

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

6. Dragon flag 

Another advanced bodyweight ab exercise, to do the dragon flag, start by lying on your back in front of a bench, or stable object (this could be a set of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells). Lifting your arms behind your head, grip onto the bench. Engaging your core, drive your legs up as if you are doing a reverse crunch, but keep your legs straight, and avoid bending at the hips. Pause at the top, and very slowly lower your legs back down to the floor. 

an illo of a woman doing a jackknife

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

7. Jackknife 

Start by lying on your back. With your arms extended behind your head and your legs out straight a few inches off the floor, engage your abs to lift your arms and legs as if you are trying to touch your toes. Hold, then lower back down to the starting position. 

Ready for more workouts? Here are the best bicep exercises for building your arms, and an exercise that is just as good as planks at blasting your core. Also check out how I did ab wheel rollouts every day for a week — and here are my results.

Next: I just tried trainer Krissy Cela's 8 minute ab workout and here's what happened and I also tried Chris Hemsworth’s 250-rep dumbbell workout — and here’s what happened.

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.