Forget sit-ups — 5 abs exercises to build six-pack muscles without weights

a woman doing a side crunch with her abs on show
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This summer, you’ll need a reliable bank of abs exercises to strengthen your six-pack muscles and sculpt muscle definition across your torso. To get the ball rolling, add these exercises to your arsenal.

At Tom’s Guide, we approach the term “six-pack” tentatively. Sure, rippling abs might look great when you whip off your shirt at the gym, but your core muscles do so much more than just look good.

The six-pack muscles are formally known as the rectus abdominis, a muscle group responsible for flexion and extension of your torso in the sagittal plane of motion (think sit-ups, crunches and leg raises) and span the length of the stomach from the ribcage to the pelvis.  

That aside, there are ways to build ab muscle definition and increase your chances of showing off washboard abs, so we reveal how below, alongside our favorite exercises for targeting these muscles.

One of the best yoga mats for home workouts will help support your lower back, so if you don't have one already, we recommend grabbing one.

What are the 5 abs exercises to build your six-pack muscles?

The fitness industry will tell you building a six-pack isn’t all that complicated. Sure, all you have to do is sleep well, eat right most of the time, manage stress, exercise consistently and regularly include core workouts that target your abs

We’re tired of just reeling off the demands, to be honest, so let’s cut the bull. Six-pack muscles pop when muscle growth meets a low body fat percentage, meaning your muscles look more defined.

If muscle definition isn’t happening for you, there could be several reasons you can’t see your abs yet, despite working out. Everyone has a different genetic makeup, body composition, metabolism, lifestyle and gut health. Some might find it much easier to achieve; for others, it could be a full-time job. 

Dialing into all aspects of your health and fitness is a personal journey, but while we don’t recommend counting calories, we do recommend trying these moves to improve your chances of torching these muscles — no traditional sit-ups in sight.  

1. Hanging leg raises

Man doing hanging leg raises

(Image credit: Getty Images/GoodLifeStudio)

Hanging leg raises torch your core as you rely on your abs to help lift your legs toward your chest. The exercise also hits your hip flexors, lower back, quads, shoulders, arms and forearms. 

  • Grip the bar using an overhand grip and hang from the bar with your arms straight
  • Engage your core and keep your back straight
  • Keeping your legs straight and pressed together, drive your legs upward to hip height
  • Pause, then lower your legs with control
  • Avoid swinging on the bar or using momentum to lift your legs — drive from your torso between your ribs and hips.

Scaling options:

If you can’t keep your legs extended, bend your knees and drive your knees upward toward your chest for knee tucks. To progress the exercise, drive your legs to the bar for a fuller range of motion called toes-to-bar.

 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps

Vector woman doing hanging knee tucks from pull-up bar

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

2. Reverse crunches

Unlike traditional crunches, this move works your rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominis. We hear JLo is a fan of reverse crunches, too. 

  • Lay on your back, bend your knees and rest your toes on the mat
  • Place your hands on the mat on either side of your hips
  • Draw your knees toward your chest, then drive your legs upward toward the ceiling, slightly lifting your bum away from the mat
  • Pause at the top using your core to hold the position
  • Reverse the steps back to the starting position.

Scaling options:

As you lower your bum to the floor, extend your legs away from you, keeping your legs a few inches away from the mat. Press your lower back into the mat, re-bend your knees, pull your legs in and repeat the move. Add a soft knee bend to reduce the intensity of the exercise.

3-4 sets of 8-12 reps

3. Abs wheel rollouts

Man using an ab wheel during ab rollouts in a studio

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

There aren’t many muscle groups left untouched by this advanced ab exercise, so follow the steps below to get the most out of it. The ab rollout hits your rectus abdominis, erector spinae (spine stabilizers), transverse abdominis, obliques, hips, glutes, lats, chest, shoulders and arms.

  • Start on your knees and grip the handles of the ab wheel
  • Brace your core and shift your weight forward over the wheel
  • Roll the wheel forward as far as you can, keeping your pelvis slightly tucked under and slightly rounding your upper back
  • Keep your shoulders engaged and lift your hips. Avoid sagging into your hips and chest
  • Pause at the furthest point you can reach, then roll the wheel back to your starting position.

Scaling options:

To progress the exercise, start standing and keep your knees off the ground, or start from a plank position. To make the move more accessible, we recommend a thicker wheel or a model with an in-built spring to assist with the rollback. 

 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps

4. Flutter kicks

The flutter kick move helps reach the lower abs and deeper core muscles, so it’s worth adding to the mix if you want a well-rounded ab workout. 

  • Lay on your back and extend your legs away from you
  • Place your hands beneath your lower back for support, just above your glutes, or overhead to make the move harder
  • Brace your stomach, lift your upper back and tuck your chin toward your chest
  • Lift your legs off the floor, then kick your feet up and down quickly while keeping your stomach tight and toes pointed.

Scaling options:

You could also try sitting and leaning back slightly to challenge your balance. From here, position your hands behind your head or next to your hips and begin kicking. 

If the exercise feels difficult lying down, place a yoga block (or similar) beneath your lower back to help elevate your legs. Bending your knees or kicking higher up will also make the exercise easier. Keeping your legs straight or lowering them closer to the floor will make it harder. 

Play around with your hand positioning or even holding a weight with your hands to see what works best for you. Make sure your lower back stays pressed into the mat if you attempt to lie down, especially if you raise your arms away from the floor.

3-4 sets of 8-12 reps

5. V-sits

One of the toughest core exercises to nail, V-sits are a great preparatory exercise for toes-to-bar and bar-based gymnastics exercises, primarily working the muscles down the front of your body. 

  • Lay on your back, extend your legs and reach your arms overhead behind you
  • Point your toes and raise your legs slightly off the floor, bracing your stomach and pressing your lower back into the mat beneath you
  • As you breathe out, lift your upper back and arms away from the floor and begin to sit up, then lift your legs upward
  • Touch your hands and feet together, creating a V-shape with your body
  • Keep your arms and legs straight, then lower back to the starting position with control.

Scaling options: 

If you need extra support, bend your knees and perform V-crunches, driving your knees toward your chest as you reach your hands forward and sit up. To make the exercise more challenging, hold a weight in both hands as you perform the V-sit.

3-4 sets of 8-12 reps

You'll work more than just your abs

Remember, a toned midsection looks great, but strengthening your core muscles also helps move and stabilize the torso and spine and helps you run faster, lift heavier weights and produce better quality movement patterns. 

We recommend performing as many compound exercises and functional workouts as possible when programming routines. Multi-muscle moves that mimic your natural movement patterns like heavy squats, deadlifts and presses target more muscle groups and recruit your core muscles heavily for support and stabilization. 

You can still strengthen your core and build definition using full-body workouts and dialing into your nutrition if ab workouts aren’t your thing. Perform these exercises as a 5-move ab workout circuit or pepper them into your existing core routine.

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III qualified fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.