Strengthen your core and build full-body muscle with this 5-move dumbbell abs workout

Woman doing sit-up with a dumbbell
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Your core connects your upper and lower body, playing a crucial role in your balance, posture, stability and blood flow. But you don't need endless sit-ups to strengthen your mid-body muscle, as this trainer's five-move dumbbell core workout is a great place to start.

You only need a single dumbbell to get started, although you can increase the challenge using a pair. If you regularly train at home, it may also be worth investing in a set of the best adjustable dumbbells, as you can quickly change the load between exercises, but also gradually as you get stronger. 

Then, with weights by your side, you’ll be ready to take on this short, effective routine from Alasdair Nicoll, personal trainer and expert tutor at The Fitness Group. “This workout consists of five exercises with the aim of strengthening your core muscles,” Nicoll explains.

How to do the 5-move dumbbell core workout

Although Nicoll says that you can do these moves in any order you like, and with one or two dumbbells, he suggests performing all five exercises as a circuit, completing 10-12 repetitions of each move before starting on the next exercise.

Then, Nicoll suggests that: “Once you have completed all 5 exercises take a 90-second rest. The aim is to repeat the circuit up to five times. Depending on your ability you can build up to 5 rounds over time.”

1. Plank dumbbell pull-through

“Try to keep your hips square to the floor as you reach under and pull the dumbbell across to the opposite side and repeat,” says Nicoll.

  • Start in a high plank position with your hands under your shoulders, arms and back straight with a dumbbell on your left behind your left wrist
  • Reach your right hand under your body to grab the weight and drag it over to your right side behind your right wrist
  • Repeat the process with your left hand. That’s one rep

2. Dumbbell hot hands

According to Nicoll: “This is a great exercise for building strength and stability throughout your entire core, particularly the deep core muscles. Focus on keeping tension in the core by sucking your belly button to the spine and keeping your hips and spine in a neutral position."

  • Start in a high plank position, with your hands under your shoulders, arms and back straight with a dumbbell placed on its end directly in front of you
  • Maintain the plank position, and lift your right hand to tap the top of the dumbbell, with your hips square to the floor
  • Place your right hand back on the floor, and repeat the process with the left hand
  • Continue alternating until you hit your rep target

3. Dumbbell crunch press

“This is a great exercise for the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles). There are a couple of variations depending on your experience level,” says Nicoll. “You may need to put your feet under a weight or chair or even have a partner help to hold them down.”

  • Lie down with your back on the mat, knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  • Hold a dumbbell above your chest with a hand on each end
  • Then crunch up towards the knees ensuring the weight stays above you and press the dumbbell overhead
  • Engage your core and lower back to the starting position with control. That’s one rep

4. Overhead dumbbell march

Nicoll explains that although “this may look easy but with an adequate weight you will really notice the challenge in your lower abdominals. The key points with this exercise are to maintain a neutral spine and ensure that your arms are locked out overhead.”

  • Stand tall with a dumbbell in front of your chest and a hand on each end
  • Lift the dumbbell directly overhead until your arms are straight and your core is engaged
  • Raise your left knee and pause when your leg is at 90 degrees to your body, then slowly lower back to the starting position
  • Repeat the process on the other leg and continue alternating

5. Dumbbell Russian twist

“This is a great exercise for building core strength and stability, and you can do this either with your feet elevated or on the floor,” notes Nicoll. “The key element here is completing each rep under control and not trying to race through the set.”

  • Start in a sitting position on your mat with your knees bent and a dumbbell in front of your chest, and lean back to a 45-degree angle with your heels touching the floor
  • Rotate at the waist until the dumbbell to your left side until the weight is just above the floor
  • Return to the starting position and seamlessly rotate to the right side
  • Continue alternating until you hit your rep target

The moves in this routine are compound exercises, which engage multiple muscles simultaneously. This makes your workout more efficient compared to single-muscle isolation exercises like biceps curls

Although primarily designed to work the muscles in your core, as your midsection connects your upper and lower body, you'll also engage muscles all over your body, and the weight challenges your stability. 

This is crucial for building functional strength, the type that'll help you with everyday activities like carrying groceries, reaching high shelves, and even your posture while sat down or during a walk, as a stronger core can help prevent leaning into your lower back. 

While Nicoll's routine has plenty of variety to keep things challenging, if you want to add some variety, you could switch in a few of these dumbbell abs exercises too, or incorporate Nicoll's circuit into an extended dumbbell core workout. 

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James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is Tom's Guide's Fitness Editor, covering strength training workouts, cardio exercise, and accessible ways to improve your health and wellbeing. His interest in fitness started after being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and he began focusing on strengthening his core, taking regular walks around the city, and practicing meditation to manage the symptoms. He also invested in fitness trackers, home workout equipment, and yoga mats to find accessible ways to train without the gym. Before joining the team at Tom’s Guide, James was the Fitness Editor at Fit&Well, where he covered beginner-friendly exercise routines, affordable ways to boost your wellbeing, and reviewed weights, rowing machines, and workout headphones. He believes that exercise should be something you enjoy doing, so appreciates the challenge of finding ways to incorporate it into everyday life through short muscle-building sessions, regular meditation, and early morning walks.