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Try These Ab Workouts to Strengthen Your Core

By Staff | July 7, 2021 | Cleveland Clinic

Whether you’re trying to build a six-pack or just trying to tone your body, ab workouts are a terrific way to get in shape and strengthen your core. Plus, ab exercises require no extra equipment and can be done from just about anywhere.

But there are many variations of ab workouts, so it can be hard to know which ones to try. To get a better idea of where to start, we talked to exercise physiologist Katie Lawton about six great ab workouts to add to your workout routine.

A few things to keep in mind

While these exercises all focus on your abdomen muscles, they also strengthen your entire core. Your abs are simply a component of the core muscle group, which includes the oblique muscles along your side, your gluteal muscles, certain muscles along your spine, your diaphragm, muscles of your pelvic floor and hip flexors.

Your core provides stability for your entire body and impacts your movements. Core strength even affects your posture and back pain. The bottom line: A healthy, strong core is important for your overall health.

Before getting down to the floor and getting your workouts in, though, Lawton has a few tips to remember.

  1. Engage the core: “A lot of people start doing these exercises and don’t realize they’re not engaging their core as much as they should be. Sometimes they’re using their hips more than their abdomen, so they’re not getting that full workout,” she says.
  2. Tuck your pelvis: She also says you should be sure to tuck your pelvis in a little as you perform these exercises to help engage those core muscles. “Make sure that pelvis is tucked and you’re not arching your back.”
  3. Smooth, controlled movements: Making controlled movements is also key to getting the most out of your workout. “If you’re moving faster, it’s going to feel a lot easier,” Lawton says. “If you’re doing slower, controlled movements, it feels a lot harder but that’s much better for strengthening those muscles.”
  4. Know when you’re fatigued: Finally, she says, “Know when you’re getting fatigued, especially if you’re new to these exercises. When your abdomen gets tired, that’s when you’re going to start using other muscles, like your hip flexors, more and your core muscles less.”

Getting those abs in shape

Keeping these tips in mind, you can get started on all of these exercises. Be sure to wear comfortable workout clothing, but make sure your gear isn’t so loose it interferes with your movement.

And since these workouts all involve being on the floor, make sure you’ve got a yoga or workout mat that provides some padding and can keep you comfortable while you go through your reps.

Crunches

Crunches are probably the most well-known of the major ab workouts, a variation on the classic sit-up. They’re also very simple to do, though you need to take care you don’t exacerbate any back and neck injuries.

“They’re a great workout that targets your abs and strengthens your core,” says Lawton. “But if you have any disc issues, complications or neck problems, you might want to skip crunches because of the stress that can be put on those parts of the body.”

  1. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, and place your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
  2. Cross your arms across your chest or, to give your neck more support, place your hands behind your head with your elbows extended out. Don’t interlock your fingers, though.
  3. Contract your abdominal muscles and use them to slowly lift your head and shoulders off the floor a few inches, exhaling as you do.
  4. Hold your position for a few seconds, breathing smoothly and keeping your neck straight.
  5. Slowly lower your shoulders and head to the floor.
  6. Try doing three sets of 10 repetitions.

Tabletop crunches

A variation on the crunch exercise, tabletop crunches are crunches performed while holding both legs in a “tabletop” position: raised off the floor with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, as if your feet were resting on a tabletop.

“Anything where you can keep your spine neutral, flat and against the ground, is a good exercise,” Lawton says. “It’s a simple movement.”

To perform tabletop crunches:

  1. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and place your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
  2. Cross your arms across your chest or, to give your neck more support, place your hands behind your head with your elbows extended out.
  3. Lift your legs into a tabletop position, your thighs perpendicular to the ground and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Contract your abdominal muscles and slowly lift your head and shoulders off the floor a few inches, exhaling as you do.
  5. Hold your position for a few seconds, breathing smoothly and keeping your neck straight.
  6. Slowly lower your shoulders and head to the floor.
  7. Try doing three sets of 10 repetitions.

Bicycle Crunches

Once you’ve mastered those first two variations of crunches, you can increase the difficulty level by adding more core work plus both upper and lower body work, too. Bicycle crunches not only engage your core but also add rotation to your workout which can be good for your spine.

“It’s good for spine health to add in a rotational component to any core exercise,” Lawton says.

To perform bicycle crunches:

  1. Lie flat on your back with your legs in a tabletop position.
  2. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows extended out.
  3. Slowly lift your head and shoulders off the ground and bring your left elbow to your right knee while simultaneously extending out your left leg.
  4. Return to your starting position, keeping your head and shoulders lifted, and bring your right elbow to your left knee while simultaneously extending out your right leg.
  5. Perform three sets of 10 alternating reps.

Planks

“Planks are a great core workout because you keep a neutral spine throughout the process,” Lawton says. “And you’re engaging several parts of your body. There’s upper body strength, glute strength and some lower body strength involved.”

There are also different ways to modify a plank. You can perform either a low plank — where you hold your upper body up with your forearms — or the more difficult high plank, where you hold your upper body up with your hands and outstretched arms, like a push-up.

And if you find yourself eventually becoming a plank expert, there are additional movements that can be incorporated to make the workout even tougher.

To perform a plank:

  1. Start from your knees and place your forearms (low plank) or hands (high plank) on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Extend your legs behind you, placing your feet shoulder-width apart and flexing your toes, and push yourself up into position. Engage your leg and glute muscles to hold yourself steady.
  3. Make sure your shoulders are stacked directly above your hands and your neck is in line with your spine.
  4. Make sure your hips are in a straight line with the rest of your body, neither held too high or dipping too low. This can cause extra strain on your back.
  5. Engage your ab muscles for stability and hold this position. If you’re new to doing planks, hold the position between 20-30 seconds. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to hold this position for about a minute.
  6. While maintaining a straight spine, slowly drop your knees to the floor to take a break.

Hollow Hold

A hollow hold might look a little silly, but it’s a great workout for your abs and requires both upper- and lower-body strength, too. It might take more work to master the “hold” part of this exercise, but that’s the whole point.

“You see a lot of this exercise in the CrossFit realm as it can help with pull-ups or kipping pull-ups,” Lawton says.

The hollow hold requires some extra focus on your core to make sure you’re correctly executing it. “When it comes to holding up your legs, some people tend to use their hip flexors more than their abdomen,” Lawton points out. “So make sure you’re engaging your core and keeping your lower back flat against the ground or you’ll risk possibly hurting your back or over-doing it with your hip flexors.”

To perform a hollow hold:

  1. Lie flat on your back on the ground, making sure your lower back is fully against the ground.
  2. Extend your arms and legs out straight, making sure your arms are alongside your head.
  3. Slowly lift both legs and your head and shoulders a few inches off the ground, activating your core muscles for the lifting.
  4. Make sure your neck is straight — no tucking your chin — and keep your lower back firmly pressed into the ground.
  5. Using those core muscles, hold yourself in place for 20 seconds.

Dead Bug

As strange as the name may be, the dead bug exercise is a great way to build ab strength while also utilizing movement to give the rest of your body a workout — even if takes a bit to get your coordination down.

“It’s like a hollow hold except you’re not just staying in that C-shape,” Lawton notes. “You’re moving that opposite arm and opposite leg. You see it a lot in physical therapy, but if do it for longer periods, it can be a really challenging exercise.”

To perform a dead bug:

  1. Lie flat on the ground with your arms at your side, palms down. Make sure your lower back is firmly flat against the floor.
  2. Raise your arms so they point straight out from your body, perpendicular to the floor.
  3. At the same time as you raise your arms, lift your legs off the floor into a tabletop position, with a 90-degree bend at the knees.
  4. Simultaneously lower your left arm towards the ground alongside your head while extending and lowering the right leg. Stop just a few inches above the ground.
  5. Return your left arm and right leg to your starting position and then lower your right arm and left leg to the ground.
  6. Try three sets of five repetitions of this exercise to start.

This article was from Cleveland Clinic and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.


Staff
Cleveland Clinic

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