When you’re looking for the best exercises for abs to do at home, it’s easy to resort to the familiar rhythms of crunches and sit-ups . We've clenched our jaws, counted our reps, and put our trust in the process, but unfortunately, you won’t be seeing too many results from these staple Phys Ed exercises.
In fact, these popular movements might be causing more harm than good, particularly for your back. If you’re in the gym (and if you love the gym, you should check out our best gym shoes buying guide) or at home, there are better, safer exercises to perform.
Sit-ups tend to favor your hip flexors rather than engaging the targeted abdominal muscles, while crunches squash your spine into the floor, contributing to back pain according to the Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy. Not all exercises are created equal when it comes to sculpting your abs at home.
NASM-qualified fitness trainer, Wendy Batts says targeting your core isn’t just about your rectus abdominis. The central part of the body accounts for not just your abdominal muscles, but also the muscles around the hips and lower back.
Wendy Batts, MS, is a regional master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and an assistant professor in exercise science programs at Pennsylvania Western University. She is also a consultant for companies in the fitness, performance, and wellness space.
Batts says: “In order, to strengthen and condition the abs for looks and to optimize both form and function, you must look beyond crunches and their variations by incorporating a variety of exercises and movements that challenge movement and stability of the core from multiple positions, directions, and angles.”
Batts has outlined four game-changing exercises for your abs and core muscles, each designed to reshape your home-based ab workout routine.
Exercise #1: The Dead Bug
- Lie on your back on the floor with your arms straight and directly above the chest, and your hips and knees each bent 90-degrees into a tabletop position with feet off the ground and the shins parallel to the floor.
- Without holding your breath, engage your abdominals by flattening the lower back against the floor.
- Then, while keeping the lower back flat and not allowing the ribs to flare out, slowly and simultaneously straighten and lower your right leg toward the floor, while simultaneously reaching your left arm above your head as far as you can control. Move the leg and arm only as far as you can without the lower back extending off the floor.
- Pause, then return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.
- Perform for the desired number of repetitions for both sides.
Want to intensify the ab burn? Batts says, “As a progression small resistance bands can be added around the feet and wrists or you can advance to moving both arms and legs simultaneously.”
Exercise #2: Standard plank
- Lie face down on the ground and prop yourself up onto your forearms and elbow. Make sure your elbows are aligned underneath your shoulders, and that your hands are in fists to create extra tension and muscle activation through the upper body. Your forearms should be parallel to one another.
- Without holding your breath, engage the abdominals, contract/squeeze the glutes, press through your forearms and toes to lift your body off the floor. In addition to the abs and glutes, contract your quad muscles to fully extend your knees.
- Don’t just go through the motions; squeeze every muscle as tightly as possible while maintaining the plank position and breathing through your diaphragm.
- Hold for the desired duration—typically starting with 5-10 second holds and then repeat for a total of 10-20 repetitions.
Exercise #3: Side plank
- Lie on your side with the feet and legs on top of each other with the forearm on the ground, and the elbow under the shoulder.
- Without holding your breath, engage the abs and squeeze the glutes.
- Maintaining this tension, press through your forearm and feet to lift your body off the floor—lifting the hips and legs off of the ground until the body forms a straight line from head to toe, resting on the forearm and feet.
- Hold for the desired duration—typically starting with 5-10 second holds.
- Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of repetitions (5-10) before switching sides.
Some find the side plank harder to hold than your standard plank. Batts suggests lifting from the outside of the bottom knee instead of the feet in order to make things a little easier.
Exercise #4: Bird Dog
- To perform the bird dog, get on all fours with your palms directly below your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
- Without holding your breath, engage the abs and tuck the chin.
- Keeping the elbow extended, slowly lift one arm straight out in front of you and the opposite leg out behind you with toes pointed away from the body.
- Keep the arm and leg straight and lift them to body height without arching the lower back. Squeeze the glutes to raise/lift the leg, not your lower back.
- Slowly return the arm and leg to the ground. Repeat, alternating sides for the desired number of repetitions.
Exercise #5: Windshield wipers
- Lie supine (on your back/face up) with your arms straight out at your sides and palms up, forming a ‘T’ shape with your body.
- Lift your feet off the ground and bend both the hips and knees 90 degrees into a tabletop position with the shins parallel to the floor.
- To ensure the movement occurs from the correct spot, without holding your breath, engage your abdominals by flattening the lower back against the floor.
- From this position, keeping your lower back flat and using your abs to control the movement, slowly lower your legs and pelvis to the right as far as you can control— ideally to the point where they’re hovering only a few inches off of the floor.
- When your knees get close to the floor, use the abs to reverse the movement of your legs and pelvis, moving them back through the center and down to the left side of your body.
- Repeat this pattern, moving side to side for the total desired number of repetitions.
This list of no-equipment exercises will target your abdominal muscles, foster overall core strength, in a safe way. Just remember, it's not just about the aesthetics; a resilient core enhances your posture, balance, and everyday movements. With every rep, you're not just building muscles—you're building a foundation for a healthier and stronger version of yourself. Add them to your exercise routine, whether you’re following your own schedule or a program from an app like Fitbit Premium or Fitbod.
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Jessica Downey is an experienced health and fitness writer with a particular interest in running. A former staff writer on Fit & Well and contributor to Runner's World, Jess is a PPA accredited magazine journalist born and raised in Scotland. When back home, she can be found running by the sea, swimming in it, or up a mountain somewhere.