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When it comes to midsection exercises, you have a ton of choices. Jump on social media, and you’ll get an array of weird and wonderful ab exercises that will make your head spin. The fitness gurus cranking out hundreds of bicycle crunches and heavy medicine ball slams make it look so easy. And then you’ll try them and realize that working your core muscles isn’t exactly a walk in the park!

If you want ab exercises that are doable and effective, you have come to the right place. Ab exercises don’t need to be complicated, just effective. Here, we will dive into the 12 best ab exercises that are effective and doable with a sprinkle of nerdy anatomy and frequently asked questions so you can get the best out of your ab training. 

Anatomy of Your Abs

Before you work ‘em, you gotta know what they are!

ab muscle breakdown

The most well-known ab muscle is the rectus abdominis, or the “six-pack” muscle. But there are other ab muscles that don’t get as much love and attention. Here are all the major abdominal muscles with their anatomy and function. 

Rectus Abdominis

This is the muscle often referred to as the six-pack muscle. The rectus abdominis runs vertically up the front of the torso, and its primary functions are spinal flexion (crunches) and anti-extension (planks). The six-pack muscle is pretty resilient to fatigue. After all, it’s mainly a dominant area of slow-twitch muscle fibers because it plays crucial roles in posture, breathing out, and protecting your internal organs.

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The obliques are composed of internal and external muscles beside the rectus abdominis and run from the hips to the rib cage. The internal obliques are under the external obliques, and the internal oblique muscle fibers travel perpendicular to each other. 

Both muscles function both bilaterally (at the same time) and unilaterally (separately). Bilaterally, the internal obliques flex the trunk and provide stability, and the external obliques laterally flex the torso and perform rotation to the same side. 

Both unilaterally work to flex the torso and rotate the torso to the opposite side, but their most important function is to stop the lower back from rotating.  

Transverse Abdominals

Think of the transversus abdominis as the belt you use to tighten your loose pants. This muscle sits under your rectus abdominis and wraps around your spine. Its primary function is maintaining ab tension (bracing), which helps you increase intraabdominal pressure, and helps protect your spine from heavy loads. 

12 Best Ab Exercises to Build Core Strength

Here, we’ll go into exercises that work all the muscles in your core. The following 12 ab exercises might be simple, but they are effective and great for beginners and advanced exercisers alike. These can be your go-to exercises to build strong core muscles. 

Front Plank

woman doing a plank

Muscles Targeted: Rectus and transverse abs, glutes, triceps, and shoulders 

How to Do It: 

  1. Get down on your hands and knees and place each elbow under each shoulder, shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Step back with your feet, squeeze your glutes, and push your elbows into the ground. Your body should be virtually in a straight line from head to toe and hold for the designated time. 

Trainer Tip: The front plank can be performed in a push-up plank position or on your elbows. It’s simply a matter of personal preference. 

Side Plank

Woman doing a side plank

Muscles Targeted: Shoulders, obliques, glutes, and lower back

How to Do It: 

  1. Lie on your left or right side with your knees straight and your elbow underneath your shoulder. 
  2. Prop your body up and raise your opposite hand until it’s perpendicular to your torso. Align your feet, knees, and hips together. 
  3. Brace your core, lift your hips, and hold for time.

Trainer Tip: It doesn’t matter which side-plank variation you do as long as you are working at your fitness level. Whichever option you choose, always engage your glutes and push your working elbow into the floor. 


Woman doing sit-ups

Muscles Targeted: Rectus and transverse abs, obliques, and hip flexors  

How to Do It: 

  1. Lie on your back, with knees bent at 90 degrees and feet on the ground about hip-width apart. It may help to have your feet wedged under a couch or dumbbell to prevent them from coming off the ground. 
  2. Place your hands behind your head or each hand on the opposite shoulder. 
  3. Slowly lift your upper body while keeping your chin tucked into your chest. 
  4. When upright, slowly lower down to the starting position and repeat.

Trainer Tip: Don’t pull the back of your head to sit up. Let the abs do the work. 


woman doing v-ups

Muscles Targeted: Rectus abs, obliques, and hip flexors

How to Do It: 

  1. Lie supine (face-up) on the floor with your legs and arms straight. 
  2. In one coordinated movement, lift your upper and lower body like you’re trying to touch your toes, trying to keep your legs straight as you do so. 
  3. Slowly back down to the starting position and reset and repeat. 

Trainer Tip: Come up explosively but come down slowly. This is performed either with bodyweight or holding a lightweight in your hands. If straight legs are too difficult, bend the legs at the knee.

Dead Bugs

woman doing dead bugs

Muscles Targeted: Rectus abs, transverse abs, obliques, hip flexors, lower back, quads, and deltoids 

How to Do It: 

  1. Lie face up on the ground and put your knees at a 90-degree angle above your hips and your hands above your shoulders. 
  2. Adjust your pelvis so your lower back is flat on the floor. 
  3. Extend your right hand above your head and your left leg in front of you while breathing out. 
  4. Return to the starting position, breathe in, and repeat on the left arm and right leg—alternate sides for even reps. 

Trainer Tip: Before you start each rep, take a breath in and as you do the rep, breathe out. Continue this cycle for each reps. Holding a light kettlebell makes this exercise more challenging. 

Leg Raises

woman doing leg raises

Muscles Targeted: Rectus abs, obliques, and hip flexors

How to Do It: 

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight and your feet together.
  2. Tuck your hips under to get your lower back on the ground.
  3. Lift your legs off the floor until your feet face the ceiling, and your butt is slightly off the floor. 
  4. Slowly lower to the starting position until your feet hover above the floor, reset, and repeat.

Trainer Tip: Avoid using momentum to raise your legs. Use your hip flexors and abs. If this is too difficult, bend your knees and perform a reverse crunch. 

Ab Rollouts

woman doing barbell ab rollouts

Muscles Targeted: Rectus abs, obliques, glutes, deltoids, upper back, and pectorals 

How to Do It: 

  1. Get on your knees and grip an ab roller or a barbell loaded with bumper plates with your arms straight. 
  2. Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground without overarching your lower back. 
  3. When you have reached the range of motion, you can control, squeeze the lat muscles and pull yourself back to the starting position. 
  4. Reset and repeat

Trainer Tip: Keep your glutes engaged to prevent the lower back from overarching, because back pain from this exercise is usually a result of the lower back overarching. If you don’t have access to an ab roller, a barbell loaded with weight plates or an exercise ball are great alternatives. 

Hanging Knee Raises

woman doing hanging knee raises

Muscles Targeted: Rectus abs, obliques, hip flexors, forearms, and upper back

How to Do It: 

  1. Hang from a pull-up bar high enough that your feet do not touch the ground when your legs are straight.  
  2. With a firm grip, flex your hips and knees simultaneously as you draw the knees as high as possible towards your chest without using momentum. 
  3. Slowly return to the starting position and reset and repeat.

Trainer Tip: Vary your grip, overhand, underhand, or mixed, to train your grip strength from different positions. This is one of the most challenging core exercises on this list, and if your grip strength keeps failing, let leg raises on the floor be your go-to for a while. 

Half-Kneeling Pallof Press

woman doing pallof press

Muscles Targeted: Obliques, hip flexors, glutes, and triceps

How to Do It: 

  1. Loop a resistance band around the power rack at chest height (when in the half-kneeling position) or set the cable attachment at the same height.  
  2. Stand perpendicular to the resistance, grab it in both hands, and take a few steps sideways until the band is taut and you feel the pull. 
  3. Get into a half-kneeling position with the knee closest to the anchor point. 
  4. Get your chest up and shoulders down, squeeze your glute muscle and extend your arms forward. Do not let your upper body and hips twist. 
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Trainer Tip: Half-kneeling is one of a few positions you can perform the Pallof press. You can also do this standing and in a staggered position.

Hollow Hold & Rocks

woman doing hollow hold

Muscles Targeted: Hip flexors, quadriceps, rectus and transverse abdominals, and obliques

How to Do It:

  1. Lie face up on the floor, feet together, and bring them 4-6 inches off the ground. 
  2. Then get the arms overhead, shoulder blades off the ground, and the biceps by your ears. 
  3. Press your lower back into the floor, contract your core, and raise your arms. 
  4. Stay here for the hold or gently rock forwards, lifting the arms off the floor and backward, lifting the legs off the floor.

Trainer Tip: Holding a light dumbbell behind you further increases the intensity of this exercise. 


Woman doing L-sit

Muscles Targeted:  Rectus and transverse abs, obliques, hip flexors, quads, triceps, deltoids, chest, and lats

How to Do It: 

  1. You can perform these on parallettes, hanging from a pull-up bar, or on gymnastics rings. 
  2. With straight arms, place your hands on the equipment and hold tight.
  3. Lift your legs and keep them straight until they are parallel to the floor and you are the shape of an L. 
  4. Bring your shoulders back and down, keep your back straight, and look straight ahead with a neutral neck.

Trainer Tip: L-Sit is the most challenging exercise on this list, working your core as well as other muscle groups. Hold for a short time for lots of sets when doing this exercise for the first time. 

Heel Tap Crunches

woman doing heel taps

Muscles Targeted: Rectus and transverse abdominals and obliques  

How to Do It: 

  1. Lie face up on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet on the floor. 
  2. With your arms extended by your side, raise your head and shoulders slightly off the ground, crunch your ribcage toward your pelvis on the left side, and tap your hand to your left heel. 
  3. Go back to the starting position and repeat to the right side—alternate sides for even reps. 

Trainer Tip: Keep your lower back glued to the floor the entire time you do this exercise. 

Best Ab Exercises: Final Thoughts 

When you’re looking to improve your ab strength, it’s easy to get caught up with cool and difficult-looking exercises. The best ab exercises are effective and straightforward, like this list. The best ab exercises:

  • Improve ab strength
  • Target the abs safely
  • Improve core stability and train all the functions on the core

When performing a core workout, you need simple, repeatable exercises that work, and these 12 ab exercises are a great start.

Best Ab Exercises: Q&A

Which ab is most effective?

The most effective ab exercise trains all abs major muscles, strengthen the core area, and protects the spine. Planks, dead bugs, and L-sits fit the bill.

What are the top 3 exercises for abs?

This certified personal trainer’s top three exercises for abs are planks, ab rollouts, and half-kneeling Pallof presses. 

Are ab workouts actually effective?

This depends on what you mean by effective. If you want to lose belly fat by doing endless ab workouts, then no,  ab workouts are ineffective for reducing belly fat. But when you want to improve your core strength and performance in and out of the gym, then yes, ab workouts can be effective. 

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