A Total Ab Workout to Seriously Strengthen Your Core

by Jessica Nelson, RDN, CPT

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Jessica Nelson, RDN, CPT, shares a handy guide to your abdominal muscles, including her personal-trainer-approved total ab workout.

Strengthening ab muscles is an important part of any exercise program. Continue reading to discover why core strength is essential for your body, daily movement, and overall health. Then learn about the different types of abdominal muscles, followed by a total ab workout to tone and strengthen your core.

The Importance of Core Strength

Simply put, the importance of core strength can’t be underestimated.

A strong core is vital for protecting internal organs and supporting balance, posture, and breathing. Strong, stable abdominal muscles can also help prevent lower back pain.

Along with your back muscles, your ab muscles act as the main power generator for all movement, such as when sitting, standing, bending over, picking things up, reaching, carrying, and exercising.

Basically, your core muscles are an essential part of functional daily movements.

Father with children doing ab exercises

The 4 Types of Abdominal Muscles

There are four main abdominal muscle groups that your total ab workout should target.

1. Rectus Abdominis

The first is the rectus abdominis, aka the upper and lower abs. These muscles are in charge of helping your trunk and spine flex and bend. They also support your posture and stabilize movements.

Core exercises that engage these specific ab muscles include:

  • crunches (chest toward pelvis)
  • sit-ups (flexing spine)
  • leg raises (bringing pelvis to chest)

2. Transversus Abdominis

The second group of abdominal muscles is the transversus abdominis, which are the deepest of the four abdominal muscles. These are largely involved in stabilizing core movements, supporting the lower back, and providing protection for internal organs.

Core exercises that involve flexing and extending—as in pulling the navel toward the spine—engage the transversus ab muscles.

3-4. External and Internal Obliques

The third and fourth types of abdominal muscles involve the external and internal obliques. The external and internal obliques are on each side of the rectus abdominis or outside abdomen area, running down from the lower ribs to the pelvis and on the inside of the hipbones.

We rotate our torso all throughout the day, so strengthening the obliques is essential. Exercises that target your obliques may help prevent injury and pain commonly associated with the lower back and shoulders.

When exercising, these muscles help with:

  • left and right rotational or twisting movements
  • sideways bending movements

AN Effective Total Ab Workout

Below are nine effective core-strengthening exercises to perform at home or at the gym. These ab exercises will specifically target the four main abdominal muscles.

Pre-workout Trainer Tips

  • Perform 20 reps for each one or 15 to 20 reps for each side of the body. Repeat three times for an efficient and powerful total ab workout.
  • When instructed to “engage your core” or “tighten abs,” this means to breathe and contract your ab muscles. (Contracting means that you’re bracing for impact. You can think of it like someone is going to punch you in the gut.) Inhale, and then as you exhale, contract your abs. Note: Engaging your core isn’t about sucking in. 

Ab Exercises for the Upper and Lower Muscles

Perform these ab exercises to work your way to a six-pack in no time.

Cross Crunch + Reach Ab Workout Demonstration

1. Cross-Crunch + Reach

Start by laying on the floor with knees bent. Keep arms bent and hands toward shoulders. Engage your core and perform a sit-up, but as you come up, rotate your torso to one side as you reach across your body with the opposite arm. Return to starting position and repeat on other side. Continue to alternate sides.

Laying Toe-Touch Crunch Ab Exercises

2. Laying Toe-Touch Crunch

Lay on the floor and raise your legs straight in the air with feet together over hips. Extend your arms with your hands over your shoulders and fingers pointed toward ceiling. Tighten abs and keep your neck relaxed, then lift upper body off the floor by reaching towards your toes. Hold for two seconds and then slowly return shoulders to starting position. Keep legs up for one rep.

Jessica Nelson, RDN, CPT, doing leg lifts

3. Leg Lifts

Lay flat with your back on the floor, with your arms and hands extended and down at your sides, palms down. Slowly raise your legs until they’re above your hips, keeping your core engaged. Pause for two seconds, then return legs to starting position for one rep.

Ab Exercises for The Deep Core Muscles

These abdominal exercises will help with stability and support your posture.

Genie sit ab exercises

4. Genie Sit

Begin in a kneeling position with your arms stretched out in front of you. Slowly and with abs engaged, lean backwards at the knees as far as you can. Keep your body straight and arms leveled out in front. Return to starting position for one rep.

Tip: You can reach back (as pictured) for more of a challenge and to simultaneously engage your obliques.

Dead Bug Switch Ab Workout

5. Dead Bug Switch

Laying on your back, lift arms over your shoulders and lift your legs so your knees are over your hips. Engage your core and press your lower back into the floor as you slowly lower your right arm and left leg until they’re just above the floor. Pause for two seconds then return to starting position for one rep. Repeat on the opposite side and continue to alternate sides.

Certified personal trainer doing glute bridges to strengthen core

6. Glute Bridges

Lay with your back on the floor with your arms down at your sides and palms down. Bend your knees with your heels on ground and toes up. Tighten your core and squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips off the ground until your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Don’t hyperextend back. Hold for two seconds and then slowly return to starting position.

Ab exercises for Your Obliques

These final core exercises can help prevent injury and improve mobility by engaging your obliques.

Plank toe touch workout, one of the best ab exercises

7. Plank Toe Touches

Start in a plank position with your back straight and legs a little wider than your shoulders. Engage your core while driving hips with back elongated to bring right hand to touch left foot. Keep your heels off the ground. Return to plank position for one rep. Repeat on the opposite side and continue to alternate sides.

Modified Side Plank Crunch - Exercises for Obliques

8. Modified Side Plank Crunch

Lay on your right side with your right forearm down under your right shoulder and right knee bent on the floor. Keep your left leg extended out and your left arm raised overhead. Without letting your hips drop, tighten abs and pull your left elbow and left knee together into a crunch position. Hold for two seconds then return to starting position. Repeat total reps on this side, then switch sides.

One Knee Side Bend to Thread the Needle - Ab Exercises

9. One Knee Side Bend to Thread the Needle

Start with your right knee down and left leg stretched out to the side, with arms raised overhead. Engage abs and bend at the right side, placing your right hand on the floor with your left arm now raised over your left shoulder. Pause and exhale, then engage abs again as you roll your left hand and arm toward your body to thread through the open space underneath the right side of your body. Your shoulders and hips should rotate with your left arm, as well. Hold this position for two seconds, then slowly unthread or roll your way back to start. Repeat total reps on this side, then switch sides.

Final Thoughts

Of course, everyone would love to have a defined, toned tummy. But when it comes to exercising your core, make the priority about improving the functional movement and strength of those muscles. After all, your core is what allows you to move through daily life, as well as other more physical activities.

Remember that developing a strong and stable core is dependent on good form and knowing how to engage your abdominal muscles during exercise.

Lastly, it’s never a bad idea to seek the assistance of a certified personal trainer to help prevent injury and to take your abdominal training to the next level.


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