The Best Exercises for Visible Abdominal Muscles

Two friends exercising together

Matt Dutile / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Many people aspire to gain stronger, leaner abdominal muscles (or abs). The abs are the muscles around the belly and belly button and are often referred to as a "six-pack." If you're interested in reducing abdominal adiposity and getting a leaner midsection, here are a few key factors to consider:

  • Strong abdominal muscles: Focusing on exercises that develop core strength and stability can help develop toned abs.
  • Genetics: Many people are genetically predisposed to abdominal fat. While that doesn't necessarily mean you will always have it, you may have to step up your workouts to get the results you are hoping to achieve.
  • Abdominal adiposity: You won't be able to see your strong core muscles from the surface if there is a layer of body fat around your midsection. However, you can still have a strong core and have a bit of abdominal fat and still be considered healthy, especially if you are exercising regularly and following a well-balanced diet.

Appearance aside, anyone can benefit from strengthening their abdominal muscles, making everyday activities easier, and helping prevent back pain. In addition, athletes need strength in their abdominals and the other core muscles to perform their particular sport efficiently. From running to soccer, almost all athletics benefit from strong core muscles.

How to Build Strong and Visible Abs

The first thing to know is that abdominal exercises alone won't reduce abdominal fat. Attempting spot reduction in any body region is not effective. You have to lose body fat all over to make your strong abdominal muscles visible, and the best way to do that is with a healthy diet and comprehensive fitness program.

Second, you don’t have only to do exercises that specifically target the abdominal muscles. Many exercises effectively require you to contract the abs and work them vigorously. Full-body, compound exercises like deadlifts and squats are good examples, and they are essential exercises for all-around weight loss and strength gain.

However, abdominal exercises can help build firm muscle on your abdomen and define your ab muscles.

The Best Exercises for Abs

The best exercises for building strong, muscular abs are both compound and isolation movements that target your entire core and the different muscles of the abdominals. Below are the best isolation exercises for developing ab muscles.

Bicycle Crunch

bicycle crunch exercise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Research says the bicycle crunch floor exercise is one of the best for the rectus abdominis muscle.

  1. Lie with your back on the floor and your hands behind your head.
  2. Raise your knees toward your chest and lift the shoulder blades off the floor.
  3. Rotate your torso to the left, move your right elbow towards your left knee, and straighten the other leg.
  4. Repeat in the opposite direction—left elbow towards your right knee.
  5. Continue switching sides for desired repetitions.

Captain’s Chair/Hanging Leg Raises

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Use the captain's chair equipment or pull-up bar for an effective bodyweight exercise using your abs to lift your legs in the hanging leg raise.

  1. Stand on the platform and grip handles to stabilize your upper body. Alternatively, reach and grasp a pull-up bar.
  2. Press your back into the pad or hang from the bar with your abs braced.
  3. Bend your knees and contract your abs with the aim of bringing your ribs to your pelvis to lift the knees to hip level.
  4. Control your legs to lower them and repeat for desired reps.

You can make this exercise more challenging by straightening your legs instead of bending your knees. Be careful not to use momentum or swing your body. The hanging leg raise performed from the pull-up bar is also more challenging. See below for how to do it.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein


ball crunch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

You can perform the crunch on an exercise ball or floor mat. The ball makes this movement more effective due to the increased range of motion.

  1. Lie with your lower back on the ball, your feet firmly on the floor, knees bent.
  2. Fold your arms over the chest or behind your head.
  3. Contract your abs, aiming to bring your ribs to your pelvis, to lift your upper body (shoulder blades) off the ball.
  4. Slowly reverse the motion and repeat for desired reps.

Fitness Ball Rollouts

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Use an exercise ball for rollouts that target the rectus abdominis muscle. Alternatively, use an ab roller to do this dynamic exercise, which works both the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominis.

  1. Kneel on the floor in front of a stability ball within arm's reach.
  2. Rest your forearms on the ball with your elbows bent 90 degrees and your body in a straight line.
  3. Roll the ball forward using your arms. Your body will straighten out using a slow and controlled movement, requiring your core to brace to support you.
  4. Extend so your chest touches the ball.
  5. Slowly reverse the movement by bending your elbows and pulling the ball back to the starting position using your core.
  6. Repeat for desired reps.

Pallof Press

The pallof press is an isometric exercise where your core must brace and resist the rotation (anti-rotation). This type of core exercise builds functional strength and stability while targeting your ab muscles, including the obliques, transverse abdominus, and deep core stabilizers.

  1. Stand with your left side next to a cable machine or anchored resistance band. Grasp the handle in your left hand.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and your core braced.
  3. Hold the handle in both hands and push it straight out in front of your chest.
  4. Notice the tension in your core muscles as they work isometrically to maintain this position. Hold this position for a slow count of five, then release the handle back toward you.
  5. Repeat for desired reps.

Compound Exercises For a Strong Core

  • Squat (especially barbell back and front squats)
  • Deadlift
  • Barbell row
  • Shoulder press
  • Push press

A Word From Verywell

It's great to have a fitness goal to work toward, and many people, especially athletes, can achieve a stronger, leaner midsection. However, in your quest for six-pack abs, don't forget what's most important: your physical fitness and health. Not everyone will attain picture-perfect abs, even if they are dedicated exercisers, but everyone can tone and strengthen their stomach muscles—and that's always something to celebrate.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Martuscello JM, Nuzzo JL, Ashley CD, Campbell BI, Orriola JJ, Mayer JM. Systematic review of core muscle activity during physical fitness exercisesJ Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(6):1684-1698. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da

  2. Chang W-D, Lin H-Y, Lai P-T. Core strength training for patients with chronic low back painJ Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(3):619-622. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.619

  3. Kuo C-H, Harris MB. Abdominal fat reducing outcome of exercise training: fat burning or hydrocarbon source redistribution? Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 2016;94(7):695-698. doi:10.1139/cjpp-2015-0425

  4. Martuscello JM, Nuzzo JL, Ashley CD, Campbell BI, Orriola JJ, Mayer JM. Systematic review of core muscle activity during physical fitness exercisesJ Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(6):1684-1698. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0597-7

  5. Kordi R, Dehghani S, Noormohammadpour P, Rostami M, Mansournia MA. Effect of abdominal resistance exercise on abdominal subcutaneous fat of obese women: a randomized controlled trial using ultrasound imaging assessmentsJ Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2015;38(3):203-209. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2014.12.004

  6. ACE. ACE study reveals best and worst ab exercises.

  7. Sternlicht E, Rugg S, Fujii LL, Tomomitsu KF, Seki MM. Electromyographic comparison of a stability ball crunch with a traditional crunchJ Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(2):506-9. doi:10.1519/R-20436.1

  8. National Strength and Conditioning Association. 18 basic core training exercises. Published May 2017.

  9. Mullane M, Turner AN, Bishop C. The pallof press. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2021;43(2):121-128. doi:10.1519/SSC.0000000000000596

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.