An Overview of Ab Exercises

Woman doing an ab exercise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Your abs are one of the most important muscle groups in the body, and not just because of how they look. Many of us have the goal of getting flat abs, and while that's a fine goal to have, strong abs are even more important.

If you look beyond the six-pack, you'll see a group of muscles that have a very important purpose. Not only do they help you bend, extend, rotate, and flex your torso, they support the most important part of your body: your spine. Almost all of your movements originate from your core, so the stronger you are, the easier everything becomes and the more you protect yourself from injury.

We use the word "abs" to collectively describe four major muscles in the torso. Knowing what each one does and the exercises that target those muscles will help you set up the perfect ab workout for a strong, fit core.

The Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominis is the muscle group we're probably the most familiar with because it's also known as the "six-pack" muscles. We call it that because there are three tendinous creases there that separate the muscle, giving it that washboard look.

If you don't see that washboard look, you're not alone. Most of us don't see the rectus abdominis because, unfortunately, that's where many of us tend to store excess fat.

The rectus abdominis does the following movements:

  • Flexion of the spine - This is basically like bending over or doing a crunch, where you're contracting your abs to bring your shoulders towards your hips.
  • Lateral flexion of the spine - This is moving away from the midline of the body or moving the spine to the right or left.

Exercises for the Rectus Abdominis

This doesn't cover the many, many exercises you can do, but almost any version of a crunch will work your six-pack. Probably one of the best exercises for your rectus abdominis is, surprisingly, good posture.

The Internal and External Obliques

The obliques are located on either side of the body, attaching to the ribs. The internal obliques run diagonally, in the same direction as if you were putting your hand in your pocket. The external obliques also run diagonally but in the opposite direction.

The obliques do the following movements:

  • Flexion of the spine
  • Rotation of the spine
  • Lateral flexion

Exercises for the Obliques

Any time you do a crossover-type exercise, you're using your obliques.

The Transverse Abdominis

The transverse abdominis, also known as the TVA, is actually an internal muscle forming the innermost layer of the abdominal wall. This muscle wraps around the spine and is involved in abdomen compression, rather than movements of the torso. This is the muscle you contract when you brace yourself for a punch.

Basic Guidelines for Working Your Abs

Probably the most important guidelines for working your abs is this: Don't try getting flat abs by doing ab exercises. Yes, ab exercises are important for strong, firm abs, but the idea of spot reducing fat from the abs is a myth. In other words, you can't do a specific exercise to burn fat from a specific area of the body. When you do a crunch, your body doesn't just draw energy from your abs, it draws energy from the entire body.

If your goal is flat abs, focus more on losing overall body fat with a complete program of cardio and strength training along with a healthy diet.

  • Work your abs about three times a week - Many people think you need to work them every day, but you should treat them like any other muscle group, working them two to three times a week, with at least one rest day in between.
  • Choose a variety of exercises - You can see from the above muscle groups that it takes different exercises to target the different muscles of your abs. Make sure you have moves that target each area every time you work your abs.
  • Incorporate ab moves in your strength and cardio workouts - Keep in mind that your abs work all the time and by choosing certain kinds of exercises, you can work them even more. Compound exercises like squat presses or bear crawls are great for the entire body, including the abs.

Exercises and Workouts for Your Abs

You can create your own ab workout by scrolling through the step-by-step ab exercises below and choosing five to 10 moves that target all your muscle groups:

If you want some workouts all planned out, you'll find a wide variety below using everything from a resistance band to an exercise ball for fun, effective ab workouts.

Abs and Core Workout

  • Fitness Level: Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: An exercise ball and a mat.

This ab workout includes seven challenging exercises that target all the muscles of your abs, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and TVA. The ball adds challenge and intensity to some of the exercises.

Abs, Hips, and Thighs - Medicine and Exercise Ball

  • Fitness Level: Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: An exercise ball and a medicine ball

In this workout, you'll work all of the muscles in your abs with the best core and stability equipment out there—an exercise ball and a medicine ball. By doing these in whole body movements, you'll build strength in your abs and work on endurance and stability.

Beginner Abs and Back

  • Fitness Level: Beginner/Intermediate
  • Equipment Needed: A medicine ball or a light weight

This workout includes classic exercises for the abs, like planks and bird dogs, as well as some fun, dynamic moves using a medicine ball. This is great for all levels of fitness, but especially for beginners.

Best Abs Workout

  • Fitness Level: Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: An exercise ball, a Captain's Chair (optional) and a mat.

This workout includes all of the exercises that have been scientifically proven to target all the muscles in your abs in the most effective way.

Core Exercises on the Ball

  • Fitness Level: Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: An exercise ball

If you really want to challenge your core, the ball is the best tool there is. You'll find a variety of exercises that require you to brace and stabilize your body using your abs.

Core Strengthen and Stretch

  • Fitness Level: Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: Various weighted dumbbells, an exercise ball, a resistance band, and a medicine ball

This workout includes a variety of unique exercises designed to work all the muscles of the core. What makes this workout great is that you alternate between a core exercise and a flexibility exercise, so you work more areas of fitness in less time. These moves will strengthen all your core muscles.

Dynamic Abs

  • Fitness Level: Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: An exercise ball, a medicine ball, and a resistance band

Tired of crunches? No worries...there isn't a crunch in this workout. Instead, you have a wide variety of dynamic, challenging exercises that will work all the muscles of your core.

No-Crunch Abs and Back Workout

  • Fitness Level: Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: An exercise ball

Sure, crunches are the go-to exercise for abs, but they're not the best. This workout includes a variety of challenging, dynamic exercises that target all your ab muscles, not just your six-pack.

Postpartum Abs and Core Workout

  • Fitness Level: Beginner/Intermediate
  • Equipment Needed: A mat

This ab workout includes exercises developed by physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann, specifically for postpartum women. These moves focus on stabilizing the pelvis and strengthening the lower abdominal area, which is often weakened by pregnancy.

Standing Ab Workout

  • Fitness Level: Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced
  • Equipment Needed: A resistance band, various weighted dumbbells, a medicine ball, and a kettlebell

We usually work our abs on the floor, but there are great moves you can do from a standing position. These are functional exercises that work your abs in all planes of movement, just the way your body works in real life.

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  • American Council on Exercise. (2003). ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."