A tight, toned midsection is generally a top priority in anyone’s exercise program, especially among female exercisers. Many women are looking to trim their figure into that classic hourglass shape, while others may want to achieve defined washboard abs.
If you’ve been exercising for any period of time, chances are you have tried your fair share of abs exercises, from floor exercises to stability ball exercises to abs exercise machines. Many abs exercises out there claiming to deliver the results you’re after are actually based on misguided principles or flat out misinformation.
The best abdominal exercises work the most muscles at one time, allowing you to work out efficiently. Most of the exercises I’ll go over are simple to perform at home, at the gym, or even while traveling, using only your body weight as resistance. No special equipment whatsoever is required to perform most of these time-honored best abs exercises.
If you understand the basics of abdominal anatomy as well as how fat loss and muscle building actually works, you’ll be well set up to perform the best abs exercises for women. Stop wasting your time and energy on ineffective abs exercises; read this article to learn how to finally achieve the flat, muscular tummy you’ve always wanted.
Jump to the Videos of the Best Abs Exercises for Women or continue reading to learn more.
Fat Loss and the Myth of Spot Reduction
Ladies, before you read any further, you must understand and accept the following: abs exercises alone DO NOT slim your waistline. Spot reduction is a flat-out myth used to fluff the pages of fitness magazines and to market exercise equipment. In other words, no amount of abdominal exercises in isolation will cause you to lose that stubborn tummy fat. I wish it were otherwise, because that would make it a heck of a lot easier for all of us to address our common “problem areas” such as the tummy, thighs, and butt.
If you focus only on strengthening exercises such as those described later in this article, you may be frustrated to find that your tummy is looking bigger rather than smaller. This happens because the developing muscles are pushing out the stubborn fat that is still there. To lose fat, you must burn more calories than you consume, creating a calorie deficit.
The truth is that fat loss is a much bigger picture, requiring a holistic, whole-body exercise and nutrition program. You may have heard the saying “abs are made in the kitchen,” and that couldn’t be more true. Defining your abs is actually a matter of stripping off the excess fat covering them. Only then will your six-pack be able to shine. The best way to do this is through good nutrition combined with an integrated fitness program combining elements of cardio with strength training.
All of that being said, abdominal exercises are highly beneficial to athletic performance and for reshaping your body when combined with other key exercise variables.
Looking for a complete upper body workout for women? This is a great place to start.
If you’re brand new to abdominal exercises, you will want to start with core stabilization rather than the strengthening exercises introduced in this article. Core stabilization is more fundamental than strengthening, setting up a solid foundation for future gains.
An unstable core will put you at risk of injury, especially to the spine, and can cause or exacerbate posture problems as you progress in your exercise program. A stable core, on the other hand, sets you up for success and also helps correct existing problems such as the all-too-common lower back pain.
Read our article on Core Stabilization to learn fundamental core stabilization principles and the best core stabilization exercises.
Basic Abdominal Anatomy
The abdominal muscles consist of much more than just the “six pack muscle” (AKA rectus abdominis). You’ll want to know the six separate muscles that make up the abdominal area in order to maximize the best abs exercises. You should be able to feel these muscles contracting so you can be sure you’re doing the exercises correctly!
This is the classic six pack muscle. The rectus abdominis originates all the way down on the crest of the pubic bone, extends across the front of your abdomen, and inserts into the cartilage between your ribs as well as the tip of the sternum.
The rectus abdominis flexes the body forward at the hips. It’s split down the middle by a tendinous inscription called the linea alba (“white line”), and into four vertically stacked sections by more tendinous inscriptions. On folks with low body fat and good muscular definition, the rectus abdominis may be observed as a six-pack or even the legendary eight-pack on those with a lot of lower ab definition.
Also known as the external obliques. You have one external oblique on each side of your abdomen for a total of two. They originate on the ribs and insert into the crest of your hipbone and the inguinal ligament.
The external obliques help the rectus abdominis with forward flexion, but their main functions are lateral flexion (bending sideways) and rotation of the torso. The obliques also stabilize the core during movement, protecting the spine. They work with the internal obliques and the transversus abdominis (described below) to increase intraabdominal pressure, which protects the spine and internal organs while providing a toned look for the midsection.
Also known as the internal obliques. Just like the external obliques, you have two internal obliques, one on each side. They are located one level beneath the external obliques, arising from the inguinal ligament, the crest of the hip, and the connective tissue of the lower back muscles. The internal obliques insert into the linea alba (that “white line” separating the two halves of the rectus abdominis), the lower ribs, and the tip of the sternum.
Similarly to the external obliques, the internal obliques forward flex, rotate, and laterally flex the trunk. They also stabilize the core and contribute to intraabdominal pressure.
Also known as the transverse abdominis. This is the deepest abdominal muscle. Like the rectus abdominis, it is counted as one muscle. The transversus abdominis originates on the inner crest of the hipbone, the inguinal ligament, the thoracolumbar fascia, and the cartilage of the lower ribs. It inserts into the tip of the sternum, the linea alba, and the pubic bone.
Unlike the other abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis is not involved in movements such as flexion and rotation. Instead, it is mainly responsible for deep stability and for forceful expiration of air. The transversus abdominis also plays a leading role in creating intraabdominal pressure, which as stated earlier, protects the spine and internal organs, contributing to overall core stability.
The Bracing Maneuver
To protect the spine and get more out of the exercises by engaging the transversus abdominis, you’ll want to perform the “Bracing Maneuver” while doing abs exercises. To brace, simply pull your belly button in toward your spine by actively contracting your deep abdominals. This is different from “sucking it in”, which comes from the diaphragm. Do the bracing maneuver, keeping the deep core tight, while you do all of the best abs exercises described below.
The Best Abs Exercises for Women
Now that we have discussed the basics of fat loss, core stabilization, and abdominal anatomy, we are ready to move on to the best abdominal exercises for women!
In the following videos, you will learn five of the best abs exercises for strengthening all areas of your abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and transversus abdominis.
You may notice that the standard crunch is nowhere to be found. That’s because standard crunches are a waste of your time when compared with these best abs exercises. Crunches mainly target the upper rectus abdominis, and not super efficiently at that. As stated in the introduction, the best abs exercises for women will target the most muscles at one time, making your workout much more time efficient.
Abdominal muscles are high in endurance compared to other muscles in your body, being composed of type I muscle fibers. This means you need to perform high reps to see results. Shoot for sets of 20-30 repetitions of all of these exercises. Performing two or more sets of 20-30 reps should have you seeing results quickly.
Perform these exercises several times a week, taking a day off in between sessions to allow the muscles to rest and rebuild.
The Bicycle Maneuver
The bicycle maneuver is ranked #1 in effectiveness according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), recruiting the most abdominal muscle fibers. It’s a tough movement and you will definitely feel the burn!
To perform the movement, lie flat on your back with your hands behind your head, one leg bent to 90 degrees, and the other leg extended. Using your abdominals, raise your shoulders off the floor and twist your core so the bent knee and the opposite bent elbow come together. Slowly alternate legs, bending the knee coming toward the elbow and fully extending the opposite leg.
Notes and modifications: This exercise effectively targets the rectus abdominis as well as the obliques. Remember to perform the bracing maneuver described above to engage the deep abdominal muscles. If this killer move still isn’t enough for you, you can increase the challenge by doing the bicycle maneuver on an unstable surface such as a BOSU ball.
Hanging Leg Raises, AKA Captain’s Chair
According to ACSM, this is one of the very best exercises for all areas of the abs. This is the only exercise on my list that requires equipment. You can perform it hanging as shown in the video or in the Captain’s Chair commonly found in gyms. The movement is basically the same, but the Captain’s Chair provides more back support.
Get yourself situated in the equipment, firmly contracting your core to protect the spine. From a straight-leg position, bring your knees up toward the chest and chin, then slowly lower down. You must bring the knees toward the chin. If you stop too low, you’re targeting the hip flexors instead of the abs. Make sure your abs are controlling the movement, not the hip flexors. This move, when properly executed, works all areas of the abs, including the obliques and transversus abdominis if you brace correctly.
V-Ups, AKA Pike
Start the movement flat on your back with your arms overhead. Fully extend the legs with a slight bend in the knee. Bring your feet and hands together above your waist, hinging at the hips. Your legs and shoulders come all the way off the floor; at the top of the movement, only your butt is in contact with the floor. Hold at the top for a beat, then slowly lower yourself back to the original position with your arms overhead. Perform this movement very slowly for more of a challenge.
Notes and modifications: Stop immediately if you feel any back pain. Keep the glutes active and contracted to avoid overworking the hip flexors and keep the work in the abdominals. To modify, you can do one leg/arm at a time or add a medicine ball between the feet or hands for more resistance.
When done right, this move effectively works the rectus abdominis, especially the tougher-to target lower abs.
To do a toe raise, lie flat on your back and raise your feet straight up to a 90 degree angle from your hips. Place your hands at your sides with your palms flat on the ground. You can put your hands under your butt if that’s more comfortable on your sacrum. Push your feet straight up toward the ceiling, slightly raising your butt off the floor. Lower very slowly, contracting the abs. You don’t need to make this a huge movement, just focus on good form. Press your lower back into the floor for the entire duration of the movement; do not allow it to arch!
Notes and modifications: Remember to draw your navel toward your spine to brace yourself for the movement. If you want to add resistance, you can do so with ankle weights or by wrapping a resistance band around your feet and holding it to the floor with your hands as your push up against it.
This exercise isolates the transversus abdominis, that deepest abdominal muscle responsible for supporting the internal organs and stabilizing the spine. The vacuum is sometimes performed in yoga practice, as it is a great way to stabilize and strengthen the deep core. Whether or not you’re a yoga practitioner, everyone can benefit from increased tone in the transversus abdominis, since more core support means greater strength and less chance of injury. Also, increased strength of the transversus abdominis will naturally slim your figure and improve posture! Don’t skip this one!
To perform the vacuum, you can stand up straight or bend over at a slight angle with your hands on your knees. You can even go down on all fours to increase the resistance once you’re comfortable with the basic movement. The movement is similar to the bracing maneuver you should be performing during all abs exercises, but it is more forceful. As you exhale deeply, contract your abdominal muscles strongly so that your belly button area pulls in toward your spine. This is different from “sucking it in,” which comes from the diaphragm. Focus on clenching the abs rather than just sucking in your stomach. Hold for a count of ten, then release. Inhale deeply and repeat the exhalation/contraction three more times, not 20-30 times like the other exercises. You can do the vacuum exercise every day to firm up your waistline faster.
Best Abs Exercises for Women: References
1. Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C., and Sutton, B.G., (Eds.). (2012). NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
2. Francis, P.R., Kolhorst, F.W., Pennuci, M., Pozos, R.S., and Buono, M.J. (2001). An electromyographic approach to the evaluation of abdominal exercises. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 5(4):9-14.
3. Tortora, G.J., and Anagnostakos, N.P. (1987). Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. New York: Harper & Row.