7 Abs Exercises to Tighten Stomach Muscles for a Strong Core

Searching for the magic formula to tighten stomach muscles? Read up on expert-backed ways to get a stronger core, stat.

6 Abs Exercises to Tighten Stomach Muscles for a Strong Core
Photography by Jena Cumbo .

To be honest, standard abs exercises (such as sit-ups and crunches) are a little archaic and extremely mundane — not to mention, no amount of basic crunches will get you a super-strong core. In order to tighten stomach muscles and properly strengthen your core, you'll need to go deeper with moves that get your body up and off the floor and challenge your core muscles in unique ways. Consider these pro tips and try the best exercises for abs to help you build core strength and stability.

Benefits of Abs Exercises

There are tons of reasons why it's important to have core strength that have nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with your ability to function in everyday life. "Our core, which connects and supports our upper and lower body, is essential in how our body moves," says Tina Tang, NSCF-certified personal trainer and founder of Iron Strong Fitness. "Our core muscles, when used properly, allow us to lift objects, turn, run, move in all directions while protecting our spine. A strong (and engaged) core sustains all our movement throughout our lives."

And if you work at a desk all day, a strong core is crucial for maintaining good posture and counteracting your sedentary hours. "Poor posture can cause certain muscles to weaken while causing others to become overused leading to muscle imbalances," Franco Calabrese, P.T., D.P.T., clinical director at React Physical Therapy, previously told Shape. Learning how to engage your core, on the other hand, stabilizes your spine and helps it stay upright (read: you won't slouch as much when sitting through another Zoom meeting).

Best Tips for Abs Exercises

Before you roll out your mat, it's important to understand what kinds of abs exercises will help tighten stomach muscles. "There are two categories of core exercises: anti-rotation and rotation," explains Tang. "A Pallof press, plank, or side plank are anti-rotational core exercises where the exerciser works at staying still." Meanwhile, exercises such as wood chops or Russian twists are rotational, in which you're moving but using your core muscles to stabilize and maintain alignment.

Regardless of which abs exercises you're doing, focus on core engagement, says Tang. "For all core exercises, one would 'brace' their core, which has the same feeling as bracing oneself from being punched into the stomach," she advises. "The rib cage and hip bones are coming together to tighten or condense the core muscles to stabilize the body."

And you can forget about training "upper abs" or "lower abs" — it's all the rectus abdominis. "If you feel the upper abs working, it doesn't mean the lower abs aren't engaged," says Alycea Ungaro, owner of Real Pilates in New York City and author of The Pilates Promise. Where you feel it depends on the move's anchor point. For example, leg lifts engage more of the lower section since your upper body is against the floor. (Here's a full guide to your abs muscles, if you want an anatomic breakdown.

7 Best Exercises for Abs to Tighten Stomach Muscles

Add these best exercises for abs to your routine, and you'll be well on your way to a stronger core. Together, these abs exercises will not only tighten stomach muscles, but they'll also help you improve your posture, prevent lower back injury, and improve your functional movement outside of exercising. Remember to make sure you're working your abs, not your neck, by pretending you have an orange tucked under your chin to release the tension during core moves on your back.

How to add these best exercises for abs to your workouts: Do each exercise for 30 seconds, resting for 30 seconds between moves, switching sides and repeating the move as necessary. You can add these core-strengthening exercises to your current fitness program or perform this circuit separately as your main core workout. Remember to warm up and cool down for a few minutes in order to allow your heart rate to come down.

1. Isometric Tabletop Press

Why it works: You may not move during this abs exercise, but your core is still working to stabilize your body. Focus on keeping your lower back pressed into the ground for maximum engagement.

A. Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Engage core and draw knees in toward navel, forming a 90-degree angle with knees so shins are parallel with the floor. Place palms slightly above knees on thighs.

B. Slightly lift shoulders off of ground and press palms into thighs, simultaneously resisting the pressure with knees. Maintain equal balance with pressure from palms and thighs in order to keep the 90-degree angle of the knees. Hold for 30 seconds.

2. Double Leg Circles

Why it works: During this abs exercise, your body will want to move around — especially your hips and back. Don't let it! Instead, use your core to keep everything from your hips up flat and steady on the mat.

A. Lie faceup with legs extended straight, arms extended out to sides, palms down. Engage core and exhale to raise legs toward ceiling.

B. Press lower back into the floor while moving legs toward the right. Extend legs as far to the right as you can without lifting upper body off the floor.

C. Continue tracing a circle with legs, lowering legs as close to the ground as you can while maintaining control. From there, move legs toward the left and back up to center to complete the circle. Hips should rest firmly on the floor throughout. Complete one set, then switch directions so legs rotate to the left.

3. Sprinter Crunch

Why it works: This abs exercise is a progression of the bicycle crunch, and its challenge comes from lifting your entire torso off the ground. You'll also get a little oblique work as you twist slightly to reach each elbow toward the opposite knee.

A. Lie face up with legs straight. Engage core, exhale, and lift torso off the ground while bending right knee and bringing it toward left elbow, twisting slightly toward midline of body.

B. Inhale and lower left leg and torso down simultaneously.

C. Exhale and lift torso off the ground while bending left knee and bringing it toward right elbow, twisting slightly toward midline of body. Continue alternating and repeat.

4. High Plank with Knee to Elbow

Why it works: The high plank is an essential abs exercise since it engages all of your core muscles — and beyond that, it even challenges your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles. And as a bonus, it builds shoulder stability, too. Touching each knee to your elbows challenges your stability as you balance on three points, and that twist adds in a little oblique work as well.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. Lift both knees off the floor and straighten legs to come into a high plank position on palms, squeezing glutes together and engaging core. Actively push away from the floor and maintain a straight line from head to heels.

C. Lift left foot and bring left knee as close to left elbow as possible. Hold for a breath, then return left foot to starting position. Maintain a flat back and neutral hips throughout.

D. Lift right foot and bring right knee as close to right elbow as possible. Hold for a breath, then return right foot to starting position. Maintain a flat back and neutral hips throughout and continue alternating.

5. Side Plank Knee to Chest

Why it works: On its own, the side plank challenges your balance (after all, you're only using your forearm and side of your foot as points of contact on the ground). Bringing your top knee toward your chest mimics a crunch (and targets your rectus abdominis) and makes it even tougher for your core muscles to stabilize.

A. Start in a side plank position on the left side, with left forearm firmly placed on the floor and hips raised off the floor. Extend right arm up so right wrist is in line with right shoulder.

B. Exhale and drive right knee toward chest with toes flexed.

C. When right knee reaches 90-degrees, extend right leg long to return to starting position. Repeat.

6. Plank Reach

Why it works: This low plank variation tightens stomach muscles by challenging your stability as you extend one arm long while maintaining the low plank position. This abs exercise also challenges your mobility and range of motion in your shoulder joint.

A. Start in a low plank with elbows directly under shoulders, forearms resting parallel on the ground, and feet hips-width apart. Tuck hips under, engage glutes and hamstrings, and maintain a flat back.

B. Engage core and extend left arm long so that left wrist is in line with left shoulder (or as high as you can comfortably lift left arm).

C. Hold for a breath, then return left arm to low plank position.

D. Extend right arm long so that right wrist is in line with right shoulder (or as high as you can comfortably lift right arm).

E. Hold for a breath, then return right arm to low plank position. Continue alternating.

7. Standing Woodchop

Why it works: The woodchop is one of the most functional abs exercises around — meaning it translates to tons of movements in everyday life (think: lifting something off the ground to place it off a shelf, or shoveling dirt for your new garden). The woodchop also helps tighten stomach muscles by working your body in a transverse plane of motion, meaning it's a rotational movement and will target your obliques.

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Clasp hands together with a slight bend in elbows.

B. Reach hands toward outside of right knee by making a powerful "slash" motion (as if chopping wood) and crunching core down toward right side of body. Both knees bend and left heel pivots off the ground while right foot remains flat.

C. Keeping hands clasped, raise arms up and over left shoulder while returning to a standing position. Legs straighten and right heel pivots off ground while left foot remains flat. Repeat, focusing on strong, powerful movements throughout; switch sides after one set.

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