Searching for the magic formula for a firm stomach? Read up.

By Jay Cardiello and Nicole-Dorsey Straff
Updated October 04, 2019
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Let's face it: Standard abs exercises like sit-ups and crunches are a little archaic and extremely mundane—not to mention, no amount of crunches or ab moves will turn your stomach into J. Lo's. A lot more goes into what your stomach looks like besides muscles themselves (see: genetics, diet, body shape, etc.). And, while we've been to covet six-pack abs, you can be strong and fit and love your body without them.

That said, everyone can benefit from a stronger midsection—which, yes, might result in a more firm stomach. If you want to build a strong core (and get all the non-aesthetic benefits that come with it) consider these tips and unique abs exercises that'll help you get there. 

7 Tips for a Firm Stomach

Before you get started, top trainers, instructors and sports-medicine doctors are doing some firm stomach mythbusting:

1. Choose Variety Over Reps

For best results, mix up the order of your abs moves during each workout, and change your routine every three to four weeks. (This 12-minute at-home firm stomach routine is another option to toss into the rotation.) "Alternating your workout is more important than cranking out 100 crunches every day," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery. "Perform 15 to 20 reps of each exercise, then move on."

2. Forget the "Upper Vs. Lower Abs" Idea

It's all one sheath of muscle: 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. (Related: Abs Workout for a Flat Stomach and Strong Core)

3. Engage Your Pelvic Floor

To target your abs more effectively, strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. "These muscles assist your deepest abs in doing exercises correctly," says Olson. Actively engage them by gently pulling your belly button toward your back. Place one hand on your abdomen; if you feel your stomach pushing out while you do sit-ups, you're pushing the pelvis down rather than pulling muscles up and in, cheating your abs of the full workout. Keep muscles contracted when working abs. Strong pelvic-floor muscles also help you rediscover your ab strength post-pregnancy.

4. Work Your Abs, Not Your Neck

Pretend you have an orange tucked under your chin to release the tension during firm stomach moves such as the bicycle crunch. Or press your fingertips into the base of your neck and give yourself a nice neck massage while curling up. Another strategy: To stop neck muscles from tensing, place your tongue firmly on the roof of your mouth as you crunch. (Related: These Are the Ultimate Ab Workout Moves, According To Trainers)

5. Uncover a Firm Stomach with the Help of Cardio

All the exercises in the world mean nothing if there's a layer of fat the ab muscles lying underneath. If you really want to see your abs, aim for about 45 minutes of cardio to burn calories, three to five times a week. "You need to burn body fat through regular aerobic exercise to see strong abs," says Olson. (Psst...here are 7 reasons you might not be losing belly fat.)

6. Make Abs Your Transition Workout

When you have time to do strength training and cardio in one workout, try to sandwich 10 minutes of ab work in between. Cool down from cardio, hit the mat for stretches, reverse curls and planks (quite possibly the most versatile of all firm stomach moves). This is a great way to shift the focus from cardio to strength training; it helps you zero in on your abs and core strength as you lift.

7. Know When to Rest

You can tell you've worked your abs well when they're sore the next day. Like other muscles, the abs respond best to intense training every two days. Work them too hard, too often, and you'll see minimal progress, says Holland. (Check out how to use active recovery rest days to get the most out of any workout.)

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6 Firm-Stomach Exercises You Can Do Anywhere

Do each exercise (don’t forget to engage your core throughout!) for 30 seconds, resting 30 seconds between moves. You can add these firm stomach exercises to your current fitness program or perform this separately as your core routine.

1. Press and Resist

  • Lie face-up 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. 
  • Press palms into thighs, simultaneously resisting the pressure with knees. Maintain equal balance with pressure from palms and thighs so that you keep the 90-degree angle of the knees.

Hold for 30 seconds.

2. Helicopter 

  • Lie face-up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms extended out to sides, palms down. 
  • Engage core, take a deep breath in, and draw knees into chest. 
  • Exhale, pressing lower back into floor as you extend feet toward the ceiling. (Upper torso and lower body will form a 90-degree angle with feet pressed together.) 
  • Keep core contracted, flex toes toward the floor, and begin circling legs clockwise, keeping legs fully extended and hips resting firmly on the floor. Continue for 30 seconds.
  • Then begin circling legs counter-clockwise, keeping legs fully extended and hips resting firmly on the floor.

Continue for 30 seconds.

Scale up: Flip palms up to face the ceiling to decrease stability while increasing core activity.

3. Hands of Time 

  • Lie face-up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms extended out to sides, palms down. 
  • Engage core, draw knees into chest, and press feet toward the ceiling. Feet should remain together with toes flexed. 
  • Inhale and lower right leg out to right side as far as possible, keeping left leg still. 
  • At lowest point, exhale and use core to move right leg back to starting position.

Repeat for 30 seconds. Switch sides; repeat.

4. Round the Clock 

  • Lie face-up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms extended out to sides, palms down. 
  • Engage core and draw right knee in toward navel. Flare right knee out (opening inner thigh area) and extend right leg until it is at a 45-degree angle. (Left foot should remain off the floor throughout the exercise.) 
  • Reverse direction to starting position.

Repeat for 30 seconds. Switch sides; repeat.

Make this firm stomach exercise easier: Keep the opposite knee of the extended leg bent with foot flat on the floor. 

5. Screamers 

  • Get in a left side plank position with foreman firmly placed on the floor and hips raised off the floor. Contract and drive right knee toward navel with toe flexed. 
  • When knee reaches navel, extend right leg out in front of body at a 45-degree angle. 
  • Quickly swing leg back to starting position.

Continue reps for 30 seconds. Switch sides; repeat.

6. Trace the Triangle

  • Get in a push-up position with hands in line with shoulders and feet hip-width apart. 
  • Engage core and reach left hand out 45 degrees as far as possible. Do the same with right hand, bringing hands side by side. 
  • Reach out right hand as far as possible in front of head. Follow with left hand. 
  • Reach backward with right hand on a 45-degree angle, following with left hand. (Your hand pattern will be as if you just traced a triangle.) Reverse direction through each step. 

Continue, alternating directions for 30 seconds.

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