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Trainers Reveal: The Best Abs Exercises of All Time

Passé Abs Series

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"This move is one of my all-time favorite abs sculpting exercises," says Andrea Rogers, a former professional dancer, certified Pilates instructor, and creator of Xtend Barre. "It strengthens the abdominal muscles while developing stability of the pelvic lumbar region. You can also amp things up by increasing the tempo."

To do it: Start seated, then lean back, resting your weight on your forearms (bending your elbows behind your body, fingers facing forward). Extend both legs straight out in front of you. Bend your right knee into a ‘passé position’ by pointing your right foot and pressing the inside edge of your right foot along the inside of your left knee. Draw your abs in tight and lift your legs off the mat and towards the chest (maintaining passé position). Bring your right knee all the way up to the right side of your chest and then lower your legs (still in passé) back down, about two inches from the floor (or as low as you can). Repeat 8 times and then switch legs. Try to do 8 reps on each side, for up to 2 sets.

Barbell Squat

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"People generally look to the old faithful crunches or sit ups as their favorite abdominal or core exercise. I'm more of a fan of something that is way more practical than lying on the ground straining your neck," says Declan Condron, an exercise physiologist for Fitness Builder.

"One of the main jobs of the abdominal or core muscles is to act as stabilizers for the trunk, helping to support while the person is squatting, lifting, or moving about in general. Many studies show that muscle fiber activation rates in the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and internal and external obliques are higher during the squat than during many ‘traditional’ crunch type exercises where the performer is lying on their back."

To do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell on the back of your shoulders. Lower your body toward the floor, sending your hips back and down and bending your knees. Push through your heels to return to start position, keeping your back flat and head up throughout the movement. Try to do 8-10 reps for 3 sets (resting 45-60 seconds between sets).

The Teaser

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"I have researched this move in my lab, and it is very effective at activating all of the abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominins), and yet the movement is very straightforward and does not require several steps or positions, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery.

"This move is also great for learning how to breathe correctly when engaging the abdominal muscles in order to get a very deep and full activation of the abdominal wall, and the ‘up’ position of the legs during the entire exercise greatly limits any action of the hip flexors."

To do it: Lie on the floor with your arms extended above your head and both legs lifted in the air at about a 45-degree angle. Inhale, roll your head and shoulders off the mat, press your ribs down toward your hip bones and exhale, lifting your entire upper body off the mat (keeping both legs up). At the top of the exercise, "land" your arms so that the arms and legs are parallel to one another. Then, breathe "naturally" while holding the top/up position for two slow counts.  Reverse the action by inhaling and then rolling your back, shoulders and head down onto the mat exhaling at the start position.

Towel Plank and Knee In

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"Fit and healthy abs should be able to resist external forces, flex, extend, and rotate, and this moves does all of these. You’ll also burn more calories because it uses more muscles than just the abdominals," says Marta Montenegro, an exercise physiologist and adjunct professor at Florida International University.

To do it: Start in a plank position with one small towel placed under each ball of your foot, legs together. Bring your left knee in towards the right side of your chest, squeezing your abs. Then, straighten your right leg back out to full plank and bring your right knee in towards the left side of the your chest and back out to full plank. Next, draw both knees into your chest at the same time and then slide your legs back out to full plank. That’s one rep. Build up to 3 sets of 12-15 reps (resting in between).

Standing Lift

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If you don’t have much time to exercise, you’ll want to do an exercise that links the legs, hips, glutes, shoulders, back, and abs together like this standing lift exercise does, says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for ACE Fitness.

To do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and pressed firmly into the floor and hold a medicine ball (or other similar weighted object). Brace your abs in tight (as if preparing for someone to punch your stomach) and use your lower body to start the movement by bending your knees, sitting back into your hips, and reaching the ball down across the outside of your left leg. Stand up, swinging your arms across your body and up to the right while pressing your hips forward. Do 10-12 reps going from left hip to right shoulder, and then repeat on the other side.

Boat Pose

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"This pose will strengthen the core and tone the abdominal muscles," says Tamal Dodge, a certified yoga teacher and star of the "Element: Hatha & Flow Yoga for Beginners"Element: Hatha & Flow Yoga for Beginners" DVD.

To do it: Sit with your knees bent and together, feet slightly lifted off the floor. Reach your arms forward and shift your weight into your sit bones, draw your abs in tight, and lift your chest. Try straightening the legs as much as you can (forming a ‘V’ shape with your body) and hold this pose for 30 seconds to one minute, with even breathing.

Side-to-Side Crunch and Weave

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This kickboxing-based move targets your entire waistline of muscles—your abdominal wall, side obliques, and lower back—all while keeping your lower body engaged. It also keeps you moving quickly to help you burn more calories during your abs training, says Guillermo Gomez, 4th degree black belt and star of the "Kickboxing Cardio Power" DVD.

To do it: Start with feet in a wide stance, knees bent, arms up on guard. Keeping your lower body still, quickly lean your upper body to the right, then come back through the center and lean to the left. Repeat lean back to the right. Next, lower your upper body, from the right around to the left side, making a half circle with your torso. Return to start position. That’s one rep. (Tip: it helps to keep a steady rhythm with this move, think—or say aloud—1, 2, 3, weave to help you keep your tempo). Repeat 10 times total, alternating starting on the right and left sides.

Reverse Curl and Lift

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"You’ll feel a burn like no other when you do this move," says Jari Love, a certified personal trainer and star of the "Get Extremely Ripped 1000" DVD. "It’s a great way to challenge your abs in a whole new way!"

To do it: Lie flat on your back with both hands behind your head, legs extended out with your heels lifted about six inches off the floor, toes pointed. Contract your abs, bend and draw your knees into your chest, and raise your hips slightly off the floor. Slowly lower back to the start position. Repeat 8 times, for 3 sets total.

Inchworm to Side Plank

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This total-body move engages your core (not just your abs) best, says Linda LaRue, a registered nurse, athletic trainer, and creator of the Core Transformer. "Moves that involve trunk (your core) twisting best engage your transverse abdomens (the deepest muscles)."

To do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, shoulders down, and your abs drawn in. Hinge forward at your waist and inch forward, walking with your hands into a top-of-the-pushup (or plank) position. Hold plank for three seconds, being sure to keep your chest lifted and your belly button drawn into your spine. Your body should form a straight line from your ears to your ankles. Then, perform one pushup by bending your elbows to the sides and lowering your body towards (but not touching) the floor, maintaining a straight spine.

Straighten back up to plank position and twist your torso to the right, reaching your right arm up to the ceiling, into a side plank position. Hold for three counts. Repeat the pushup and side plank to the other side. Then, walk your hands back to your body and stand up tall to start position. That's one rep. Repeat 6 times.

Two-Point Plank

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"This abdominal exercise is excellent for several reasons: It is an extremely functional exercise, it works your entire core region, front and back, while sculpting great-looking abs at the same time," says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym: Personal Trainer Secrets Without the Personal Trainer Price Tag.

To do it: Assume a push up position, making sure your body forms a straight line from your shoulders down to your toes. Raise your right hand and left leg out to form a straight line with your body, hold for two counts, then return to plank position and repeat with the other arm and leg. That’s one rep. Holland recommends doing 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps, several times per week for best results.

Stability-Ball Rollout

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"I love this exercise because it advances the plank in two ways: 1) you're on a ball and 2) you stress the core by moving the ball away from your body," says Rick Richey, owner of R2Fitness LLC and master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

"You get to control how easy or difficult the exercise is by the distance of the ball from your body—I have done this for years and can still make it hard enough to fire up the abs!"

To do it: Kneel with your elbows bent under your shoulders on top of a stability ball. Draw your abs in tight, keep your weight in your arms (chest lifted off the ball), and extend both legs out straight behind you, feet about hip-width apart. Maintain a straight line from your head, shoulders, hips, knees, and feet. Once you are stabilized on the ball, slowly roll the ball away from your body to increase the lever length and add stress on the abdominal region. For safety, go slowly and start with short movements in and out for 10-15 reps. When you feel ready, you can progress how far away you reach and your number of reps, Richey says.

The Pilates Roll Up with Ball

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The roll up is a classic Pilates mat move that's perfect for spinal articulation and strengthening the abdominals, says Tracey Mallett, a certified Pilates instructor and star of the "Pilates Super Sculpt" DVD.

"This exercise is so effective because it teaches you not to rely on your bigger muscle groups (like your thighs) and focuses on using your abdominals correctly in a controlled manner without using momentum. The use of the ball gives you natural feedback of your weaker side so that you can adjust and work on symmetry of your musculature, preventing future injuries."

To do it: Lie down with a small ball (a small pillow will also work if you don’t have a ball) under your heels, both arms extended over your head, palms facing towards each other. Inhale to prepare as you lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the floor and then exhale as you continue to roll up by drawing in your abdominals, reaching up and over towards the feet. Keep your abdominals contracted, with your spine rounded in a ‘C’ curve, and then inhale to prepare and exhale as you roll down through each vertebra in a controlled movement, keeping your heels pressed evenly into the ball the entire way up and down. Do 15 reps as controlled and precise as you can.

Supine Oblique Ball Twist

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This move from Bryce Taylor, a physical therapist, Pilates instructor, and owner of Halo Rehab and Fitness, will work your obliques much better than crunches.

To do it: Lie on your back with your arms out to each side in a ‘T’ shape, palms facing down. Position a stability ball between your feet and extend both legs up towards the ceiling, just above your hips, knees slightly bent. Gently squeeze into the ball, draw your abs in tight, and press your ribcage into the floor as you carefully move the ball to the right, lowering both legs towards the floor (only go as far toward floor as you can without dropping to the side). Press the ball back up to the ceiling and repeat to the left, alternating sides for one minute.

Reverse Press Up

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My personal favorite abs exercise is the reverse press up, because it targets the lower part of the transverse (deep) abs without any equipment," says Andre Farnell, a certified personal trainer and owner of Better Body Expert Fitness Solutions in New York City.

To do it: Lie flat on your back with both hands by your sides, palms facing down. Extend both legs up in the air above your hips, keeping both knees slightly bent, feet flexed. Push upward with both feet at the same time, pressing your heels towards the ceiling, lifting your hips off the floor. Try for up to three sets of 15 reps.

Stability-Ball Plank Leg Lift

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Samantha Clayton, a former Olympic sprinter and personal trainer in Malibu, Calif. loves this move for flat abs: "The stress you put on all of your core muscles in order to stay in this position forces your abs to be contracted the entire time."

To do it:Get into pushup position with both hands on the stability ball directly below your shoulders (your feet can be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart to give you extra stability). Contract your abdominals and try to bring your body into a straight line from your neck all the way to you toes (your butt should not be sticking out, so contract your glutes and keep your hips down). Once you are stable, lift your right leg a few inches off the ground and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side. Try to do three sets of a 10-second hold, and then advance to a 30-second hold.

Standing Side-Crunch

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This is my favorite abs exercise because you don't tug at your neck like we sometimes do during mat work, and you don't need a lot of reps to get the job done. It works your balance too," says fitness expert Ellen Barrett, star of the "Ellen Barrett Live: POWER FUSION" DVD.

To do it: Stand with your feet planted 3-4 feet apart, toes slightly turned out, hands on your hips. Lower into a plie by bending your knees out over your toes and lowering your hips directly underneath your shoulders. Then, as your straighten back up, slowly lift the right knee up towards the right shoulder. As you go back into the plie, slowly return the foot to the floor. Be sure to move at a very controlled pace to really engage the obliques the entire time—on the way up and on the way down. Do 10 repetitions on the right side, then another 10 repetitions on the left side for a total of 20.

Rotational Lift

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This targeted move from Pilates instructor Lisa Hubbard, star of the "Element Total Body Pilates with Mini Ball Kit", really zeroes in on your hard-to-tone oblique muscles and abdominal wall.

To do it: Lie on your back with your hands interlaced behind head, knees bent ,and feet hip-width apart on the floor. Inhale and lift your chest towards your knees, bringing your shoulders and head off the floor, maintaining a neutral pelvis (keeping it parallel to the floor). Exhale and rotate to the right side, and then exhale again rotating even further, lifting a little higher. Next, inhale and lift as you return to the center and repeat to the other side. Do 8-10 reps per side.

Cross-Leg Reverse Crunch

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This move engages so many muscles—from the bottom region of pelvis upward—and works the obliques at the same time without straining your neck, says Joey Atlas, a personal trainer and author of Fatness to Fitness.

To do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground. Bring both arms overhead and hold onto the bottom of couch or a heavy medicine ball (as shown). Cross your right ankle on top of your left knee. Exhale and lift your legs in (in the same cross-legged position) as close to your chest as possible, lifting your hips and lower back off the floor. Inhale and slowly return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Try for up to 15 reps with the right leg, then repeat on the left.

Swimming Plank

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This tough, unique plank variation from Cody Harter, a personal trainer at Healthworks Fitness Center for Women, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., will challenge your abs and your back—no water required!

To do it: Lie on your stomach with your upper body propped up on your elbows and a dumbbell upright on the floor about six inches in front of your chest. Tuck your toes under and lift your body into a full elbow plank, making a straight line from your head to your heels, drawing in your abdominals. To start the move, lift your right arm off the floor and use your best freestyle stroke to reach over and past the dumbbell—as far as you can—allowing your hips to rotate into the stroke and turning through the balls of your feet. Finish the full stroke before returning to elbow plank position. Repeat with the left arm. That's one rep. Do 10 reps total, alternating sides each time.


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Stacy Berman, owner and head trainer of Stacy’s Bootcamp in New York City, loves this plank move to target the core muscles. "You are going to work your upper and lower abs, obliques, and lower back," Berman says. "Walking the hands as far above your head as you can forces the core to work extra hard to stabilize."

To do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly (or more if needed) and place both hands flat on the ground. Keeping your legs extended and your feet planted, walk your hands away from your body, as far past your shoulders as you can, until you are in a full plank position. Hold for one count at the furthest point, and then walk your hands back to your feet and slowly return to standing. That’s one rep. Repeat up to 10 times.


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