The ultimate ab workout

The debate over the best way to flatten the abs is endless. Ifyou were to ask 10 trainers what the optimum exercise is for firming your belly, you might just get 10 different answers. So is there one surefire move you can do for the sleek, strong midsection you seek? No. "Stop looking for the one best exercise for abs because it doesn't exist," says Stuart Rugg, Ph.D., chair of the department of kinesiology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. "Abdominal strength and definition come from performing a variety of exercises correctly in a consistent, well-rounded routine."

We sorted through the latest research and sought advice from top fitness experts to bring you this exclusive workout featuring variations on the standard crunch (which still ranks, in its various forms, as the most effective move for strengthening the abs). "Crunches are versatile, effective and can be done anywhere by anyone," says certified trainer Kurt Brungardt, author of The Complete Book of Abs for Women (Villard, 2004). "And crunches that hit the abs from all angles will get the best results." Follow this plan from Rugg and read up on the truth about ab training from our panel of experts, and -- yes, it's true -- you'll finally get a beautiful belly, once and for all.

the plan

workout schedule Do the 4 Foundation Moves in the order shown 4 days a week as part of your regular strength-training program, varying your routine as follows: Twice a week, perform 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps of each exercise, resting 60 seconds between sets. The other 2 days, perform the same exercises in a circuit format, doing one right after the other without resting in between, completing 20-25 reps per exercise. Repeat this 1-2 more times, resting 60 seconds between circuits if needed. After about a month, or when ready, add Challenge Moves 5 and 6 to your program, following the same guidelines noted for the Foundation Moves.

warm-up Begin every workout with 5 minutes of light aerobic activity, including gentle torso twists or high knee lifts.

cool-down End every strength or cardio workout by stretching all the muscles you've just worked. For abs: Lie on your back, extending arms above head and straightening legs, lifting chest and stretching through fingers and toes. Then, to stretch your lower back, pull knees into chest, folding arms over shins, and rock from left to right. Repeat 2-4 times.

cardio Rx To blast ab flab, do at least 30-45 minutes of aerobic activity 3-5 days a week. To really engage your abs, choose cardio machines that involve both arms and legs, such as cross-country ski, elliptical trainer, rowing or full-body cardio-climbing machines. You also can try group classes such as African dance, belly dancing, kickboxing, boot camp or core balance, or sports that include rotation and bending such as tennis, racquetball, rowing, surfing and -water-skiing -- all of which can burn 300-600 calories an hour (for a 145-pound woman).

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