Strong abdominals are important for maintaining good posture, improving balance, and ensuring proper back and spinal health. Failing to exercise your abs can lead to a weak core, which can result in poor posture, back and neck pain, and even injury.
Yet men and women’s bodies are different, and women require their own set of exercises to maintain a strong core.Here’s what you need to know about exercising your abdominals, with five of the best ab exercises to help you reach your goals.
When planning your abdominal workouts, there are four major muscle groups to keep in mind: the rectus abdominis, the lateral abdominal wall and the external and internal obliques.
The rectus abdominis is the main muscle you may think of when working out your abdominals. Stretching from the pubic bone to the sternum, it has eight different components that are responsible for creating the appearance of a six-pack.
The rectus abdominis is activated during basic ab exercises, like crunches and planks. It also plays a crucial role in childbirth, jumping, coughing and elimination(1).
The external obliques, internal obliques and transverse abdominis create a group of muscles called the lateral abdominal wall. This wall crosses over and under the rectus abdominis to create the rectus sheath.
While the rectus abdominis is the primary muscle you see when someone has well-defined abs, it needs to be supported by a strong lateral abdominal wall in order to function well.
The obliques are located on either side of the rectus abdominis. They’re responsible for helping the core bend and twist laterally–like when you reach your right hand over to your left foot. The muscle fibers of the obliques run laterally along the sides of the trunk, which gives them their name as obliques (which means to follow a diagonal line or slant)(2).
The external oblique is the most superficial layer of the lateral abdominal wall, meaning it lies closest to the skin. This muscle runs from the top-down, starting at the ribs and ending at the pelvis. The internal oblique attaches at the pelvis and runs upward(3).
Last, the transversus abdominis is the deepest ab muscle in the body. It wraps around the core to support the internal organs while stabilizing the spine. This muscle is important for keeping a strong, tight core and proper posture.
Having a weak transverse abdominis from weight gain or pregnancy can cause lower back pain and inward curvature of the spine, which can result in additional pain and posture challenges(4).
While men and women have the same abdominal muscles, it can be slightly harder for women to create and maintain visible ab muscles in comparison to men.
Since women’s bodies are designed for childbirth, they need to have body fat levels at 20 percent or higher in order to be considered healthy. In contrast, men can have significantly lower levels of body fat, down to six percent, and still be considered healthy. Both men and women store fat on top of their ab muscles, even if the muscles underneath are strong.
Due to body fat distribution, women have to put in more work to shed this top layer of fat and strengthen their abs for a visibly strong core, whereas men may achieve a six-pack appearance more easily with less work(5). Still, the right combination of exercise and nutrition can ensure that a woman’s abs look and feel strong.
Below, you’ll find the best ab exercises forwomen’s health—along with the muscles they work and why they’re especially beneficial.
A plank is a powerful exercise that works all the muscles of the core at once. It also strengthens the back and hips, which support a strong and balanced core, as well as the arms and shoulders.
Since this exercise activates so many muscles at once, it’s great for building full-body strength,burning calories, and shedding fat, which is effective for revealing abs.
Step one: Begin in a push-up position, then lower onto your forearms with your arms and hands parallel. Widen your fingers to create a strong foundation in your hands.
Step two: Imagine creating a straight line from your head to your heels. Activate your entire core to keep your hips level with your head, but avoid pushing your hips up too high or letting your hips sag close to the ground.
Step three: Hold the plank for 30 seconds if you’re a beginner, then slowly work up in 30-second intervals to three minutes.
Once you’re comfortable holding a plank, try a plank variation to further activate the abdominals and work different muscles in the body. For example, lifting one leg in a plank position engages all the core muscles, plus the glutes.
Another variation is a side plank, which can be performed as a low plank (on one forearm with the other hand lifted) or as a high plank (with your hand flat on the ground, and the other hand lifted).
The dead bug exercise is a move often seen in Pilates workouts. This exercise effectively targets and strengthens the deep core muscles, like the transverse abdominis, which provides an essential foundation for creating additional strong abs. Dead bug also strengthens the pelvic floor, which is important for women’s reproductive and sexual health.
Step one: Lie down with your back on the floor and lift both knees to a 90-degree angle. Place your hands up in the air directly above your shoulders. Engage your core, sealing your lower back against the ground.
Step two: Extend the right arm backward above your head as you extend the left leg. Hover your left ankle over the ground as you keep your right arm lifted.
Step three: Bring your arm and leg back to the center and repeat on the other side. Start with two sets of 10, then increase to three sets of 20(6).
This exercise adds an additional burn to a V-sit, which is called boat pose (navasana) in yoga. The V-sit twist engages all the muscles of the core, including the obliques and hip flexors. This pose is a great addition to any full-body workout and helps promoteoptimum health, especially when combined with cardio(7).
This pose also boosts balance and coordination. Stronger balance skills mean stronger reaction time. Since women are more prone to osteoporosis, which makes bones brittle, practicing balancing postures reduces the chances an older woman will fall and break a bone(8).
Step one: Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Engage your core to lean your torso and head back to a 45-degree angle.
Step two: Take hold of a light dumbbell (five pounds) in both hands. Keep your core and feet in the center as you twist your torso to move the dumbbell to the right, to the center, and to the left. This is one rep.
Step three: Repeat the exercise 10 times. For an additional challenge, lift your feet off the ground. This will engage the core even further and challenge your entire core as you keep your feet still while your upper body twists(9).
The standard crunch has earned itself a bad reputation over the last few years, but the reverse crunch is an effective exercise for activating your abdominals. Working the muscles of the rectus abdominis with an emphasis on lower abdominal strength, reverse crunches can help you achieve a defined and balanced core.
Step one:Start on your back with your arms on the ground by your sides. Lift your knees up towards your chest at a 90-degree angle, with your thighs perpendicular to the floor.
Step two:Breathe out and contract your abdominal muscles to bring your knees towards your chest, gently raising your hips off the floor. Hold this position for one to two seconds before slowly lowering your legs and hips back to the starting position. It’s important to move in slow, controlled motions when performing reverse crunches to effectively engage your core and protect your lower back(10).
Bird dog crunch is a variation of a classic yoga pose called bird dog (Parsva Balasana). The bird dog crunch targets mainly the rectus abdominis when crunching in. Since you’re also crossing your knee to your opposite elbow, this lateral motion activates both the internal and external obliques.
In addition to working your core, bird dog crunch is a beneficial movement promoting spinal health and alignment.
The gentle twisting motion creates more stability throughout the back and core, which helps reduce back pain, which women are more prone to—especially during menstruation or when pregnant(11).
Step one: Begin in a tabletop position with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Engage through the core and lift the right arm out in front of you. Then, extend the left leg out behind you.
Step two: Square off the hips, then point the extended toe downward as you pull up through the core to create a straight line from the tips of your fingers to your heels.
Step three: Bend your right arm and the left knee and bring them to touch in a crunch beneath you. Then, extend the arm and leg back out. This equates to one crunch; repeat 10 times on each side(12).
The abdominal muscles are important for maintaining posture, balance and strength throughout the core. Many women also covet the toned, six-pack look that a dedicated abdominal exercise regimen can provide.
Women have some additional challenges to overcome when creating a well-defined abdominal core, but the right exercises can help them achieve their goals. Understanding the role of the four core abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis, the transverse abdominis, and the internal and external obliques, can ensure that you’re maximizing the output of your hard-earned ab work.
Michelle Polizzi - Contributing Writer Physician's Choice