1. Choose Variety Over Reps
I try to mix up my ab-toning moves each workout, and I change my routine every three to four weeks. “Alternating your workout is more important than cranking out 100 crunches every day,” says Michele Olson, PhD, 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 abdominus. “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. To truly tone, try a mix of ab-sculpting moves that vary positions.
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 tone your abs post-pregnancy (it helped me after my son was born).
4. Work Your Abs, Not Your Neck
I can do 50 crunches without my abs aching, but if my neck starts killing me after 10, I’m done. I often pretend I have an orange tucked under my chin to release the tension. Or I press my fingertips into the base of my neck and give myself 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.
5. Fight Flab with Cardio
One thing I’ve learned for sure: All the exercises in the world mean nothing if there’s a layer of fat over my abs. So I do about 45 minutes of calorie-blasting cardio, three to five times a week. “You need to burn body fat through regular aerobic exercise to see strong abs,” says Olson.
6. Make Abs Your Transition Workout
On those rare occasions when I have time to do strength training and cardio in one workout, I sandwich 10 minutes of ab work in between. After I cool down from cardio, I hit the mat for stretches, reverse curls, and crunches. This is a great way to shift my focus from cardio to strength training; it helps me zero in on my abs and core strength as I lift.
7. Know When to Rest
I can tell I’ve worked my 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.
3 All-Time Favorite Ab Exercises
# Plank Pull-In
My no-fail stability-ball exercise targets the deep (transverse) and “six-pack” (rectus abdominus) abs as well as the obliques. Begin in a full push-up position, with shins pressing into the ball. Pull knees into chest, then roll back to start; repeat for 1 minute. Pull both knees up to right elbow, back to center and to left elbow. Continue for 1 minute.
# External Oblique Crunch
My must-do move for slimmer sides? The external oblique crunch: Lie faceup on the floor, knees bent, abs engaged, fingertips behind your head and elbows out to sides. Walk legs out a few inches. Curl torso up, bringing right elbow toward right toes, then cross over toward left knee. Slowly return to start. Do 20 reps on one side, then switch.
# Pilates Corkscrew
Pilates is one of the best methods for all-around toning. My favorite move is the modified Corkscrew, which zeroes in on the abs, obliques, thighs, and hips. Lie back with arms at sides and straight legs perpendicular to floor, with either a Pilates Flex Circle or a stability ball (anything that adds resistance will work) between your ankles. Without lifting your hips, bring both legs to the right, turning your head to the left. Take a breath, then return to start; switch sides. Do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps, squeezing the ring with your thighs.