5+ All-Time Best Bodybuilding And Ab Exercises For Beginners (2021)

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Sit-ups may get all the glory, but they’re hardly the only exercise that will sculpt your six-pack—and they’re not even necessarily the most efficient. For your abs to look defined, it’s essential to strengthen your core as a whole. That includes your stomach, along with your back, pelvic floor, and oblique muscles. To help you tone those muscles, we asked top trainers to share what they think the best ab exercises of all time is.

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“I love this move because you are bracing with your entire abdominal wall, making tension throughout the entire body while keeping a hollowed-out position through your stomach and core, which is safe for your spine,” says Kira Stokes, a celebrity trainer in New York City and creator of the Stoked Method. “Time under tension is very necessary when looking to challenge your abs and make changes.”

What to do: Lie on back, legs extended, arms stretched overhead. Keeping your back low on the ground, brace your abdomen and slightly tuck tailbone to engage glutes. Lift head, neck, shoulders, arms, and legs off the floor, as shown—but go lower if you can. (The lower you go, the harder you work your core.) Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

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“Minding your muscle is key with this move—do not use momentum,” says Stokes.

How to do it: Lie on back, legs extended straight up toward the ceiling (or knees bent over hips to form a tabletop position if you have tight hamstrings). Keep your upper body and head relaxed on the ground. Draw your navel toward your spine, press your low back into the floor, and perform a tip of your hips (think up, not over). Do 15 reps. For more of a challenge, add crunches to your hip tips, bringing your forehead toward your knees each rep, then releasing halfway to keep tension in your core throughout.

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“This move is effective because it will hit the upper, lower, and side abs no matter the speed you perform the bicycle,” says Erica Stenz, a trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp in San Francisco. “Mix it up! Start off slowly, holding your elbow to the opposite knee for two to three counts before switching, then increase the speed for a few seconds before you rest.”

How to do it: Lie on back, hands behind head, legs up with knees bent 90 degrees in a tabletop position. Keeping back flat on the floor, brace core and twist, bringing right elbow and left knee to touch, while right leg extends forward. Twist and repeat with an opposite knee to elbow. Do 15 reps on each side.

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“This exercise is an amazing way to target and strengthen the low abs,” says Nicole Sweet, Pilates instructor at New York Health & Racquet Club in New York City, co-founder of Fitness + Foolish retreats. Be sure to lift from your pelvis and keep it in place as you lift and lower your legs so you’re working your stomach, not straining your back.

How to do it: Lie on the ground and extend legs up toward the ceiling. Keeping shoulders, back, and head on the floor, place hands under glutes. Brace your core and lower legs almost to the ground. Squeeze abdomen to raise legs back up toward the ceiling. Do 15 reps.

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“This move is about stabilizing the core,” says Stokes. “Extending the arm and leg out pushes your entire core to fire up so as to help you stay balanced.”

How to do it: Come to all fours on the floor, hands directly under shoulders, hips stacked over knees. Keeping your back flat and core engaged, extend your right arm out in front of you while simultaneously extending your left leg back behind you, creating a straight line from head to toe. Hold for a couple of seconds, then switch arm and leg. Do 15 reps on each side.

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Planks are an advanced move, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t do this exercise on your first try. It’s worth the effort: “Planks work more of your core than your typical sit-up, as they tone not only the front but also the sides and back,” says Heather Peterson, chief yoga officer at CorePower Yoga Studios. “We often forget the back muscles are part of our core section—they work in conjunction. This move also works out the arms and shoulders and is just one of the more smart upgrades to the ‘old-school’ crunch workouts.”

What to do: Start on the floor, lying on the left side. Place your left forearm on the ground in front of you. Stack feet on top of each other. Bracing your core, push up onto forearm and feet, placing the right hand on hip or extended straight up. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

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Another toughie but a goodie! “This is a good move because it forces you to engage not only your abs but your lower back muscles as well,” says Stenz. “To stabilize your back muscles, you need to really squeeze your abs when you bring in your knee. That’s what makes the side plank up a notch.”

What to do: Start in side plank position, left forearm on the ground, feet stacked on top of each other, body in a straight line from head to toe. Place right hand behind head. Lift right leg and bring knee to meet right elbow, performing a crunch. Do 15 reps, then switch sides. If you can do only 5 reps to start, stick with that until you’re comfortable enough to do all 15.

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It may look simple, but it works—and it strengthens your arms and shoulders too, notes Sweet: “You just need to stay focus and draw your abs in.”

How to do it: Come to all fours on the floor, hands directly under shoulders, hips stacked over knees. Keeping back flat and core engaged, push through your hands and feet to hover just a few inches off the ground. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

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“This core training  helps with real-life movements in which you have to quickly transfer weight, like picking up a heavy bag of groceries,” says Peterson. A stronger core helps you prevent back strain. “Also, adding this and other ab exercises into my workout keeps it more interesting,” she continues, “because every day is different.”

How to do it: Place hands shoulder-width apart on the ground, and step right foot back into a low lunge. Keeping shoulders over wrists, press through front left heel, pike hips up toward the ceiling, and switch jump right foot forward and left foot back. Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds.

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