How can I strengthen my abdominal muscles?

Sorry, but situps, or crunches, just don't cut it anymore when it comes to working your abdominal muscles. While slimming your midsection requires an integrated program of healthy eating and cardiovascular workouts, you won't create the flat belly you've always dreamed of without strengthening your core, and that means a focus on your entire abdominal muscle.

There are many variations of abdominal exercises, but four of the most effective -- and complementary -- are the decline crunch, exercise ball crunch, the intercostals cable pull-down, and the leg-up off a bench.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
To strengthen the muscles of your abdomen or stomach you can do oblique crunchs.

Primary muscles worked: Internal and external obliques (sides and front of the abdomen)

Starting position: Lie on your back with your right knee bent and right foot flat on the floor. Cross your left leg over your right, with your left ankle resting just above your right knee. Place both hands behind your head, with elbows out to the side.

Action: As you exhale, left your head and both shoulders off the floor and twist so that your right armpit moves in a line toward your left knee. Contract the abdominals as fully as you comfortably can. Hold for one count at the top of the contraction and exhale the remaining air. Inhale as you return toward the starting position. Do not allow your abdominals to relax between repetitions. Continue the set until you have completed your repetitions. Then repeat on the opposite side.

  • Do not allow your elbow to cave in toward your knee.
  • Keep your elbows back.
  • Keep your head in line with your spine.

  • For a more advanced exercise, cross your legs more fully, so that one knee rests on the other.
  • For a less advanced exercise, allow one elbow to remain in contact with the floor.

Prior to prescribing any form of exercise, it would be best to know your current fitness level, age, and exercise history. However, below is an exercise to get beginners started but be sure to only complete if you feel comfortable. Also, please contact me so I am able to further assist you after receiving feedback from the list above:

  • Extended plank – lay face down. Place your hands next to your chest. Lift your body up so you are balanced on your knees. This position might be challenging so start here. If you are able to hold this position then lift your body so you are balancing between the palms of your hands and the toes of your feet, a push-up position. Hold for :30 or up to :30 and rest. Complete 2-3 times.

There's certainly no shortage in number of abdominal exercises taught by different trainers in different styles and many of those are excellent in engaging the abdominal muscles.

However the best way is to strengthen your abdominal muscles from the inside out. Training the stabilizing muscles gives you a strong foundation to work on the abdominal wall muscles (six packs) later.

According to the study(*) powered by ultrasound imaging to measure the activation of two major stabilizing abdominal muscles during abs exercises, the side bridge is the most effective exercise at facilitating contraction of transverse abdominals and internal obliques. 

To perform this exercise: you start from lying on your side resting on one forearm and placing the opposite hand on your waist, engage all abdominal muscle with drawing in your stomach and lift your hips up from the floor to make a straight line from head to toes. Pause for a second and return to the starting position and repeat.

Intermediate practitioners can start from side plank position, supporting their body weight with one hand instead of the forearm and continue with dropping the hip to the floor, pause, lift and repeat.

Advance practitioners can start from positioning feet on a bench and supporting the body weight with one hand on the floor, lowering the hip to the floor, pause, lift and repeat.

As you progress in all the variation above you can move the free hand from the waist position to extended position. 

(*) Teyhen DS. Rieger JL. Changes in deep abdominal muscle thickness during common trunk-strengthening exercises using ultrasound imaging.  J Orthop Sport Phys Ther. Oct. 2008:38(10):596-605

Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
A good abdominal exercise is to lie with your back flat on the ground and knees and hips bent at approximately 90 degrees. Slowly, in a controlled manner, with your abdominals contracted, tap your right toes on the mat. Keep your knees bent at 90 degrees at all times. Only extend your hip, one at a time, so that you can tap the mat with your foot. Once you have tapped the mat with your right toes, bring your right hip back to 90 degrees and then tap the mat with your left toes. Each time you have touched the mat with your right and left toes (in succession), you have completed one repetition. Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions. If you experience pain while doing this exercise, you can perform a posterior pelvic tilt at the same time. If the pain persists, discontinue the exercise and discuss it with your doctor, physical therapist, or trainer.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.