Everyone wants ripped, defined abs. Putting in the hard work to achieve them, however? That part doesn’t excite too many of us.
Blame it on the excruciating muscle burn that builds up when training our midsection, leaving us curled in a sweaty, fetal ball of agony after an especially long set. Or maybe the fact that, after a bout of interesting exercises focusing on bodyparts like back, chest, shoulders, legs or arms, we often tend to tack on a few sets of (boring, monotonous, tedious) crunches at the end of our workouts to give our abs a nudge.
To that second hurdle at least, we have an answer. To help you ditch the halfhearted crunch sesh, we’ve recruited an expert to devise not just one but two workouts, each aimed at a critical goal: one core strength and the other maximum definition.
Oh, and our expert? She knows a thing or two about elite, powerful, athletic abs. Samantha Clayton is a former Olympic runner, having competed for Great Britain at the 2000 Sydney Games in the 200-meter and 4×100 meter relay events. After retiring from competition, the mother of four became an in-demand personal trainer and group exercise instructor — in 2017, she was spotted training soccer phenom Cristiano Ronaldo, causing a stir in the U.K. media — and joined Herbalife as a vice president.
“We are all born with six-pack abs, but for the majority of us, they’re hidden behind a layer of abdominal fat,” Clayton points out. “Working your core muscles with specific exercises — like the ones I show you here — will help make them stronger and more defined. Meanwhile, you should continue with a comprehensive workout and cardio routine for your whole body while remembering this: Six-packs are made in the kitchen. Good nutrition is essential.”
That said, here is Clayton’s two-pronged approach to ab-solute perfection.
Lying Bent-Leg Raise
While the bent-leg raise doesn’t “isolate” your abdominals, that’s not the point here — what it does is target a key muscle that contributes to overall core strength. “The hip flexor muscle, called the psoas major, is used for all activities that involve moving your legs,” Clayton explains. “This is my favorite exercise for working that particular muscle.”
How-To: Place a mat on the floor and lie faceup, knees bent about 90 degrees and feet elevated a few inches. Place your hands under your glutes to stabilize your pelvis. Without letting your lower back lift up off the floor, pull your legs toward your chest, maintaining the same angle in your knees throughout, and then return to the starting position.
How Many: Start out doing 10 raises, three sets. “If your back starts to lift, stop because you’ll be engaging the incorrect muscles,” Clayton warns.
Make It Harder: To increase the resistance, try the exercise with straight legs.
“The quadratus lumborum is a muscle that connects the upper and lower body,” Clayton says. “It helps stabilize the hips and the spine, and it also plays a role with the diaphragm for deep breathing.” The side plank engages it, along with the other muscles of the abdominal wall and lower back.
How-To: Lie on a mat on your right side, balancing yourself on the outer edge of your left foot and your left forearm, elbow bent. Your body should be straight head to heel, your hips off the floor, and your right arm can either be held straight up overhead or placed on your right side.
How Many: Hold this position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
Make It Harder: Try to increase your total hold time to 90 seconds to two minutes.
A great exercise with a cool name, the beast will blast your core (and as a bonus, your shoulders).
How-To: Get into the “beast pose” position: You’ll be on the floor facing down in a modified tabletop position, with your hands and balls of your feet on the floor, hips up, and bent knees elevated about an inch or so from touching down. From here, twist your torso to the right, simultaneously lifting your left leg and right arm out to the right side of your body in the air. (You’ll remain balanced on your planted right leg and left hand.) Return to the start and repeat for 11 more reps, then do the same number to the left side.
How Many: Do 12 reps on each side for three sets.
Make It Easier: Practice the beast pose to master it. As you become proficient in that, you can start adding a twist of the body without kicking the leg over.
“A burpee is a combination of a squat, step-back, plank, push-up and jump-up at the end,” Clayton says. “It can help enhance your coordination and strengthen almost every muscle in the body at the same time.”
How-To: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Start by squatting down as you put your hands out in front of you, then kick your legs out behind you after your hands reach the floor, with your body now in the “up” position of a push-up. Perform a push-up and then quickly pull your feet in underneath you again. Extend at the hips and knees to return to standing, continuing through with your hands overhead into a jump. When you come back down, immediately descend into the next rep.
How Many: Perform four sets of 15 burpees with a 30- to 60-second rest in between each set.
Make It Easier: If you need to, eliminate the push-up or the jump, allowing you to practice and learn the base burpee movement.
“This exercise works the erector spinae in your lower back, which helps to ensure you’re building a balanced core,” Clayton says. “It also engages the muscles in the whole posterior chain, including butt and hamstrings.”
How-To: Lie on the floor facedown. Extend your arms overhead and reach your legs straight behind you while maintaining a neutral spine, head and neck position. Engage your core to lift your arms and your legs just an inch or so off the floor so you’re balanced on your midsection. Hold for 15 seconds, then lower yourself back to the start.
How Many: Hold for 15 seconds four to five times total.
Make It Easier: If you need to work up to the full Superman, you can try a modified version by lifting just one arm and the opposite leg up each time, alternating which two limbs you’re lifting from hold to hold.
“Push-ups are a great way to add intensity to your workout, especially when you make them a little more difficult than the standard military version,” Clayton says. “The chest and back benefit greatly from doing push-ups, but it’s considered a total-body exercise, as the core, arms and glutes are all working hard, too. The spider push-up does all that and targets your obliques.”
How-To: Assume the start of a traditional push-up. As you bend your elbows out to the sides and lower your torso toward the floor, lift your right toe up and bend your right knee to bring it forward until it touches your right elbow. Straighten your elbows to return to the start position, putting your right foot next to your left. Lower yourself again, this time touching your left knee to your left elbow.
How Many: Do three sets of 10 to
12 reps — two push-ups, one with your left knee coming up and the other with your right equals one rep.
Make It Harder: Twist to bring your left knee to your right elbow and vice versa.
“Crunches are a simple yet very effective exercise that will activate the rectus abdominis, the most external of the core muscles that form the famous ‘six-pack,’” Clayton says. “Adding resistance takes the move up another level.”
How-To: Lie faceup on the floor with your knees bent, feet planted, holding a weight plate over your chest. Begin by contracting your abs to curl your shoulders toward your pelvis. Hold the max contraction for a one-count, then return under control to the start.
How Many: Do three to five sets of 15 to 20 crunches, focusing on textbook form.
Make It Harder: Instead of holding the weight to your chest, hold it over your head, elbows straight with your upper arms alongside your ears.
Stability-Ball Plank With Leg Lift
The stability ball adds an extra element of balance, forcing your whole abdominal wall and lower back to steady your body throughout.
How-To: Assume a modified plank position, elbows on the ball, feet on the floor,
balanced on your toes. Lift one foot off the floor 1 to 2 inches and hold for 10 seconds. Then lower that leg to the floor and repeat with your right.
How Many: Do five sets, each set consisting of a 10-second hold per leg.
Make It Harder: Extend the length of the hold to 15 to 30 seconds.
Bicycle Ab Crunch
“The muscles at the side of your waist are called the internal and external obliques,” Clayton explains. “They’re essential for stability, especially for movements that involve lateral — or sideways — movements. To activate them, you’ll need to perform exercises that involve side bending or twisting, like the bicycle ab crunch.”
How-To: Lie down with your lower back pressed to the floor. Place your hands lightly behind your head, elbows pointed out. Elevate your legs with your knees bent 90 degrees. Straighten one knee as you bend the other, all the while twisting your upper body so that you bring the right-side elbow to the left knee and vice versa.
How Many: Do 30 seconds of as many bicycle crunches you can muster, three to five times total.
Make It Harder: Increase your sets to 45 to 60 seconds.
Jump Rope Tabata
“Jumping rope is a great cardio-boosting exercise,” Clayton states. “Jumping is also high impact in nature, so you get the muscle- and bone-strengthening benefits at the same time as you’re burning calories.”
How-To: Start in a standing position, feet inside shoulder width, holding a handle of the rope in each hand at your sides with your elbows soft. Swing the rope over and around your body, using small, quick leaps that take you just a couple of inches off the floor as the rope passes beneath you. Throughout, land lightly on the balls of your feet and keep your torso upright.
How Many: Rotate between 20 seconds of jumping rope with 10 seconds of rest for eight sets.
Make It Easier: Substitute jumping rope for high knees.