From crunches to situps to planks to toe touches, there are endless ways to work your core. Many of our go-to moves give all the love to our upper abs and obliques, though, leaving our hard-to-target lower abs a little neglected. And that’s less than ideal, considering our lower abs are crucial for preventing pain and injury, according to Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S., creator of the Operation Bikini Body Abs challenge. After all, our core muscles support our spine, which enables us to move freely and without pain.
Plus, having a strong core helps us maximize our strength and power while doing a number of exercises, including squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts, says Yusuf Jeffers, C.P.T., head coach at Tone House. Without a strong core, we’ll compensate by putting more of the load on our back—especially our lower back—which puts us at risk for a world of hurt.
These 10 lower-ab-targeting moves will help you develop that overall core strength for stronger, safer workouts—and, of course, a more cut-looking midsection.
1. Flutter Kicks
Start by lying on your back with your arms by your sides. Brace your core to lift your head and shoulders up off the ground. Raise your feet four to six inches off the ground. Keeping your core engaged, quickly flutter your feet up and down in short kicks. Try these Tabata-style, kicking for 20 seconds then resting for 10 seconds for four minutes total.
Why they work: Flutter kicks fire up your entire core and work your hip flexors, says ICE NYC HIIT coach, Margie Welch. The lower you keep your feet and the shorter the kicks, the more this move demands of your abs. Doing flutter kicks Tabata-style is a sure-fire way to reach abdominal exhaustion, she says.
Grab a pullup bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulders-width apart and hang from the bar with your core engaged and back straight. Keeping your legs together, use your core to lift your knees up towards your elbows. Then, keep your arms straight and kick your feet up to the bar. Slowly lower your legs back down to the starting position. Shoot for three to four sets of four to eight reps.
Why they work: “To lift your legs while in a hanging position, your abdominal muscles have to be engaged” says Welch. (Not only do toes-to-bars engage all of your abdominal muscles, they also require your lats, hamstrings, and hip flexors to put in some work, too.) If this move is new for you, just focus on keeping your legs together and lifting your knees as high as possible, Welch says.
3. Russian Twists
Sit down with your feet together and planted on the floor, and your legs bent at a 90-degree angle in front of you. Hold a five to eight-pound dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, or weight plate in both hands. While maintaining a flat back, twist your torso to the left so that the weight moves with you. When you feel a stretch in your obliques, stop twisting and return to the starting position. Then, repeat on the opposite side. If you can maintain proper form, try hovering your feet above the ground while twisting. Aim for three sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
Why they work: Russian twists work the entire core, but that twisting motion really lights up your lower abs and obliques, Welch says. (Keeping your back flat will really emphasize those muscles.) Beginners can try this move weight-free and add or increase the weight as they progress.
Lie on your back with your lower back pressed firmly into the ground and your hands at your sides. Raise and bend your legs so that your knees form 90-degree angles, and you look like you’re sitting in an invisible chair. Flex your feet so they’re perpendicular to the ground. Keep your left leg in place, engage your core, and hinge at your hip to lower your right leg to the ground. Lower your heel as close to the ground as possible while keeping your lower back pressed into the ground. (Try to touch your heel to the floor.) Then lift your leg back up to the starting position. Then, switch sides and perform with the other leg. That’s one set. Complete three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Why they work: Consider yourself warned—marches look much easier than they are, says Jeffers. “They recruit all the local stabilizing muscles from your pelvis to your spine, require a strong core, and work your hip flexors,” he explains. Your core is only engaged when your back is nailed into the floor, so it’s okay if you can’t get your heel down to the floor at first!
5. Bird Dogs
Start on all fours with your hands and knees planted on the ground, your core engaged, and your back flat. Reach your right arm out in front of you while simultaneously reaching your left foot back behind you. Extend each limb as long as possible while keeping your torso straight. Hold this position for one or two seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat with your left arm and right leg. That’s one rep. Aim for two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Why they work: This simple core stabilization exercise will help build a strong lower core, because it activates your abdominals, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings as you move, says Jeffers. Plus, you also work your trapezius and shoulders every time you reach your arm out in front of you.
6. Lying Windshield Wipers
Start by lying on your back. Spread your arms straight out to your sides so you form a ‘T.’ Raise your legs up so they form a 90-degree angle with your torso and point straight up to the ceiling. Keep your shoulder blades on the floor. Glue your legs together and rotate them to down to one side, stopping when your opposite shoulder begins to pull up off the floor. Rotate your legs back up to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. That’s one rep. As you improve, move your arms down closer to your sides to decrease stability and increase the move’s difficulty. Repeat for three to four sets of six to 10 reps.
Why they work: The closer you can rotate your legs to the floor, the better your lower-abdominal and oblique strength and the greater your flexibility, says Jeffers. The more you practice, the closer to the floor you’ll be able to bring your legs.
Start lying on your back. Lightly interlace your fingers behind your head. Raise and bend your legs so that your knees form 90-degree angles, and you look like you’re sitting in an invisible chair. Lift your shoulder blades up off the floor—but don’t pull on your neck. Engage your core and rotate from the shoulders so your right elbow comes to meet your left knee. Simultaneously, extend your right leg out as straight as possible. Return to the starting position, then repeat on the other side. That’s one rep. Continue this pedaling motion for three sets of 10 to 16 reps.
Why they work: Few bodyweight core moves recruit as many abdominal muscles as bicycles do, explains Davis. Bicycles work the obliques, transverse abdominals, lower back, and even the hip flexors. “The biggest mistakes people make while doing bicycles is trying to go too fast and focusing too much on the knee-to-elbow touch,” says Jeffers. Instead, focus on the rotational side-to-side movement and engaging the core. Beginners can scale this move down by keeping their knees bent and feet planted on the floor while rotating their trunk, he suggests.
Connect a single handle to a cable machine set the pulley system to one of its highest positions. Grab the handle with your left hand and step away from the machine, so it’s about an arm’s-length to your left. Stand with your feet shoulders-width apart, and reach up to grab the handle with your right hand, so both arms are straight and both hands are around the handle. Pull the handle diagonally down and across the front of your body but rotating your torso. As you rotate, keep your core tight and back straight.. Pivot your left foot and allow your left knee to bend so you can rotate fully. Slowly return the handle to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform three to four sets of eight to 10 reps per side.
Why they work: The constant tension in the cable machine keeps your muscles fired up from the beginning to the end of this move, says Davis. “Many people make the mistake of whipping their arms in a diagonal motion down to their opposite side,” Jeffers says. But the key here is for your entire trunk to move as one. If needed, practice the movement without weights until you can chop in one fluid and controlled trunk movement. The rotation of this move makes it especially effective for your lower abdominals and obliques, he says.
9. Full Body Extensions
Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and your arms stretched overhead with a light (three to five-pound) dumbbell in your hands. Pull your belly button into your spine and press your back flat into the floor. Keeping them together and straight, lift your arms and legs up until they’re perpendicular to the floor. Slowly lower your arms and legs so your feet and hands hover an inch or two above the ground. That’s one rep. Perform as many reps as you can before your arms or legs bend, or your back lifts up from the ground. Rest for one minute and repeat for three sets. (Don’t let your feet or hands touch the ground between reps.)
Why they work: “These always make my abs super sore from top to bottom and really work your entire core,” says Davis. Form is key, so start out using just your body weight and shooting for maybe four to six reps a set, she says. As you get stronger, you can add reps and weight.
10. Side Plank Rotations
Lie on one side with your legs straight, stacked one on top of the other. Prop yourself up on your forearm and raise your hips so that your body forms a straight line from your head to your heels. Extend your free arm straight up towards the ceiling. Keeping your core tight, lower your free arm and rotate towards the mat to come into a regular low plank. Hold this position for a second, then rotate your body up into a side plank on the opposite side and extend your opposite arm straight up towards the ceiling. Continue alternating from side to side until you feel your hips begin to dip towards the floor. Rest for one minute, then repeat for three total sets.
Why they work: Side plank rotations effectively recruits both the rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscles) and your obliques, says Davis.