Best Rectus Abdominis Exercises: Crush Your Core & Abs

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: March 11, 2024
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As a personal trainer, I usually encounter clients who aspire to achieve a well-defined six-pack.

However, it's essential to acknowledge that there are no quick fixes or secret methods to attain chiseled abs. Developing a prominent rectus abdominis requires a combination of targeted exercises and a calorie deficit.

Drawing upon my extensive experience and weeks of research, I have compiled a comprehensive list of the most effective rectus abdominis exercises.

In addition, I will outline the associated benefits of these exercises and provide valuable tips to optimize your rectus abdominis workout.

Quick Summary

  • The best rectus abdominis exercises include crunches on an exercise ball, plank, hanging leg raise, reverse crunch, jack knife crunch, bicycle crunch, Swiss ball rollout, and resistance band Pallof press.
  • The benefits of rectus abdominis exercises include enhanced physical appearance, improved posture, and a reduced risk of back injury.
  • Achieving well-defined six-pack abs requires not just exercise but also reducing body fat to specific levels — around 15% for visibility and 10% for prominence in men, and 20% for visibility and 15% for prominence in women, as per NIH guidelines.
  • As a fitness enthusiast, I believe that combining these exercises with a balanced diet and consistent training is essential for sculpting and maintaining strong, defined abs.

Top 8 Rectus Abdominis Exercises

A woman working out her rectus abdominis

1. Crunches on an Exercise Ball

How to do this ab exercise:

  1. Sit on an exercise ball, ensuring that your ankles, knees, and hips form a 90-degree angle.
  2. Keep both hands at the back of your head with your elbows wide apart to minimize pressure on your neck.
  3. Walk your feet forward until the lower part of your back rests on the exercise ball.
  4. Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  5. Crunch as you would on the floor, engaging your abdominal muscles.

Learn More: Best Medicine Ball Exercises: Proven Full-Body Workout

2. Plank

How to do this isometric exercise:

  1. Get in a cobra pose, lying face down with your palms on the ground directly beneath your shoulders.
  2. Press your toes into the floor and raise your hips and knees off the ground.
  3. Pause as long as possible while engaging your core muscles before lowering your body back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat until you complete three sets.

3. Hanging Leg Raise

A person doing hanging leg raise workouts at home

How to do the hanging leg raise:

  1. Approach a bar and engage your abdominal muscles by keeping them contracted.
  2. Bring your knees up as far as you can.
  3. Lower yourself back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat the exercise for as many as you comfortably can. Avoid starting with an arched position, and refrain from pushing against the bar while raising your legs.

“You can make this exercise more challenging by straightening your legs instead of bending your knees. Be careful not to use momentum or swing your body. The hanging leg raise performed from the pull-up bar is also more challenging. See below for how to do it.”

- Paul Rogers, Personal Trainer

4. Reverse Crunch

How to do this exercise:

  1. Lay on a mat on the floor with your back flat against the mat.
  2. Bring your knees up at a 90-degree angle and place your hands behind your head.
  3. Exhale as you lift your chest towards your thighs, contracting your ab muscles.
  4. Inhale as you slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this exercise until you reach a point of fatigue.

5. Jack Knife Crunch

A woman doing jack knife crunch workouts

How to do this exercise:

  1. Lay on the floor with your feet together, knees bent, and arms straight extended behind you.
  2. Simultaneously extend your legs and raise your upper body to bring your arms towards your knees while contracting your ab muscles.
  3. Lower yourself back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat this movement for three sets, aiming for eight to twelve repetitions per set.

6. Bicycle Crunch

How to do this exercise:

  1. Lay your back on the floor, lifting your shoulders off the ground. Place your arms behind your head, with your elbows wide apart.
  2. Lift your left knee towards your torso while keeping the other leg extended.
  3. Simultaneously rotate your upper body, bringing your opposite shoulder towards the left knee, mimicking a bicycle motion.
  4. Continue switching between legs, as if pedaling a bicycle — while twisting your torso and bringing your shoulder to the corresponding kneecap — until you complete three sets of eight to twelve reps.

“Your torso should be doing all of the rotation. Your hips should not be rotating and you should be driving your legs straight forward and backward. Keep your lower back pressed into the floor during the maneuver.”

- Elizabeth Quinn, Exercise Physiologist

7. Swiss Ball Rollouts

A woman doing swiss ball rollout workouts

How to do this exercise:

  1. Find an exercise ball and position yourself with your elbows directly underneath your shoulders and your forearms flat on the Swiss ball, slightly behind its center.
  2. Tuck your toes under your feet and raise your knees and hips off the ground, ensuring your spine stays neutral with a slight curve in the lower back.
  3. Slide your forearms and elbows forward, rolling the Swiss ball away from you while engaging your core and maintaining control.
  4. Return your elbows to the starting position under your shoulders.
  5. Repeat in a smooth, controlled motion for three sets, aiming for each rep to last ten to thirty seconds.

8. Resistance Band Pallof Press

How to do this exercise:

  1. Set the band up around sternum height. Securely grip the band and step away to create tension.
  2. Stand with your left side next to the anchored resistance band, feet hip-width apart, and your core and glutes are engaged.
  3. Press the band away from your chest, extending your arms fully.
  4. Retract your arms and pull the band back towards your chest, mimicking a rowing motion.
  5. Repeat until you complete three sets of eight reps.

Read More: Resistance Band Stretching and Mobility Exercises

What Are the Benefits of Rectus Abdominis Exercises?

A person working out her abs at home

As a trainer, I've observed that rectus abdominis exercises offer benefits like enhanced physical appearance, boosted athletic performance, stronger core muscles, improved posture, and reduced back pain in my clients.

Enhanced Physical Appearance

Incorporating weighted rectus abdominis exercises and consuming a protein-rich diet will help you promote muscle growth.

Subsequently, initiating a cutting phase, characterized by a calorie deficit, will unveil the results of your hard work.

Improve Athletic Performance

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), strengthening your rectus abdominis and the entire core can improve athletes' core endurance and balance [1].

Strengthen Your Core

The rectus abdominis is crucial in posterior pelvic tilt (PPT) and spinal flexion. As those muscles strengthen, you'll notice improvements in various gym lifts, such as deadlifts.

A strong core provides better stability, enabling you to safely handle heavy loads during activities like farmer's walks or simply carrying groceries.

Improves Your Posture

A person correcting their posture

A strong rectus abdominis aids in maintaining a balanced pelvic tilt, preventing the discomfort of conditions like anterior pelvic tilt.

Tight hip flexors and weak abs and glutes can lead to lower back pain and misalignment of spinal discs.

Strengthening your abdominal muscles supports proper posture, alleviates pain, and reduces the risk of injury.

Improved Breathing

According to the NIH, exercises that target the rectus abdominis and promote core stabilization have been demonstrated to enhance pulmonary function and improve breathing [2].

Why Should You Build Your Rectus Abdominis Muscles?

A woman with sculpted abdominal muscles

You should build your rectus abdominis muscles because they assume crucial roles in lumbar and thoracic flexion, spinal stabilization, and pelvic steadiness during movement.

As a trainer, I always emphasize to my clients that strengthening their rectus abdominis is key to proper pelvic tilt and achieving six-pack abs.

Just like using bicep curls to build arm muscles, targeted exercises and progressive overload are essential for sculpting defined abs, unless you're genetically predisposed.

This strengthening not only enhances aesthetics but also improves overall functionality, boosting athletic performance, aiding strength in other exercises, and increasing daily mobility.

Rectus Abdominis Tips

A woman doing abdominal workouts outside

Here are some key points I recommend considering to maximize the effectiveness of your rectus abdominis training:

Incorporate Core exercises At Least Twice Per Week

You can work your core muscles when performing nearly every compound movement.

Suppose you adhere to a four-day training split; consider integrating oblique exercises towards the conclusion of one strength training session, concentrating on upper abs during another session, and targeting lower abs on a subsequent day.

The number of sets to perform hinges on your fitness objective.

To illustrate, if you aspire to emphasize hypertrophy, engage in three sets of eight repetitions and endeavor to escalate the resistance to sustain continuous progress.

Use the Progressive Overload Method

A woman doing abdominal workouts at home

Modifications in body positioning, angles, and the intensity of exercises generate distinct requirements for various segments of the rectus abdominis muscle.

NIH advises diversifying your training routine to alter the activation patterns of the rectus abdominis muscle [3].

Target All the Abdominal Muscles

It's crucial to remember that you shouldn’t focus solely on all the rectus abdominis and neglect the overall strengthening and targeting of the entire abdominal muscles, including the internal and external obliques and transverse abdominis.

Incorporate a Healthy Diet

Close up shot of a bowl of a healthy diet

To attain well-defined six-pack abs, exercise alone is insufficient; According to the NIH, it is imperative to achieve a sufficiently low body fat percentage [4].

For most males with commendable muscular development in the abdominal region, the abs become noticeable at approximately 15% body fat and highly visible at around 10%.

For women, the abs should be visible at around 20% body fat and become prominently visible at approximately 15%.

However, these figures can significantly differ from person to person, depending on their unique body composition.

Include Both Compound and Isolation Exercises

Numerous exercises necessitate active engagement and vigorous contraction of the abdominal muscles, playing a pivotal role in overall weight loss and strength enhancement. However, it is essential to incorporate exercises to target the abdominal

Impact of Hydration and Nutrition on Abdominal Muscle Development

Hydration and nutrition are pivotal in developing and revealing abdominal muscles, complementing exercise routines.

  • Adequate hydration aids in muscle function and recovery, while reducing water retention that can obscure muscle definition.
  • Nutrition is key; a balanced diet rich in proteins supports muscle growth, and healthy fats and carbohydrates provide energy for workouts.
  • Crucially, maintaining a caloric deficit helps reduce body fat, unveiling the abs. Micronutrients from fruits and vegetables aid in overall health and muscle repair.

Consistency in both diet and hydration, alongside targeted exercises, is essential for sculpting visible abdominal muscles, as abs are made in the kitchen as much as in the gym.

FAQs

How Often Should I Perform Ab Exercises?

You should perform ab exercises two to three times per week to maximize muscle growth without overtraining it. Like other muscle groups, the abdominal muscles require time to recover and minimize the risk of injuries.

What Is the Most Effective Abs Exercise?

The bicycle crunch is considered the most effective abs exercise, efficiently targeting multiple core muscles, including the rectus abdominis and obliques, offering a comprehensive abdominal workout that combines strength and coordination.

Do Planks Strengthen Your Core Muscles?

Yes, planks strengthen your core muscles. Planks are proven to increase muscle strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance.

How Do I Tighten My Rectus Abdominis?

To tighten your rectus abdominis, engage in targeted abdominal exercises like crunches and planks, maintain a consistent fitness routine, and follow a balanced diet to reduce body fat, enhancing muscle definition in the abdominal area.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9952339/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4668176/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3761871/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25766455/
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About The Author

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Senior Coach
Christiana Mikesch, CPT is a personal trainer and author with contributions to publications like the Chicago Tribune and Yahoo. She emphasizes a holistic approach to weight loss, combining an energy-fueling diet, goal-oriented workouts, and daily habits. Her approach avoids short-term goals and fosters a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
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Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health and is the owner of Taylor Made Fitness. Her philosophy centers on cutting through the hype and misinformation surrounding dietary supplements, focusing instead on practical, science-backed strategies for health and weight loss.
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Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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