Demoing the moves below are Crystal Williams, a group fitness instructor and trainer who teaches at residential and commercial gyms across New York City; Amanda Wheeler, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength, an online women’s training group that serves the LGBTQ community and allies; Cookie Janee, a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; and Rachel Denis, a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting and holds multiple New York state powerlifting records.
Start by placing your heels on a low bench and holding two light dumbbells (begin with 3 pounds). Place a rolled-up towel under your lower back to increase the range of motion of your upper abs. Point your toes. From this start position, raise your upper body to the position shown in the second photo. Breathe normally. Now press the weights overhead. Keeping your arms straight, press your heels hard into the bench, then lower your upper body and allow the weights to arc behind your head.
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We put this on the list because of how easy it is to manipulate the degree of difficulty. If a regular plank is too easy for you, lift an arm, or a leg—or an arm and a leg. Put your feet into a TRX and give that a whirl. Still too easy? Take your feet out, and put your forearms in. Each one of these progressions leads to a greater training stimulus to the abs.
Start on the floor with your feet outstretched (more difficult) or your knees slightly bend with your heels on the floor (a bit easier). Contract your core, lift your upper body from the hips so your lower back and shoulders are about 10 inches off the floor. Stretch your arms out along your sides with palms up, and simply hold that position for up to a minute at a time. Ouch. It's a good one.
"I have researched this move in my lab, and it is very effective at activating all of the abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominins), and yet the movement is very straightforward and does not require several steps or positions, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery.
Genetics is another unchangeable factor that affects your ability to develop a six-pack, says Holly Herrington, a registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Digestive Health Center in Chicago. "We get things from our families," including our musculature and build, Herrington says. The offspring of volleyball star Gabrielle Reece, who is 6 feet, 3 inches tall and muscularly lean, with well-defined abs, will almost certainly have a different build than someone who is short and stocky, for example. "It doesn't mean you can't strive [for defined abs], but some of it is genetic," Herrington says.
Do it: With your feet shoulder-width apart, lift a barbell off the rig, centering it evenly across your shoulders. (This version of the squat targets the core, not the legs, and so you should be using far less weight than you would for a traditional back squat.) Send your glutes back like you’re lowering into a chair, bending at the knees as deeply as possible. Press through your heels to return to the starting position for one rep. Do 12 reps for one set.
"My goals six years ago was to 'get abs' and I used to think cardio and crunches would get me there. But it wasn’t until I started lifting weights and varying my abdominal exercises that I started to see a major change. You don’t realize how much you use your core muscles in order to perform powerful rapid movements like deadlifts!" — Shante Franca, @shantefranca