Article by Kari Fry with Anne Nixon
Ab workouts are often a focus for women in their fitness training and a popular question asked of Personal Trainers is which exercises are the best ones. We caught up with Exercise Professional Anne Nixon to get her insights and recommendations for the best ab workout options for women and how to tailor them to everyone’s needs.
IMPORTANT: The ideas in this article are purely for information only – please do not start an exercise programme until you have completed a PAR-Q and, if necessary, received medical clearance. Always warm up and cool down and never do any exercise that you are unsure of without the support of a qualified professional.
To start us off, what are the benefits of ab exercises for women?
You ask any women who has just joined a gym “what area do you want to work on?” and their instant reaction is a two-handed belly grab and a sorry look down to their waist. So, in answer to this question, I would most certainly say the biggest benefit of ab exercises to every woman is reduced belly fat resulting in a massive increase in body confidence. Then follows the physiological benefits of a strong core with improved posture, increased strength for activities of daily life and, for the mum’s to be, standing a very good chance of a quicker and safer labour.
How would you design an ab workout at the gym – what could that look like?
Personally, I don’t tend to design a complete abs workout. I often incorporate ab exercises into my weekly three day split with a view to working my entire core over the week. I prefer it this way as I feel like my core is really nice and warmed up following a good chest or leg session. I also find core exercises a great way to cool down as I tend to apply mind to muscle and concentrate on breathing. Other than my side bends, they are performed on the matts which is logistically a great place to stay and stretch off when your work outs are done, my “go to” core exercises are -
- Knee Tuck – (Abdomen Transverse)
- Bicycle crunch (Abdominals)
- Superman (Lower back)
- Side Bends (obliques)
And if you were working out from home? What at home ab workouts are there available?
Hearing this question instantly takes me back to lockdown days – the ONLY time I have done home workouts. And thank goodness those days are over! I am in utter admiration for those that love a home workout as this is a discipline in its own right! The gym I work for have a fantastic home workout platform called “Yourspace at Home” with instructors giving pre-recorded workouts. They have a ten-minutes abs blast which is similar to my entire weeks’ worth of core exercises performed simultaneously. It is not for the faint hearted, but if time or access to a gym is a barrier to exercise – this quick at home workout performed 2-3 times a week will certainly put you on track for that body composition goal of a flat stomach.
How about including weights in an ab workout – what might that look like?
I love incorporating weights into my core exercises. Grab a couple of dumbbells or a kettle bell to add some resistance to the side bends and your obliques will jump into action!
If someone wanted to concentrate on lower ab exercises - can you give us some examples?
The “lower abs” area is really hard to isolate during an exercise, which is why I try to incorporate legs and hip flexors to make sure I have fully activated what is commonly mistaken as a muscle group. The lower abs are the area at the lower end of a muscle sheath (rectus abdominus) running from the bottom of the rib cage to the pubis synthesis. I would suggest bicycle crunches for this job, as well as dead bugs and scissor legs.
What are the best abdominal exercises for women? Which would you focus on?
Specialising in pre- and post-natal exercise I always tell women to focus on the ab exercises that they feel the most comfortable performing. Getting down on hands and knees on a gym floor can make you feel very exposed. It isn’t uncommon for me to have clients say no to performing any exercises on a matt. The anxiety of having people watching them with their legs in the air and their bums on show takes over. I also have to take into account medical conditions – for example I would never suggest a stomach crunch to a woman with a prolapse. So, this can be a very tricky area to navigate. I like to keep things simple and ask what is safe and what is comfortable for the client. Working from the list of exercises I have mentioned today, there are plenty to choose from. And if the gym is not for you, a Pilates class twice a week will soon get you on your way to a stronger core.
Summary - the best ab workouts for women
Thank you, Anne for your insights and advice on this subject of ab workout for women. Abdominal exercises can be of great benefit for women in terms of their core strength, belly fat reduction and as a confidence boost. With lots of exercise options available to incorporate into a workout, there are options to suit every need and allow women to perform them comfortably.
Taking into consideration a high percentage of women (and males) want to have the perfect toned core let’s discuss more about the core before highlighting some of the most successful ab exercises for women and ab exercises for women at home.
The core is split into 3 areas:
- Rectus Abdominis
- Transverse abdominis
Personal circumstances, health and exercise history would determine what ab exercises would be most successful. For any women postpartum it is essential to focus on the transverse abdominis (ab muscles that wrap around the entire abdomen) before working the rectus abdominis. This helps build the core internally and reduces the risk of diastasis recti.
The best ab exercise for woman focusing on the transverse abdominis are:
Start by lying on a mat on your back. Elevate the legs and ensure they are bent at a 90 degree angle, the spine should be neutral and core engaged (draw the belly button into the spine). Lower one leg to the ground and return to the starting position, alternate the leg. This would be best performed for 2-3 sets of 10 reps on each legs.
Below is a video example of a slam ball advance dead bug exercise which can also be an ab exercise performed at home or an ab exercise in the gym.
Ab exercises for women can be completed using bodyweight or alternatively using functional equipment. The use of functional equipment can make the ab workout more interesting and also advances some simple ab exercises to make them more challenging.
An example of a kettlebell ab workout for women is below:
Kettlebell Plank Pass through
Start in a high plank position with a kettlebell on one side next to your hand. Reach under your torso with the opposite hand , reach for the kettlebell and brad under the body to the other side placing the kettlebell next to the hand. Repeat. This would be best performed for 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Kettlebell Side Plank
This exercise is an advanced version of the normal side plank using the kettlebell as additional resistance. Whilst on a mat set yourself up by supporting your body in a side position using your elbow and foot. Hold a kettlebell and raise it to be directly above the shoulder. Raise the pelvis and hips off the floor and maintain a neutral spine position. This would be best performed for 2-3 sets of 30 seconds.
Kettlebell Russian Twists
Sit on a mat on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat and hip distance apart. Hold the kettlebell at chest level and maintain a 45 degree angle as you lean back. Move your torso from left to right moving the kettlebell across your body as you twist. This would be best performed for 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps.
For more ideas on kettlebell training check out the Study Active Blog ‘Effective Kettlebell Exercises’ via: Effective Kettlebell Workouts (studyactive.co.uk)
Whilst lots of women want the perfect toned core and think that completing home ab exercises and gym ab exercises it is very important to consider nutrition. A woman with a lower percentage of body fat is more likely to have more visible abs then a woman with a higher percentage of body fat. Therefore, you could be doing all the ab exercises without results due to the layer of fat over the core. The most effective way of weight loss is to be in a calorie deficit and to complete 2 resistance training workouts a week and 2 cardio workouts a week. For more information on top tips on lose weight you can visit our blog: How to Lose Weight Fast - Our Top Tips | Study Active
There are many ways in which a male or female can get a flat ‘washboard’ stomach, it is not just about ab workouts at home or ab workouts in the gym. Increasing fibre intake and ensuring adequate sleep is also a factor in keeping excess fat off the waistline.
One thing that we have not touched on is the plank which is an ab exercise that is one of the most important as the plank targets more muscles than most other ab exercises which is why it should be added into core workouts or any workout routine. The planks activates the core muscles including the transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique muscles. Try giving yourself an ab exercise challenge and see how long you can hold a plank for! The challenge is 3 minutes 😊
For more information on ab exercises visit the Study Active blog on core stability: Core Stability Exercises: Stability Training Workout | Study Active