Strengthening your core is about more than losing weight or getting defined muscles. A strong core can improve the way the rest of the body works and help balance and stability. Working out the abdominal muscles is an essential component of increasing core strength. (It's important to work out the back and hips, as well, to prevent injuries.) These 15 simple ab exercises go beyond crunches or sit-ups and include a few variations to increase or decrease difficulty. They can all be done from the comfort of home — no expensive equipment or gym membership necessary.
Lie on your back and place your hands on the floor beside your hips. Slowly exhale and raise your legs 6 to 12 inches off the ground. Lock your legs and hold the position. To intensify the exercise, try to lift both legs to a 90-degree angle so your knees and feet are above your hips. Lower the legs, but don't quite touch the ground, and then raise back up.
Similar to the leg raise, this exercise calls for lying on your back and bringing both feet about 6 to 12 inches off the ground. Raise and lower the legs in a quick scissor motion. Focus on using your core, not your legs.
Many ab exercises focus on outer abdominal muscles, but the ab vacuum works the inner abdominals, which can lead to a tighter core and help support the back. Start by kneeling and placing your hands on the ground below your shoulders. Keep the back straight and look slightly forward. Exhale heavily through your mouth and suck in your stomach as if you're lifting your belly button to your back. Try to force all the air out of your lungs. Hold your breath and the position for five to 15 seconds. Inhale through your nose while slowly lowering your belly. Take one resting breath in through your mouth and out through your nose, then repeat. This exercise can be done while standing, sitting, or lying down.
There are several variations of the plank, a standard and effective core exercise, with the "high plank" being one of the most common. Lie on the ground facing down and lift the body as if doing a pushup — with hands and toes supporting the body, keeping the hands below the shoulders, arms fully extended, and toes below the ankles. (Spreading your fingers can help maintain balance.) Hold the position while focusing on keeping your back straight, your core pulled back toward your spine, and your glutes engaged. You can make the plank easier by resting on your elbows or knees (or both). Make it more difficult by adding alternating leg raises.
Start by lying on your side. Support yourself on an elbow and lift your body so only the elbow, forearm, and side of the foot are touching the ground. Hold the position and focus on keeping your core engaged and body in a straight line. For extra intensity, incorporate side plank dips into the routine: While in a side plank, drop your lower hip to the floor and bring it slowly back up.
Start from a high plank position with arms fully extended below the shoulders. Lift your right foot and bring the right knee forward to the right elbow or slightly outside. Extend the leg back — without dropping your foot to the floor — and repeat the exercise. Finish a set with one leg, then repeat with the other.
Set a timer for one minute. Start in a plank on your palms, keeping your quads engaged and your belly button hugging up and in. Lower your right forearm then left forearm. Come back onto the right palm then the left palm. Repeat this for the entire minute. Take a 15-second break between rounds.
Start in a sitting position with your heels on the floor and knees bent. Keeping the core engaged, lean back to a 45-degree angle. Holding your hands behind your head and keeping the elbows wide apart, twist slowly from left to right. To increase the difficulty, clasp your hands above your head and try to keep your palms together. Lower your hands to tap the ground on one side, bring your hands back above your head, and lower and tap the ground on the other side.
Like the Russian Twist, V-sits start with sitting down and bending your knees at a 90-degree angle. Raise your feet off the ground while leaning back slightly so your body creates a V. Extend your arms toward your feet to help maintain balance. Hold the position and return to the start, then repeat. For a harder variation, get into the V position and lower your body toward the ground while straightening and lowering the feet to about a 45-degree angle. Don't let shoulders or feet touch the ground. Return to the V position and repeat.
Start the same way you would for the Russian Twist or V-sits — lying on your back with knees bent and feet on the ground. Lift both feet off the ground so your knees are almost above your hips. Exhale while lowering one foot to tap the ground; then raise it and tap the floor with the other foot. Make this exercise easier by leaving one foot on the ground and toe tapping with the other, or harder by tapping and raising both feet at the same time.
Lie on your back and extend your arms over your head. Keep your legs together and exhale while lifting your torso and arms into a sitting position. Try to keep your arms above your head on the way up, and end with your hands reaching out parallel to your legs. Reverse the motion slowly until you're lying down.
Lie on your back with legs bent at a 90-degree angle, keeping your feet on the ground throughout the exercise. Raise your shoulders off the ground using your core and lift your arms so your hands are above your shoulders. Start to move as if climbing a rope.
Flip over and lie on your stomach. Exhale and reach your hands out in front of you, lifting your arms, shoulders, and legs — as though flying through the air like Superman. This exercise engages the core and lower back.
Get down on the ground on all fours, with hands below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Brace your back with your core (no arching), and lift your right leg up and back, keeping your knee bent. Lower it, and repeat on the other side.
For office workers and folks who work from home and are seated much of the day, this exercise doesn't even require getting up out of a chair. Every 15 minutes, do 20 to 50 double-leg knee lifts. Keep the back straight and abdominals engaged to lift the knees in a pulsing action.
If the goal is to have clearly defined abs — perhaps the often sought-after six-pack — you may need an exercise of willpower rather than strength. Although increasing core strength can help define abs, you'll need to get into an athletic body-fat range first. For men, that's about 6 percent to 13 percent; for women, it's 14 percent to 20 percent. Working out can help burn calories, but a diet plan often needs to be incorporated as well.