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Women's Guide to Toned Abs: 9 Effective Ab Workouts to Try

Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Published in Fitness

10 min read

October 6, 2023
a woman looking at her abs in the mirror
a woman looking at her abs in the mirror

If you’ve ever tried to get a six-pack, you’ll know that the journey towards toned abs is a testament to dedication, discipline, and the right diet and workout plan. When it comes to ab workouts, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop with the same three exercises and feel like you’ve plateaued.

But if you're a woman looking to add ab workouts into your weekly plan, you're in the right place. We've assembled a lineup of targeted workouts that are efficient and tailored to suit the specific needs of women.

Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned fitness enthusiast, get ready to explore our roundup of the best ab workouts for women that will bring you closer to your fitness goals.

Understanding the Anatomy of Abs

anatomy of abdominal muscles

The abdominal region is composed of several distinct muscle groups that play important roles in stabilizing the core, supporting posture, and facilitating various movements. You may be familiar with movements like planks, bicycle crunches, or dead bugs, but not sure which muscles these exercises actually target.

To achieve toned abs, it's essential to target all of these muscles:

Benefits of a Strong Core

reasons why a strong core is beneficial

Targeting all of these muscle groups is essential for a few reasons, including: core stability, improved posture, enhanced athletic performance, and functional strength. Here are some of the main benefits of strengthening your core and midsection.

Core Stability

A balanced and well-trained core increases stability, reducing the risk of injuries, especially in activities that involve lifting, bending, and twisting. Core stability can have benefits for your entire body, increasing your mobility and helping to create a stable base.

Improved Posture

Strong core muscles contribute to better posture by supporting the spine and maintaining proper alignment. This can also help alleviate back pain and even prevent it from occurring. 

Enhanced Athletic Performance

a girl doing a crunch
Source: Unsplash

Many movements in sports and daily activities rely on a strong core. Whether you're running, jumping, or lifting, a solid core provides a stable base for generating power, speed, balance, and agility.

Functional Strength

Everyday tasks like lifting groceries, carrying children, or even sitting at a desk are easier and safer when your core muscles are well-conditioned.

Abs Are Made in the Kitchen

The phrase "abs are made in the kitchen" emphasizes the important role that nutrition plays in achieving well-defined abs. It underscores the idea that no matter how diligently you work out, your efforts might not yield the desired results if your diet isn't aligned with your fitness goals.

When it comes to supporting muscle growth in the abdominal region, several nutrition considerations come into play:

healthy diet tips for strong abs

1. Meet Your Protein Needs: Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth. Sources of lean protein like poultry, fish or seafood, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and plant-based protein sources are all valuable additions to a muscle-supporting diet.

2. Time Your Meals: The timing of your meals affects muscle protein synthesis, which is an important part of building muscle. Research shows that creating opportunities for protein intake up to four to six times per day can improve muscle protein synthesis.

3. Focus on Nutrient Balance: Incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense foods is important for overall health and muscle growth. The right balance of macronutrients, like carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, can provide energy for workouts and support recovery.

4. Meal Planning: Planning meals in advance helps ensure that you're providing your body with the right nutrients in appropriate amounts. This can help you avoid impulsive eating choices that might not align with your fitness goals.

5. Portion Control: While protein is important, overall calorie intake also matters. Consuming more calories than your body requires can lead to excess fat storage, potentially obscuring the definition of your ab muscles.

6. Keep Glucose Balanced. Your blood sugar levels may impact abdominal or visceral weight gain. Research shows there is a strong relationship between insulin resistance or risk for prediabetes/type 2 diabetes and abdominal weight gain. Keeping glucose levels balanced may help reduce the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. 

9 Effective Workouts for Toned Abs

9 ab exercises to try

Now that we know more about the relationship between nutrition, body fat percentage, and the pursuit of toned abs, it's time to take action. Here are nine of the best ab exercises for women, designed to engage your abs, strengthen your core, and help you attain your fitness goals.

Luckily, no equipment is required for many traditional core exercises, so add these bodyweight core exercises to your next workout routine for a killer ab workout. You may choose to complete the whole circuit or select the exercises of your choice. Start with 20 reps, or 30 seconds of each movement.

1) Hip Lifts

a girl doing a hip lift
Source: Studio Romantic

Hip lifts are a dynamic ab workout that engages your lower abdominal muscles, glutes, and hamstrings and helps sculpt and strengthen your core, contributing to improved posture and muscle definition.

Here’s how to perform hip lifts:

  •  Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  • With your arms resting beside you, lift your hips off the ground by contracting your abdominal muscles and pressing your heels
  • Once your body forms a bridge-like position, lower your hips back down to the starting position

2) Crunches

Crunches are a classic abdominal exercise that primarily target the rectus abdominis, the muscle responsible for that sought-after six-pack appearance. This exercise is similar to a sit-up, but places a bigger focus directly on your abs.

Here’s how to perform crunches:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  • Gently support your head with your hands
  • Engage your core muscles to lift your upper body off the ground
  • Lower back down and repeat

As you lift your upper body, avoid pulling on your neck with your hands. Instead, use your abdominal muscles to initiate the movement, ensuring that your neck and head remain in a neutral position.

3) Glute Bridge March

a girl doing a glute bridge
Source: Complete Pilates 

Glute bridge marches are a dynamic exercise that engages not only the glutes but also the core muscles, making it an effective ab workout. Here’s how to perform glute bridge marches:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  • Lift your hips off the ground, creating a bridge-like position with your body
  • While maintaining this bridge, lift your right foot off the ground and bring your knee towards your chest
  • Switch sides in a marching motion

4) Planks

Planks are a highly effective and versatile abdominal exercise that engages multiple core muscles simultaneously, making them a staple in ab workouts. The static nature of planks challenges your muscles to work together to maintain proper alignment, leading to improved core strength and stability.

Here’s how to perform a plank:

  • Start in a push-up position with your hands placed directly under your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from head to heels
  • From the plank position, engage your core muscles and draw in your belly button to keep your body stable
  • Hold for 30 seconds to one minute and lower yourself back down

If this movement is too hard, you can also opt for a high plank, which allows you to place both palms flat on the ground while engaging your core, as opposed to your forearms.

5) Leg Lowers

a girl doing leg lowers
Source: Maridav

Leg lowers, also known as leg lowering exercises, are a powerful ab workout that primarily engage the lower abs, contributing to a well-rounded core routine. 

Here’s how to perform leg lowers:

  • Lie on your back with your legs extended vertically towards the ceiling
  • Keep your lower back pressed into the ground and slowly lower your legs towards the floor
  • Maintain control and engage your core. 

6) V-Ups

V-ups are a dynamic ab exercise that targets both the upper and lower abdominal muscles, targeting almost the entire core. Here’s how to perform v-ups:

  • Start by lying on your back with your arms extended overhead
  • Simultaneously lift your upper body and legs off the ground, reaching your hands towards your feet to create a "V" shape with your body
  • Lean back down to the ground slowly. 

Note that you may also feel some tension on your hip flexors while performing this exercise.

7) Side Planks

a girl doing side planks
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva

Side planks engage the oblique muscles while also working the muscles in your shoulders, hips, and legs. The exercise challenges your core to stabilize your body in a lateral position, promoting balanced muscle development and improved lateral strength. You’ll want to perform the movement on both the left side and right side to ensure you target both oblique muscles.

Here’s how to perform a side plank:

  • Start by lying on your side with your legs extended and your feet stacked on top of each other
  • Prop yourself up on your forearm, elbow directly beneath your shoulder, and lift your hips off the ground
  • After you finish the first side, switch to the opposite side and repeat

8) Reverse Crunches

Reverse crunches are a dynamic abdominal exercise that challenges the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominis, helping you reach the challenging-to-target lower abdominal area. Here’s how to perform reverse crunches: 

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet lifted off the ground, creating a 90-degree angle at your hips and knees
  • Keep your hands by your sides and engage your core 
  • Use your lower abdominal muscles to lift your hips off the ground while curling your knees towards your chest
  • Lower your hips back down and repeat

9) Heel Taps

a girl doing heel taps
Source: Black Sand Yoga

Heel taps are an engaging ab exercise that targets both the upper and lower abdominal muscles. Here’s how to perform heel taps:

  • Lie on your back with your left and right knee bent and feet flat on the ground
  • Lift your shoulders slightly off the ground to engage your upper abdominal muscles
  • Maintain this position and lower one heel towards the floor without letting your lower back arch
  • Alternate between tapping each heel to the floor, engaging your core to control the movement

The Truth About Fat Loss and Abs

a woman doing core exercises

Having visible six-pack abs is tied to maintaining a certain body fat percentage, which allows the underlying muscle definition to show through your skin. For women, achieving and maintaining this lower body fat percentage while still adequately fueling your body can be a delicate balance. 

It's important to emphasize that reducing body fat shouldn’t mean resorting to unhealthy or extreme dieting practices. Research shows that not fueling your body properly and low body fat levels can lead to disruptions in hormonal balance and have other long-term health consequences.

Cutting calories drastically can lead to energy imbalances and hinder athletic performance. Ensuring that caloric intake meets the energy demands of training and daily activities is vital.

Instead, adopting a sustainable and balanced approach to nutrition is essential. You’ll want to prioritize nutrient-dense foods that provide essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients to support performance, recovery, and overall health. Focus on foods like:

  • Low glycemic carbs
  • Lean proteins
  • Healthy fats
  • Plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables

When it comes to macronutrients, getting adequate protein supports muscle repair and growth, which is crucial for achieving toned abs. Incorporate lean sources of protein in each meal.

Other healthy dietary considerations include sources of healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, which contribute to overall health and hormone regulation. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for athletes. They fuel workouts and aid in recovery. Choosing lower glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains, beans or legumes, and certain starchy veggies or fruits is helpful.

Staying hydrated supports metabolic processes, muscle function, and overall performance. It's important to acknowledge that every individual's body is different, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Consulting with a qualified nutritionist or sports dietitian can provide personalized guidance and help you strike a balance between achieving a strong core or visible abs and maintaining your overall health and well-being.

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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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