Everyone has their take on ab training. A powerlifter might say that all you need are heavy squats and pulls. Gymnasts work only with their body weight and are often shredded to the bone. And, for better or worse, gyms are packed to the brim with Bosu balls and other bouncy objects meant to ramp up your sit-up game.
Your abs do a lot more than just look good; specifically, your lower abs help you bend your legs and control your pelvic posture as well. If you want to build a rock-solid set of lower abs, you need to get in on the ground floor of core training. Which means getting off the floor and using your abs dynamically. Some extra resistance thrown in wouldn’t hurt, either.
These are eight of the best movements you can do to dial in your lower ab training, plus some helpful tips and tricks to get the most out of your next core workout.
Best Lower Ab Exercises
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Leg raises are among the best options for blasting your lower abdominals, simply because they give your lower abs ample leverage to perform work while your upper abs take a bit of a breather.
Some studies indicate that the leg raise beats out many other popular core movements for ab activation as well, (1) making the leg raise a solid starting point when building your core routine.
Benefits of the Hanging Leg Raise
You can perform a high number of reps in quick succession to bolster your conditioning.
Has a simple technique, making it easy to pick up in one or two workouts.
A great choice for some manual resistance applied by your workout partner.
How to Do the Hanging Leg Raise
Regardless, the first step is to brace your upper body for stability and let your legs hang loosely below you. Then, exhale and contract your abs. Begin by curling your hips underneath your body to lift your legs up until they’re parallel with the floor.
You can bend your knees to make the movement easier, or keep the legs extended for a real challenge.
Think of the jackknife as, basically, a horizontal hanging leg raise. This alternative movement is great for working your lower abs, but you’ll also get some bonus hip flexor stimulation as well.
You can use the jackknife as a precursor to a more difficult movement, or shoot for ultra-high reps and make it the centerpiece of your ab day.
Benefits of the Jackknife
Can be done anywhere you have a stable surface to sit on, like a weight bench.
Good for integrated core training, since it involves your hip flexors as well.
You can load the movement by holding a dumbbell between your feet.
How to Do the Jackknife
Sit on the end of a weight bench or plyometrics box with your legs straight, feet resting on the floor. Your arms should be behind your torso, gripping the edges of the bench or box for stability.
Flex your abs to bend your knees, drawing them upward toward your chest. Pause for a beat at the top, ensuring your lower abs are contracted hard. Reverse the motion, straightening your legs back out, and then repeat.
The dragon flag is one beastly core movement. If you can build up to perform it properly, though, it’s one of the most effective lower ab exercises out there. After all, you can find the dragon flag in gymnastics training programs as well as Rocky’s iconic pre-fight workouts.
Most of the challenge of the dragon flag comes from having to lower your entire lower body down under control. This high degree of eccentric tension is great for muscle growth.
Benefits of the Dragon Flag
An excellent advanced training option for experienced gymgoers.
You don’t need any equipment to perform the dragon flag.
Includes a bit of grip work as well as you hold yourself steady while your whole body moves in space.
How to Do the Dragon Flag
Lie on the floor with your arms behind you firmly gripping a stable surface like the leg of a table if you’re at home or a large exercise machine. Your legs should be straight. Lift your body up into a pike position by squeezing your abs until your toes point at the ceiling.
Then, very slowly lower your body back down to the floor. Make an effort to keep your hips and knees extended the whole time; most of the motion should come from your torso.
It isn’t always easy to tweak the level of difficulty of bodyweight movements. Luckily, the decline reverse crunch is one of the easiest ways to ratchet up your lower ab training.
By working on an adjustable decline bench and curling your legs instead of your torso, you can put your lower abs to work without having to learn a complicated gymnastics movement or work with external weights.
Benefits of the Decline Reverse Crunch
Great for learning how to properly engage your lower abs.
You can quickly adjust the difficulty of the movement by changing the angle of the bench.
How to Do the Decline Reverse Crunch
Set an adjustable decline bench to a modest height; the closer to parallel with the floor the seat of the bench is, the easier the movement will be.
Lie on the bench and grab onto it with your hands behind your head, legs straight. Tuck your pelvis and curl your hips up to lift your legs. Crunch up until your hips leave the bench slightly, then slowly reverse the motion to unfurl your lower body.
You may think of the humble plank as a remedial beginner’s movement, but you can do a lot with this ab training staple. Namely, making some small adjustments to your technique and cueing to cash in on some lower ab gains.
By artificially lengthening the moment arm (that’s how far the point of resistance is from your base of support) of the plank and tilting your pelvis posteriorly, you’ll get a lot more value from the movement and thus tax your lower abs to a greater degree. (2)
Benefits of the Long Lever Plank
Allows you to place high amounts of tension on the abs without using weight.
Can be performed anywhere as long as you have a few feet of clear space.
How to Do the Long Lever Plank
Lie on the floor on your stomach with your legs straight. Instead of supporting yourself with your elbows under your shoulders as you would for a standard plank, reach forward and plant your elbows further out, in alignment with your ears.
Then, push your elbows into the floor and lift your torso off the ground into a plank position. Tuck your hips into a posterior tilt while keeping your knees locked out and hold for time.
There’s some compelling evidence suggesting that “integrated” core movements, where the muscles around your abs contract as well, might be good for core activation. (3)
Practically speaking, this means giving your glutes (and even shoulders) something to do while you work your lower abs. You can put this theory to the test with the reverse plank and build some truly commendable midline stability along the way.
Benefits of the Reverse Plank
You can perform reverse planks just about anywhere.
Provides a unique twist on the standard plank you may not have tried before.
Good for teaching proper core bracing habits.
Helps you feel proper glute engagement.
How to Do the Reverse Plank
Sit on your butt on the floor with your legs and arms straight, hands pressed into the ground behind your torso. From here, let the air out of your body and push your hips up into a bridge position.
Squeeze your glutes and tuck your pelvis into a posterior tilt while also maintaining active abdominal engagement. Your body should resemble a straight line from head to toe. You can hold for time, or place your feet onto an elevated surface to increase the difficulty.
So, if you want to blast your lower abs and build a more robust and stable midsection, get good at performing a standard hollow hold.
Benefits of the Hollow Hold
Teaches you how to contract your deep core musculature.
Reinforces the same bracing patterns you use while lifting weights.
Doesn’t require any external equipment.
How to Do the Hollow Hold
Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and arms relaxed at your sides. From here, exhale deeply, letting most of the air out of your body. Then, contract your abs to lift your legs and shoulders off the ground slightly.
Your lower back should be flush against the floor. Squeeze your glutes and hold this position for time. You can raise your arms up behind your head to make the drill more difficult.
Crunches won’t hit all of the deep musculature of your core, but a good stomach vacuum can work magic. There’s a reason it’s a staple of the Classic Physique division in bodybuilding — stomach vacuums demonstrate proficient abdominal control and tightness.
It’s a difficult skill to master, but you’ll feel the burn in your lower abs and transverse abdominis almost immediately.
Benefits of the Stomach Vacuum
Teaches you how to properly control your deep abdominal wall.
Great as a breathing drill before or after other ab exercises.
Hits a small muscle that you may not be able to target with other moves.
How to Do the Stomach Vacuum
The stomach vacuum is halfway between parlor trick and ab exercise; don’t be discouraged if you can’t pull it off in your first few sessions. Stand in front of a stable surface that’s about waist-high. Place your hands on the surface to use as a brace.
Exhale deeply, pushing all of the air out of your body. Then, push your arms against the surface while attempting to inhale — without actually taking in any new air. Think about drawing your abdomen inward towards your spine. Hold this position for as long as possible.
Anatomy of the Abs
If you want to get the most value out of your ab workouts, you need (at minimum) a cursory understanding of your own abdominal anatomy. This is particularly important for isolating a certain compartment of a muscle group, such as your lower abs. Here’s how it all shakes out.
The rectus abdominis is a long, vertically-oriented sheet of muscle on the front of your torso. It originates way down on your pelvis and inserts, or attaches, across several of your ribs. This tissue is what most people reference when they say they’re “working on their six-pack.”
Your abs perform all manner of biomechanical functions; bending the torso over or, especially, resisting rotary forces that act upon the spine.
To isolate the lower sections of your abs, you should look toward the pelvis — the aspect of your skeleton upon which they attach. Exercises that involve motion at the hips will involve your lower abs to a greater degree, while your upper abs enable movement through the torso and upper body.
There are plenty of muscles that wrap and attach throughout your stomach, but the transverse abdominis tissue is a major player in lower abdominal stability. This also makes it a candidate for training, though doing so can be tricky.
Your transverse abdominis sits deep underneath the superficial, or visually prominent, musculature of your stomach. It articulates or controls lumbopelvic posture, helping you to stand upright, as well as literally holding the contents of your abdomen in place.
Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
Certain diaphragmatic breathing movements can target the transverse abdominis, but you’ll typically get some stimulation along the way during most general ab exercises.
Lower Ab Training Tips
There’s a smorgasbord of information out there about how to optimize your ab workouts. It can be hard to sort through the clutter and not end up back where you started or, worse yet, performing ineffectual or even possibly harmful techniques.
Here are a few science-based training tips that can dial up the efficacy of your lower ab training.
Load When Possible
Human muscle tissue responds and grows when placed under stress, and your abdominals are a muscle like any other. While your body may not draw a distinction between the tension of a loaded barbell from the weight of your own legs, it’s difficult to apply progressive overload if you only work with your body’s weight.
Research indicates that abdominal activation increases in accordance with heavier external loads. (5) Meaning, if bodyweight ab exercises are a bit too easy, you should add weight to your core training when possible.
For the lower abs specifically, this can take a number of forms: Holding a small dumbbell between your feet on leg raises, wearing ankle weights during jackknifes, or even placing a weight plate on your back during your planks.
Adding external resistance provides you with a new “knob” to turn up as you develop your core strength and definition.
Move Your Hips
Pelvic orientation (meaning, how you move your hips in space) is the wedge that divides standard core exercises from lower-ab-specific training. Your abs run from your sternum to your pelvis; the lower sections of that tissue, then, have better leverage to pull on your hips.
This is precisely why lower ab exercises tend to involve motion below the waist while you attempt to hold your upper body still.
Credit: OSTILL is Franck Camhi / Shutterstock
This finding is corroborated by research into isometric movements like the plank, where tucking your butt into a posterior tilt should increase ab activation, (2) or why the hanging leg raise activates your lower abs more than nearly any other movement if you perform it properly. (1)
Movement at the pelvis, particularly by “tucking it under” your torso, is absolutely essential if you want to target your lower abs more than any other part of your core.
Use External Support
Credit: Slatan / Shutterstock
That said, you may have a more productive workout if you rely on external support structures instead of low-stability equipment. Bracing your back against the seat of a Roman chair during leg raises, for instance, should allow you to focus directly on contracting your lower abs without worrying about bodily swaying if you were to perform that exercise while hanging freely.
It’s the same idea behind other isolation movements such as the preacher curl — removing the need to actively hold yourself steady helps with focus, and giving yourself a surface to push against may enable you to work a bit harder.
Hit Them Directly
“Squats and deadlifts thicken your waist” sits high upon the totem pole of pseudoscience. There’s a degree of truth to it (since all muscles grow if they’re stressed enough), but the fact of the matter is if you want to isolate a specific muscle — or particularly a certain part of that muscle, such as your lower abs — large, compound exercises generally won’t do the trick.
A large body of research demonstrates that movements like deadlifts and squats do not activate your core (specifically, your obliques) to a significant degree. (8) Some studies note that certain variations may involve certain core muscles more than others, (9) but the vast majority of muscular tension is still applied to your legs and back rather than your abs.
Credit: LightField Studios / Shutterstock
Your core is an auxiliary support structure, not the prime mover in the squat, deadlift, or row, much in the same way that your deltoids aid your chest in the bench press but don’t steal the show. If you want to maximize your lower ab development, you need to select exercises that put them front and center to bear a lion’s share of the load.
Elevate Your Lower Abs
Luckily, hitting your lower abs properly doesn’t have to be a puzzle. You just need the right movements in your toolkit to get the job done. With a little bit of creativity (and work ethic; some lower ab exercises are straight-up brutal) you can build an impressive set of abs from the bottom up.
1. Moussa, A. (2011, August 19). Suppversity EMG Series – rectus abdominis, obliques and erector spinae: The very best exercises for Sixpack Abs and a powerful midsection. SuppVersity EMG Series – Rectus Abdominis, Obliques and Erector Spinae: The Very Best Exercises For Sixpack Abs and a Powerful Midsection. Retrieved December 8, 2022
2. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Tiryaki-Sonmez, G., Willardson, J. M., & Fontana, F. (2014). An electromyographic comparison of a modified version of the plank with a long lever and posterior tilt versus the traditional plank exercise. Sports biomechanics, 13(3), 296–306.
3. Gottschall, J. S., Mills, J., & Hastings, B. (2013). Integration core exercises elicit greater muscle activation than isolation exercises. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 27(3), 590–596.
4. Monfort-Pañego, M., Vera-García, F. J., Sánchez-Zuriaga, D., & Sarti-Martínez, M. A. (2009). Electromyographic studies in abdominal exercises: a literature synthesis. Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics, 32(3), 232–244.
5. Stevens, V. K., Parlevliet, T. G., Coorevits, P. L., Mahieu, N. N., Bouche, K. G., Vanderstraeten, G. G., & Danneels, L. A. (2008). The effect of increasing resistance on trunk muscle activity during extension and flexion exercises on training devices. Journal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 18(3), 434–445.
6. Willardson, J. M., Fontana, F. E., & Bressel, E. (2009). Effect of surface stability on core muscle activity for dynamic resistance exercises. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 4(1), 97–109.
7. Saeterbakken, A. H., Andersen, V., Jansson, J., Kvellestad, A. C., & Fimland, M. S. (2014). Effects of BOSU ball(s) during sit-ups with body weight and added resistance on core muscle activation. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(12), 3515–3522.
8. Aspe, R. R., & Swinton, P. A. (2014). Electromyographic and kinetic comparison of the back squat and overhead squat. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(10), 2827–2836.
9. Park, J. H., Lee, S. J., Shin, H. J., & Cho, H. Y. (2022). Influence of Loads and Loading Position on the Muscle Activity of the Trunk and Lower Extremity during Squat Exercise. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(20), 13480.
Featured Image: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
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