Core exercises can improve strength, posture, and overall health. Although it can be harder for females to attain visible ab muscles, performing core exercises regularly is very beneficial.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Ab exercises are exercises intended to strengthen the abdominal muscle groups. These consist of the rectus abdominus, internal obliques, external obliques, and transversus abdominus.

These muscle groups are part of the core, which refers to the 360-degree stability of the midsection of the body.

Read on to learn more about how to exercise for abs, exercises to try at home, and achieving visible abs for females.

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Ab exercises are exercises intended to strengthen the abdominal muscle groups. These consist of the following:

  • Rectus abdominis (RA): These are the “six-pack” muscles at the front of the pelvis, between the ribs and the pubic bone. They help to support and flex the spine.
  • Internal oblique (IO): The Internal oblique is a broad, thin muscle on the side of the abdomen. It helps to flex and bend the trunk. It also helps to maintain abdominal pressure and movements, such as during defecation and urination.
  • External oblique (EO): The external oblique muscle runs down the sides of the torso, beneath the arms. It extends from the lower half of the ribs around and down to the pelvis. It helps to rotate the trunk and stabilize the core.
  • Transversus abdominis (TA): These muscles are found inside the internal oblique muscle. They are the deepest abdominal muscles and function to protect the internal organs by holding them in place.

Ab exercises help to achieve stronger, thicker abs. However, achieving visible abs is typically more difficult for females than males. This is mainly because females produce more estrogen than males, which can make it harder to burn body fat.

Having visible abs relies on a low body fat percentage so that fat is not obscuring the muscles. If a person wants visible abs, they may choose to combine a calorie deficit with ab exercises.

Are core exercises or ab exercises more effective?

Medical professionals recommend working out the whole of the core to achieve the best results possible.

Conditioning the core helps to improve health and prevent injury, and it also contributes to better posture. Improving posture can help to make abs more visible, as poor posture can create a “pot belly” in women.

Research shows that one of the top exercises for toning abs is the bicycle maneuver, also called a bicycle crunch. The following section outlines this, as well as other exercises a person can easily do at home.

Bicycle maneuver

Perform this exercise by lying flat on a mat or the floor. Place the fingertips at the back of the head and lift the shoulder blades off the ground. Bring the knees to a 45-degree angle, tightening the abdominal muscles.

Turn the upper body to the opposite knee, bringing the elbow toward the knee and extending the opposite leg, then reverse the movement.

Perform this for as many repetitions (reps) as feels achievable, then rest for about 1 minute. Repeat three to four times.

Vertical leg crunch

Perform this exercise by lying on the floor or on a mat with legs at a 90-degree angle. Tuck the chin, engage the core, and lace the fingers behind the head. Lift the upper body toward the legs.

Repeat for as many sets as achievable, rest, and repeat for three to four sets.

Front plank

Perform this exercise by elevating the body to a face-down position on the floor or on a mat. The body weight should be placed on the forearms and the toes, with the rest of the body off the floor.

Keep a flat back, with the pelvis tucked in, and engage the core. Remain in this position for as long as possible, and repeat three or four times.

Some abdominal exercises that can be performed at the gym include:

Captain’s chair

The captain’s chair exercise is good for targeting the rectus abdominis, the hip flexors, and the external obliques. It is a piece of gym equipment with armrests, a padded back, and vertical handles.

To perform the exercise, a person should lift themselves on the chair so that their legs are suspended from the ground. Then, they should lift their legs toward their torso, either with knees bent, or legs straightened for a more advanced workout. For further advancements, ankle weights can be added.

Repeat as many reps as possible for three to four sets.

Crunch on an exercise ball

An older 2001 study shows that exercise ball crunches produce slightly less activity in the rectus abdominis and external obliques than other ab exercises.

However, they also generate much less activity in the thigh muscles. This means that they are more specifically ab-targeted than many other forms of exercise.

A 2012 study on core training shows that performing ab workouts on unstable surfaces — like that of an exercise ball — improves core muscle strength more significantly than floor training. The same study also showed that these benefits are more evident in females than in males.

While working out regularly is part of a healthy lifestyle, there are some risks associated with seeking visible abs for females. For example, having a low body fat percentage can interfere with female hormones and cause irregular periods, reduced energy, and low bone density.

Visible abs require a low body fat percentage for both males and females. This percentage will differ from person to person, and achieving a low body fat percentage often requires a sustained calorie deficit.

While being in a calorie deficit can be done healthily, it can also come with certain risks. Some of these include:

  • Loss of lean body mass: It can be difficult to maintain lean muscle mass in a calorie deficit. This can lead to fatigue, neuromuscular function decline, and increased risk of injury.
  • Disordered eating: In the United States, eating disorders are up to five times more prevalent in females than in males. An obsession with achieving a low body fat percentage could lead to disordered eating patterns in women. Eating disorders are very serious and sometimes fatal.

It is a common myth that spot-reducing fat, such as losing fat from the belly alone, is possible. However, losing overall body fat is possible through diet and lifestyle management.

Some tips for belly fat loss include:

  • Resistance training: Gaining lean muscle mass helps people to burn more calories, even when sedentary. The best way to gain muscle is through resistance training, such as weightlifting.
  • Calorie deficit: This means eating fewer calories than calories burned. The average woman burns 2,000 calories per day. Therefore, reducing this may result in fat loss.
  • Improving sleep: Getting better sleep has been associated with improved weight loss but not with muscle loss. Therefore, sleep plays an incredibly important role in belly fat reduction.

All women are different when it comes to the ease at which they can achieve visible abs. That being said, achieving a healthy weight, maintaining lean muscle mass, and eating a healthy diet are goals that are achievable for many people.

The first important step is equipping oneself with the right knowledge to start the journey.