Trying to tone your stomach may well be one of the reasons you’ve been hitting the gym, doing core exercises, and maybe even taking on a plank or bicycle crunch challenge.
But toning your stomach doesn’t just involve moves that target your abdominal muscles; other factors, such as your NEAT energy expenditure (more on that later), body-fat percentage, and – not to sound like a broken record – your diet, all play a large part in whether your stomach looks ‘toned’. Preventing injury and making sure you approach this with the right mindset are important, too.
We’ve rounded up the best exercises to tone your stomach, bodyweight, using equipment, and weighted. Psst: they don’t involve a million sit-ups.
Remember that while a solid core will benefit your fitness, being obsessed with trying to get a toned stomach will likely bring neither health nor happiness. Go into this with a health goal and chances are you’ll reap the rewards.
What are the best ways to tone your stomach?
Before we get into the exercises, here’s your 360 approach and all the factors to bear in mind if a toned stomach is your goal.
1.Your body-fat percentage counts
Strong abs have a naturally muscular look. However – and this is an important point to make – strengthening your stomach muscles alone won’t help you achieve the strong and lean aesthetic you’re after.
That comes down to lowering your body fat percentage to a point where abdominal muscles are visible – that’s between 14 –24% for women. However, common thinking suggests that most women should not dip below 18% body fat, at the risk of interfering with their hormones.
Also, if abs come at the cost of your mental health or you find yourself feeling preoccupied with fat loss, take a step back and ease off for a little while. Fuelling your body well with regular exercise, enough sleep and minimising stress is far more important than any body fat percentile.
2. You can’t spot-reduce body fat
Let’s get one thing straight, right away. You can’t spot reduce belly fat, or target a specific area where you want to lose fat. When you reduce body fat, you’ll lose it from all over, not one specific place. Similarly, no one exercise is going to torch stomach fat specifically. Your diet, stress levels and sleep play just as (if not more) important role in your body being able to effectively lose fat.
3. Focus on nutrition
The old adage is true though: you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, so be mindful about how you’re fuelling your fat loss too.
Tarik Belalij, personal trainer and nutritionist at Everyone Active Leisure Centre suggests focusing on the following food groups:
- Nutrient-rich vegetables: kale, spinach, collard greens
- Lean protein: turkey, chicken or tofu
- Unprocessed carbohydrates: potatoes, bananas, rice and quinoa
4. If you must, calculate a safe calorie deficit
There are multiple elements to losing belly fat and none of them has anything to do with crash dieting or unsafe eating protocols. Instead, calculating a safe calorie deficit that supports your lifestyle (this can be anywhere between 200 and 500 calories below how many calories your body needs for maintenance) is the key to safe and sustainable fat loss.
Creating a calorie deficit through your diet is much more reliable than trying to create the same gap with exercise. Use our calorie deficit calculator to find out what that is for you (it’s different for everyone so no peaking at each other’s answers):
NEAT exercise (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) makes up more of your total daily energy expenditure (aka how many calories you burn) than your gym workout or home workout. This means making sure you keep your daily movement high throughout the day instead of just when you’re getting on your exercise mat or on the treadmill is crucially important.
Forms of NEAT exercise include doing household chores, walking your dog, playing with your kids, strolling around the park with a podcast or choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. It’s basically anything you do that doesn’t count as demarcated exercise.
This will ensure you maintain muscle mass while you continue to lose weight. Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue which means the more muscle you have on your body the more calories you burn at rest (read: without doing anything).
What are the best exercises to tone your stomach if you’re a beginner?
If this is the first time you’re focusing on stomach exercises, you should gradually increase the intensity of the movements you do. Basically, you shouldn’t be attempting any single-arm plank variations if you’re falling to your knees within 10 seconds when doing a standard plank.
If the move is too difficult or advanced for you, the chances are that your body will overcompensate elsewhere and throw your form off. Not good.
Instead, try and get to grips with these basic moves – all included below – before progressing onto the trickier exercises:
- Dead bugs
- High plank – with knees on the floor
- Forearm plank – with knees on the floor
Best exercises to tone your stomach without equipment
Try adding the following stomach exercises onto the end of a lower-body workout or, if you’re after a core-based session, compile them into the stomach workout of your wildest dreams.
1. Scissor legs
- Lie flat with your legs together and arms by your sides (don’t get too comfy) then roll your legs overhead until you can place your palms flat against the back of your lower back.
- Balance evenly on the backs of your shoulders and reach your right leg forward on a high diagonal and left leg back in opposition without lowering then roll back down and repeat on the other side.
2. Straight-legged sit-up
- Lie on your back and put your hands behind your head. Engage your core by tensing, as opposed to sucking in.
- Slowly lift your upper body off the floor, keeping your back flat, until you reach upright. Return to laying and repeat.
3. Suitcase sit-ups
- Lay back on your mat with your knees at a 90-degree angle off of the floor and hands placed either side of your ears.
- Extend your legs out straight as you lower your upper body to the floor, then crunch them back in again, bringing your knees towards your chest.
4. Supine leg circles
- Lie flat on the mat with arms by your side.
- Lift your legs up to 90 degrees and, using your abdominal muscles, perform slow, controlled circles. Remember to keep your lower back in contact with the floor.
5. V-sit hold
- Sit up straight with your knees bent, feet on the floor and arms extended in front.
- Lean back and extend your legs up so your body creates a V shape. Hold. And yep, hold some more…
6. Bicycle crunch
- Lie down with your head and shoulders raised, hands behind your head and legs in a tabletop position.
- Bring your right elbow to meet your left knee while straightening your right leg at a 45-degree angle, keeping your lower back in contact with the ground at all times.
7. Reverse crunch
- Lay flat on your back with your legs bent and hinge your knees towards your torso.
- Bring your legs back down to straight without dropping your feet to the floor, keeping your lower back in contact with the floor.
8. Dead bug
- Lie on your back with your arms above your shoulders and legs in a tabletop position.
- Keeping your arms straight, stable and strong, alternate lowering and lifting each leg, ensuring your lower back remains in firm contact with the floor.
- Lie face up, legs extended and lifted off the ground, and arms stretched out behind you.
- Crunch your legs towards your chest and bring your arms forward to travel past your feet.
- Lower back and repeat.
10. Bear crawl
- Begin in a wide push-up position then, keeping the distance between your hands and feet, walk your left hand and right foot forward at the same time. A bit confusing, we know.
- Do the same with your right hand and left foot. Growl.
11. Plank reach
- Starting in the forearm plank position, raise and straighten your right arm, and hold it so that it’s parallel to the rest of your body.
- Lower to the starting position, then repeat with your other arm raised.
12. Forearm plank
- From a push-up position, bend your elbows and rest your weight on your forearms.
- Keeping your body in a straight line, brace your core and hold for 30 seconds. That’s one set.
13. High plank
- Get into a high plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders, core braced, bum tight and feet together. Hold.
14. Side plank
- Lean on the right side of your body in a straight line from your head to your feet, with your arms bent and your elbow directly beneath your shoulders.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the left.
15. Plank jacks
- Get into a high plank position with your feet together. Keeping your hands firmly on the floor jump your feet out to each side.
- Jump feet back in. That’s one rep. Repeat.
16. High plank with knee to elbow
- Get into a high plank.
- Alternate bringing your left knee to your left elbow and your right knee to your right elbow.
17. Thread the needle
- Lie in a side plank position with your arm extended to the ceiling.
- Lower your arm, ‘threading’ through below your hip and extend back up. Keep your hips up and high!
18. Russian twist
- Lie on your back, knees raised and bent at 45° with feet hovering just off the floor. Use your abs to raise your torso to a 45° angle with the floor.
- Slowly twist your torso to the right side, keeping your arms straight and raised. Pause and then reverse the twist to repeat on the left side. That’s one rep.
19. Bird dog
- Get into a tabletop position on the floor on your hands and knees, tuck your bum under and engage your core. Raise your right arm until it’s next to your ear while simultaneously lifting your left leg until it’s parallel with the floor.
- Return to the starting position and repeat with the left arm and right leg. That’s one rep. Keeping your core tight will stop you from falling to one side.
20. Commando plank
- Begin in a high plank with your core engaged and your feet hip-width apart. Hold for 30 seconds. Keep your spine neutral.
- Keeping your core engaged, lower your left forearm to the floor, then your right so you’re in a forearm plank.
- With your back flat, push through each arm to return to a high plank. Repeat for 15 seconds, finishing in a high plank.
21. Boat tucks
- From sitting, rock onto your sitting bones, leaning back with your torso and legs outstretched.
- From here, use your core muscles to bring your upper body to almost upright and draw your legs towards your chest. Repeat.
22. Flutter kicks
- Begin lying flat on your back on a mat, palms face-down underneath your glutes. Core engaged, raise both your legs in a straight line until they’re hovering above the floor.
- Keeping your abs braced and legs straight, rapidly kick your legs – right and left alternately – up and down, stopping just above the floor each time. Make sure that your lower back doesn’t lift off the floor at any point.
Best exercises to tone stomach with equipment and weights
Again, there’s no one best exercise to tone your stomach – there are many that will challenge your core in different ways. If you’re comfortable performing abdominal exercises without weight, think about levelling up to using a weight, like a dumbbell or kettlebell.
23. Hanging leg lifts
- Hang from a bar, arms extended – we appreciate this may not be possible if you don’t have a home pull-up bar, but underneath a railing or even a doorframe could be possible.
- Pull your knees up towards your chest, engaging your abs.
- To make this harder, try straigthening your legs when you raise them.
24. Weighted side bend
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand.
- Keeping your core engaged, bend to the left, feeling your waist contract.
- Come back to your starting position, using your core to raise your body up.
- Repeat on the other side.
25. Weighted sit-up
- Lie down on your back. Bend your legs and place your feet firmly on the ground to stabilise your lower body. Hold one weight at either end and extend arms behind your head, with a slight bend in the elbow.
- Curl your upper body all the way up toward your knees, bringing your arms to rest comfortably in front of you. Exhale as you lift.
- Slowly, lower yourself down, returning to your starting point. Inhale as you lower.
26. Weighted Russian twists
- Lie on your back, knees raised and bent at 45-degrees with feet hovering just off the floor and both hands holding the weight above your chest. Use your abs to raise your torso to a 45-degree angle with the floor.
- Slowly twist your torso to the right side, keeping your arms straight and raised. Pause and then reverse the twist to repeat on the left side. That’s one rep.
27. Lateral pulls
- Place a kettlebell or dumbbell near your hands and get into a high plank position, with both hands flat on the floor.
- Engage your core and pull the weight through your arms with your opposite hand, keeping your hips stable. That’s one rep.
- Now, pull the weight back to its starting position, using the opposite hand to where it’s landed.
28. Ab wheel rollouts
- This is a painful one! You’ll need an ab roller and a mat.
- Starting in a plank position, rest your knees on the floor, holding the ab roller in front of your knees.
- Roll the ab roller out, tucking your belly button in and trying not to arch your lower back, and extending as far as you can.
- Roll the ab back towards the starting positiong
- To target your abs from different angles, you can roll in different directions to your left and right.
29. Sliding mountain climbers
- Come in to a high plank position
- Slide one knee in, keeping your foot in contact with the exercise slider so it moves smoothly.
- Glide your knee back to its original position.
- Repeat on the other side and continue alternating.
Tip: it’s better if you do these on a smooth floor, like wood, rather than one which will provide friction, such as carpet, so as to allow the sliders to glide properly.
- Start in a high plank with your tops of your shins on a Swiss ball.
- Contracting your abs, roll the ball towards you, raising your hips upwards towards the ceiling until your upper body is nearly vertical.
- Return to your plank position and repeat.
While technically not a specific exercise that targets and tones your stomach, compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts, when done with proper form and your core is braced, will lead to stronger abs. Breathing deep into your belly and creating pressure from within your core when you do these lifts will also engage and tone your stomach.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, dumbbells resting on your shoulders or holding one dummbell in both hands.
- Send your hips back as you bend your knees, bringing your thighs parallel, or just below, to the floor.
- Your knees can extend past your feet.
- Pause briefly and stand back up
- To make this easier, do bodyweight squats.
Which muscles do you work if you want to tone your stomach?
Your core is more than your muscles running alongside your front of your stomach.
In fact, your core itself is a 3-dimensional ‘box’ shape that includes:
So, when we talk about building a strong core, we’re actually talking about building a strong ‘trunk’.
Your muscles in your core include:
- Pelvic floor muscles: functions to support organs such as your bladder, uterus and intestines.
- Transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis: often referred to as your ‘six-pack’ muscles, they are crucial for functional movement (hinging, bending, twisting) and stability.
- Internal and external obliques: supports respiration and trunk rotation.
- Erector spinae: strengthens your back and provides a stable foundation for rotations.
‘Your core isn’t one muscle; it’s a relationship between a number of muscles that cover your whole trunk, connecting your hips, spine, neck and shoulders,’ explains performance coach Brett Klika. ‘Your rectus abdominis, or ‘six-pack’ muscles, are only part of it.’
Why is a strong core so important?
As mentioned, it pays to look beyond aesthetics and the idea of a ‘flat stomach’ when building up core strength – it’s also a crucial factor in maintaining good overall health and mobility of your body.
‘Some of the strongest people in the world don’t have six-packs, but they can lift a lot or perform tremendous feats of athleticism,’ describes Klika.
A strong core is a major factor in staying free from injury – particularly in your hips and knees, says Michelle Arent, director of training and conditioning at Rutgers Center for Health and Human Performance in the US.
If you’ve not yet tried them, several studies have proven both mat Pilates and reformer Pilates to work wonders for core strength.
I’ve just had a baby. Can I do these exercises to tone my stomach?
As we all know, a woman’s body changes a lot in her lifetime, and most significantly during pregnancy. To that end, stomach exercises that worked for you before, might not work now. You’ll likely have lost a lot of core strength, and getting into postnatal exercise is something that requires hyper-attention to the safety of your postpartum body. Before you try anything, you must get permission from your doctor. That’s a non-negosh, OK?
Once you’ve got the doctor all-clear, PT and postpartum specialist Charlie Launder suggests keeping the following five things front of mind as you jump back in:
- Ensure your trainer is qualified in pre and post-natal training
- Listen to your body
- Make time for rest and recovery
- Get a post-natal physio check-up
- Be confident to say ‘no’ if an exercise doesn’t feel right for you
For more of Launder’s expertise as well as a plethora of post-natal workout wisdom, check out our full post-pregnancy workout guide.