15 of the Best Calisthenic Core and Abs Workouts You Can Do at Home

The Best Calisthenic Core and Abs Workouts
  • Fix lower back pain and posture
  • Improve form, balance and stability - useful for squats, bench press, pull ups etc.
  • Build strength for impressive feats of strength like the back lever, front lever, human flag and planche

And the best thing about calisthenics exercises is that they can be done at home with little to no equipment. In other words, you can start the following exercises right now! These exercises will also target all areas of your core muscles: your upper and lower abdominals (rectus abdominis) and obliques.

Ready to build superhuman core and abs strength? We’ve listed the best calisthenics core and abs workouts down below.

1. Plank

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Overall core strength

If planks are not part of your exercise routine, it’s time to start including them. Planks are a fundamental core strength exercise. They activate all areas of your abdominal muscles, in addition to your shoulders, traps, quads, glutes and hamstrings. A good all-round static hold!

While planks are a popular exercise seen in gyms the world over, they are often performed wrong. But here’s how to plank correctly.

1.1 How to Plank?

To hold a plank, find a comfortable floor space (ideally on an exercise mat or carpet). From a prone lying position, elevate your stomach and legs off the floor so that you are propped up on your forearms and tiptoes. Your elbows should be underneath your shoulders, bent at 90 degrees.

Clench your fists, maintain a straight line from your neck to your heels and squeeze your abdominal muscles as hard as you can - as the key to an effective plank hold is active engagement from start to finish.

Avoid arching your back or letting your hips sink. Not only do these plank no-nos look bad, but they will reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.

Increase difficulty: Bring your forearms further in front of you.

Reduce difficulty: Instead of tiptoes, perform the plank on your knees.

2. Crunches

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Upper abdominals

Crunches are a great beginner exercise for achieving solid upper abs and are simple enough for everyone to do correctly.

Crunches are similar to sit ups, but with a reduced range of motion. While sit ups involve bringing your body up into a seated position with your knees bent, crunches have a greater focus on abdominal contraction. For this reason, they are often considered the more effective exercise.

2.1 How to Do Crunches?

Lie down on a comfortable surface with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. With your hands behind your head or crossed at your chest, bring your chest forwards and squeeze your abdominals as hard as you can, while trying to get as much of your lower back off the floor as possible.

A useful tip? Imagine that you’re trying to touch your chin to your belly button.

Increase difficulty: Hold a dumbbell or weight plate on your chest.

Reduce difficulty: Throw your arms forwards with each rep for momentum.

3. Reverse Crunches

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Lower abdominals

Reverse crunches are the opposite of regular crunches; instead of bringing your chest up to your knees, you bring your knees up into your chest. This exercise effectively targets your lower abdominals.

As another simple ab exercise, reverse crunches can be done back-to-back with regular crunches for beginners looking to build well-rounded abs.

3.1 How to Do Reverse Crunches?

Lie down on a comfortable surface with your back flat and your head resting on the floor. With your arms resting at your side, drive your knees into your chest and squeeze your core as hard as you can.

To get the most out of the exercise, lift your bottom and lower back off the floor as much as possible as you bring your knees up.

Increase difficulty: Wear ankle weights or unbend your knees at a 90-degree angle.

Reduce difficulty: Reduce the range of motion.

4. Side Bridges

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Obliques

Side bridges are the perfect beginner exercise for hitting your obliques, or transversus abdominis. These are the muscles visible at either side of your abs, which create the highly sought-after “V Cut” or “Adonis Belt”. As obliques complement abs for overall aesthetics, you want to make sure you’re not neglecting them.

Another bonus of the side bridge is that it also targets your shoulders and biceps.

4.1 How to Do Side Bridges?

Find a comfortable floor surface. Rest on your forearm (elbow bent at 90 degrees) with your body facing to the side and your feet extended and placed together. Lower your hips until they touch the floor, then bring your hips back up as high as possible, while maintaining a squeezed core.

You can place your free arm on your thigh, or hold it in the air in line with your body.

Increase difficulty: Elevate your legs on a stool or perform the exercise on an extended hand, instead of on your forearm.

Reduce difficulty: Place your free arm on the floor to assist with balance.

5. Hollow Body Hold

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Overall core strength

The hollow body hold is a popular calisthenics exercise that builds raw core strength and stability. It’s similar to the plank, being a static hold exercise. For gymnasts and calisthenics athletes, it’s also used as a progression towards advanced core exercises like the dragon flag and front lever.

The hollow body hold is almost the same as a “boat hold” - a common yoga pose - except that it involves keeping the body in a more lengthened position.

5.1 How to Do Hollow Body Hold?

Lie down flat on your back on a comfortable surface. With your feet together (toes pointed) and your hands extended behind your head, elevate your legs and upper back so that only your bottom and lower back are touching the floor. Squeeze your core and hold this position for as long as possible.

Increase difficulty: Hold a dumbbell or weight plate behind your head, or wear ankle weights.

Reduce difficulty: Instead of extended behind your head, rest your arms at your side.

6. Flutter Kicks

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Lower abs and overall core strength

Flutter kicks are another great exercise for targeting your lower abs and building your core strength. Just like crunches and sit ups, flutter kicks are an ab exercise used in army training.

Think of flutter kicks as a hollow body hold, except that you are kicking your legs in the same way you would while doing a front crawl swim. Flutter kicks can be a beginner or intermediate exercise, depending on the speed the exercise is performed.

6.1 How to Do Flutter Kicks?

Lie down flat on your back on a comfortable surface. With your arms on the floor by your side and your upper back slightly raised, lift your legs slightly at around a 20 to 30-degree angle, then kick as though you are doing a front crawl swim. Make sure to maintain a squeezed core.

Increase difficulty: Increase the speed of the exercise.

Reduce difficulty: Decrease the speed of the exercise.

7. Mountain Climbers

Difficulty level: Beginner

Targets: Lower abs and overall core strength

Mountain climbers are an all-round core exercise for building abs, increasing core strength and burning fat at the same time. This is because mountain climbers are considered a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercise - a type of training regimen that focuses on increasing your heart rate to burn fat fast.

At the same time, mountain climbers also provide an effective shoulder workout!

7.1 How to Do Mountain Climbers?

Get down into a plank or push up position, but with your arms straight and fully extended (your hands should be underneath your shoulders). In this position, “sprint” on the spot while bringing your knees into your chest.

You can bring your knees up in a straight motion to target your abs, or towards the elbow opposite from your knee to target your obliques.

Increase difficulty: Increase the speed of the exercise.

Reduce difficulty: Decrease the speed of the exercise.

8. In and Outs

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Targets: Upper and lower abs

Not the fast-food franchise - although this exercise will help you to shed those unwanted calories.

In and outs are a regular crunch and reverse crunch put together - a combination guaranteed to get your core fired up. This exercise can also be a HIIT exercise if done with intensity, providing a good contraction of the upper and lower abdominal muscles for a fast route to rock-hard abs.

8.1 How to Do In and Outs?

Sit down on a comfortable flat surface with your feet lifted off the floor. With your arms behind your head or held across your chest, bring your knees into your chest and crunch at the same time, while contracting your core as hard as you can with each rep.

Increase difficulty: Wear ankle weights, or use a resistance band (one end wrapped over your thighs, the other end fastened to a door or bedpost).

Reduce difficulty: Place your hands on the floor to assist with balance.

9. Lying Leg Raises

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Targets: Lower abs

The lower abdominals are the hardest to make visible. Why? In general, it’s harder to lose fat around the lower belly. It’s a common problem, so you’re not alone. The good news is that there are exercises for lower abs that you can do more definition on that area. 

Lying leg raises, for example, are an effective exercise for targeting the lower abs.

It’s almost the same movement as a reverse crunch, except that you are raising extended legs.

9.1 How to Do Lying Leg Raises?

Lie down on a comfortable flat surface with your head resting on the floor and your arms by your side. With straight legs and your toes pointed, raise your legs so that your feet go above your head. Just like reverse crunches, aim to lift your bottom and lower back off the floor as much as possible.

Increase difficulty: Extend your arms behind your head, or wear ankle weights.

Reduce difficulty: Bend your legs slightly.

10. Russian Twists

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Targets: Obliques

Russian twists are a go-to exercise for building bulging obliques, included in home workouts, HIIT workouts and calisthenics routines everywhere.

What’s great about Russian twists is that the twist motion of the exercise specifically targets the direction in which the muscle fibers run within the obliques, making it one of the most effective oblique exercises you can do.

10.1 How to Do Russian Twists?

Sit on a comfortable flat surface with your legs extended and lifted off the floor. Maintaining this position, twist your waist from side to side while contracting your core as hard as you can. A good tip is to turn your shoulders - not just your head - and bring each elbow back as far as possible.

Increase difficulty: Hold a dumbbell or weight plate. 

Reduce difficulty: Bend your knees slightly, or do the exercise with your feet on the floor.

11. Windshield Wipers

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Targets: Obliques

While Russian twists involve turning your torso, windshield wipers involve keeping your torso still and turning your legs - another effective exercise for giving your obliques a real burn. It's a weirdly named exercise, we know, but it's easy to see why they are called windshield wipers while you are doing them!

11.1 How to Do Windshield Wipers?

Lie down on a comfortable flat surface with your head resting on the floor and your arms by your side. In this position, raise your legs up to 90 degrees, then twist your core, allowing your legs to fall without touching the floor. Repeat the movement on the other side. As you turn, use your arms for balance.

Increase difficulty: Wear ankle weights.

Reduce difficulty: Do the exercise with your knees slightly tucked.

12. Hanging Leg Raises

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Targets: Lower abs and overall core strength

Hanging leg raises are a harder version of the standard leg raise, performed while hanging from a pull up bar or any kind of secure bar that can be used safely. As it involves a greater stretch of the abdominals, while fighting gravity to bring your legs up with each rep without excessive swinging, hanging leg raises are an intermediate-level exercise.

If you can hang from a bar for a good amount of time, this exercise is a game-changer for your routine that will have your lower abs looking bigger in no time.

12.1 How to Do Hanging Leg Raises?

While hanging from a pull bar or any bar that is safely secured, raise your legs to a 90-degree angle as you would with a lying leg raise. Bring your legs down slowly and squeeze your core to avoid swinging, which will hinder and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.

Increase difficulty: Wear ankle weights.

Reduce difficulty: Tuck your knees in while performing the exercise (hanging knee raises).

13. Ab Rollout

Difficulty level: Advanced

Targets: Overall core strength

Now we move on to the advanced core exercises, starting with the ab rollout or ab wheel rollout.

The ab rollout is not easy without having good foundational core strength. But, as a result, this also makes it one of the best ab exercises you can do. This exercise is like a dynamic plank, providing an intense stretch of the abdominal muscles that tears muscle fibers and kick-starts hypertrophy for shredded-looking abs.

13.1 How to Do Ab Rollout?

On your knees while gripping an ab wheel with a pronated grip (knuckles up), roll the wheel out in front of you while maintaining straight arms. Go as far as you can, squeezing your core the whole time, before returning to the original position for one rep. 

Similarly with the plank, avoid arching your back or letting your hips sink.

Increase difficulty: Do the exercise on your toes instead of your knees, or use gymnastic rings for decreased stability.

Reduce difficulty: Reduce the distance that you roll forwards.

14. L-Sit

Difficulty level: Advanced

Targets: Overall core strength

A staple static hold for gymnasts and calisthenics athletes, the l-sit is an advanced core exercise that also comes with a lot of benefits. In addition to building superhuman core strength, the l-sit will help to increase your straight arm strength and hip flexor strength.

The l-sit is versatile; it can be performed on the floor, on parallel bars or while hanging from a pull up bar. As it involves lifting your entire bodyweight, a good foundation of upper body strength is required to perform the exercise.

14.1 How to L-Sit?

On the floor, using parallettes or on an elevated surface such as two stable chairs, push down to lift your legs and body off the floor in a perfect “L” pose. Hold the position as long as you can, or bring each leg in and out for reps.

Increase difficulty: Wear ankle weights.

Reduce difficulty: Perform a one leg l-sit, or perform the l-sit with one foot on the floor.

15. Dragon Flag

Difficulty level: Advanced

Targets: Overall core strength

The dragon flag is one of the most famous ab and core exercises around - due to the fact that it was invented, and subsequently named after, Bruce Lee. It’s for that reason that it is also considered the most difficult ab exercise to pull off and master. But if you are strong enough to do it, it's an exercise that will definitely turn heads in the gym.

The dragon flag involves raising and lowering your entire body in a straight up and down movement with only your upper back touching the floor (or gym bench) as you hold on to a bar or bench, behind your head, with an iron grip.

Considering the sheer force it places on your abdominals as you fight gravity to keep your legs from plummeting to the floor, it’s an impressive feat that requires significant core strength.

15.1 How to Dragon Flag?

Lying down, gripping a vertical or horizontal bar behind your head, lift your body off the floor in a straight line - reaching around 70 degrees - before lowering in a similarly controlled manoeuvre. Without your legs, feet or lower back touching the ground, pull your body back up to a vertical position to complete one rep.

Increase difficulty: If you really want to… Wear ankle weights or hold the dragon flag for an extra second or two at the bottom portion of the exercise.

Reduce difficulty: Perform a tucked dragon flag, or a half dragon flag (eccentric/negative phase only).

Final Thoughts

Now that you know the best workouts for a strong core and six-pack, you might be wondering how many exercises you should do, and how many reps and sets?

An effective method for training abs is with timed sets, performed daily. For example, do as many reps of the above beginner or intermediate ab exercises as you can for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of rest. Repeat this back-to-back for an overall time of five minutes (five ab exercises in total).

As you get stronger and fitter, you can then decrease the rest time (15 seconds of rest, 45 seconds of reps) and increase the overall time of the workout, from five minutes to ten minutes, ten minutes to fifteen minutes, and so on.

It’s also important to note that quality beats quantity when it comes to achieving bulletproof, bulging abs. In other words: 15 high-quality reps beat 50 poor reps performed with low effort. Squeeze and engage your core with every rep!

Lastly, to make sure your ab muscles really pop out, keep your diet in check to maintain a low body fat percentage. This means ditching the takeaways, soft drinks and sugary snacks, as well as maintaining a calorie deficit.

Abs become visible at the 15% mark, gaining more definition the lower you decrease your body fat.

Kevin Harris
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