Your Best Abs: My Top Core Exercises

Who doesn’t want a tight and lean midsection? You see it plastered on the cover of every fitness magazine…”Get Flat Abs!” It takes consistency, discipline, hard work, and a great set of exercises!

Toned abs not only look amazing but they help aid and support almost every movement we do. Your entire core is made up of not only your “six-pack” abs, but your obliques, low back, hip flexors, and your deep abdominal muscles. Having a strong core will improve stability, balance, posture, and lower your risk of injury.

For your best abs, focus on overall core strengthening and training your abs from many different angles. There are hundreds of exercises, but here are my top choices that I incorporate into my workouts. I prefer to do a lot of supersets (doing two exercises back to back) as well as using resistance such as medicine balls, bands, etc. I try to keep my core workouts different and challenging. I like to switch the order and use different combinations to keep my abs progressing!

With every exercise and workout, preform these with the correct form and according to your fitness level. If you have a prior injury, modify (if necessary) and work up to a more advanced level when you are ready 🙂

Don’t forget the other pieces to the puzzle: CLEAN EATING and CARDIO! Abs are made in the gym, but revealed in the kitchen 😉

Hanging Leg Raises

One of the most difficult yet rewarding exercises! It is very easy for your quads/hip flexors to take over during this exercise; the key is to focus on engaging your entire core before raising your legs. Keeping your upper body relaxed and the rest of the your body still, slowly raise your legs until parallel to the ground. No swinging! I also will do these with my knees bent (a modification from the straight legs).

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Slider Knee Tucks

I LOVE this piece of fitness “equipment”! Okay…wanna know a secret?? They are actually furniture movers! Yes, I got them at Bed Bath and Beyond and they are a wonderful tool for core strengthening. Knee Tucks can be preformed with your feet on the ball as well, but I prefer them with the Sliders. (You may also try using towels on hardwood floors…!)

Start in a pushup position with a flat back and feet on the sliders. Engage your abs and slide your feet in towards your chest, focusing on crunching those abs. Slowly slide out to the beginning. Modification: Try doing them one leg at a time (alternating).

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Bench Hip Lifts

I love preforming hip lifts off of a bench rather than the floor; I get a better range of motion and can have more control. Lay flat and grab the bench behind your head and raise your legs to perpendicular to the ground. Tuck your abs in and raise your legs straight up off the bench. Try to avoid swinging your legs and raising them back towards your upper body. You can also try keeping your knees bent, turning this more into a reverse crunch.

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V-Ups

This is an advanced core exercise but one of my favorites! Start on your back with arms and legs extended. At the same time (takes balance ;)) sit up and reach your arms and legs together ( your body will form the letter V). With control, return to the starting position.

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Bicycle Crunches

This exercise will not only target your rectus abdominus (your “six-pack” abs) but will only strengthen your obliques from the twisting motion. Placing your hands behind your head for support, raise both legs parallel to the ground. Keep one leg extended while crunching the other knee towards your chest. Raise your shoulder blades off the ground and extend the opposite elbow to the knee. Hold for a count and then slowly switch sides. Be careful to not rush through this! Aim to bring your shoulder blades off the ground as your crunch up AND twist to that opposite knee.

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Seated Weighted Russian Twists

This is a great exercise to work your entire core, obliques, and low back. You can use any weighted object (medicine ball, dumbbell, etc.) Focus on keeping your back straight, chest out, and your hips still. Twist the weight side to side and concentrate on tucking in your abs and engaging your obliques. The twisting motion should come from your abs and not your upper body. You can make this easier by keeping your feet on the ground.

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Elevated Side Plank Raises

These always leave my obliques nice and sore! I like using a small box or step in order to get a larger range of motion. Stabilize with your forearm under your shoulder and feet apart (not stacked). Raise your hips off the ground as high as you can while keeping your body in a straight line. Lower your hips all the way to the ground before repeating. Modifications: Begin in a modified side plank, balancing on stacked knees (Photo 1). As you get stronger, balance on your forearm and feet with legs fully extended (Photo 2).

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Plank (with knee tucks):

The PLANK is one of the BEST exercises for core conditioning! There are many variations to this (like the knee tucks). The plank will strengthen your entire core! The basic plank starts with your body straight and resting your weight on your forearms. While keeping your elbows under your shoulders, slowly lift your hips off the floor and balance on your toes and forearms. Keep your feet shoulder width apart and your neck in a neutral position. It is very important to keep your body in a straight line; avoid letting your hips raise up or sink too low. Be consciously engaging your core muscles and drawing in your abs towards your spine. Once you are stable, drive one knee into your chest, actively crunching your core but without rotating or lifting your hips. In a controlled manner, continue alternating sides. You may also try adding in leg lifts, arm lifts, etc…lots of possibilities!

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High Plank Birddog

This exercise will strengthen your deep abdominals (transverse muscles), low back, and even shoulders while working balance and coordination as well! (This is an advanced version of the standard Birddog exercise, where you are stable on your knees instead of your feet). Get into a “high plank” position, stabilizing with straight arms, legs extended and your body is in straight line. Focus on keeping your hands under your chest and not dropping/raising your hips. Contract your core, and slowly extend opposite arm and leg until parallel to the ground. Be careful to not rotate your hips to either side and hold for a count before slowly switching sides. IMG_1389 IMG_1390

Prone Cobras

This exercise will help strengthen your low back muscles. Strengthening your low back is important, as it can help prevent injury and create balance between your abdominal muscles. Prone means facing down; extend your body with straight arms and legs on the floor. In a controlled manner, lift your chest off the mat (it is okay if your legs come off the ground a bit). Keep your head looking down and your neck in a neutral position.

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Carrot Raisin Spice Mini Cakes

This is a delicious recipe that can be made into muffins, cupcakes (with or without frosting) or a cake! There are multiple possibilities 🙂 Super moist, tons of flavor, and a sneaky way to eat your carrots 🙂

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup vanilla whey protein powder
  • 2 tbsp ground flaxseed
  • 2 tbsp coconut flour*
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2c cup egg whites
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce (could sub greek yogurt?)
  • 1/4 cup carrot puree (I used baby food!)
  • 1/2 cup shredded carrots
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup sugar free maple syrup
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup raisins
  • 2-3 tbsp Stevia**
  • 1/2 tsp butter extract (optional)
  • 1/4 to 1/3 crushed/chopped walnuts (optional)

*You can find coconut flour at most health food stores or online. If you do not have it, you could sub more flaxseed, oat flour, or possibly almond flour. However, you might need to increase the amount by 1-2 tbsp AND/OR decrease the egg whites. Coconut flour bakes differently… it creates very moist/dense recipes 🙂

** Add this last, and taste-test the batter first…It might be sweet enough for you beforehand 🙂

Blend all the dry ingredients together, and then stir in the wet (ingredients) until it is a smooth batter (should not be too runny). Gently stir in the shredded carrots and raisins until it is well blended.

Pour into individual sprayed muffin tins/silicone liners (or sprayed pyrex baking dish). Bake at 350F for about 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Healthy Cream Cheese Frosting:

  • 2 tbsp whipped cream cheese
  • 2 tbsp plain greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Stevia, to taste (I personally used 2 or 3 tbsp…I wanted it sweet!)
  • Optional: 1/2 scoop vanilla protein powder (whey or casein would work; casein would make it nice and thick!)

Mix all the ingredients well and “frost” the mini cakes once they are cooled.

I had these without frosting as muffins, and also with as “dessert”…SO GOOD either way!!!

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Berry Coconut Loaf

Another delicious, nutritious, protein-filled bread 🙂 This is similar to the Cherry Coconut Loaf, but with a few changes (and different berries of course).

Ingredients: (Makes 10 slices)

  • 1/2 cup coconut flour*
  • 1/2 cup vanilla whey protein powder
  • 1/2 cup Stevia (more or less depending on your taste)
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • few dashes of salt
  • 2/3 cup egg whites (I used the ones from the carton)
  • 1/2 cup applesauce***
  • 1/2 cup nonfat plain greek yogurt
  • 2-3 tbsp unsweetened cartoned almond (or coconut) milk
  • 1 tbsp coconut extract
  • 1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tbsp oil of choice (preferably coconut)**
  • 3/4-1 cup fresh or frozen berries of choice (I used blackberry…but blueberry or raspberry also sound good!)
  • Optional: 2 tbsp unsweetened coconut flakes (1 tbsp for topping)

*You can find coconut flour at health food stores (like Sprouts/Whole Foods) and possibly online. Coconut flour bakes completely different than others (oat, almond, whole wheat, etc). It soaks up a lot of liquid and can be very dense. I have not tried this recipe with any flour. If you do want to experiment, try reducing the liquid…but I am not promising anything!

**The oil can technically be omitted, however it just adds moisture and the right consistency 🙂

***You could use all applesauce and omit the greek yogurt, or vice versa. However, the yogurt will provide more protein and less sugar 🙂

 

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Add in your wet ingredients and mix thoroughly. Gently stir in your berries (or drop into the batter in the loaf pan). Pour your batter into your silicone loaf pan (or well sprayed pan). Top with the remaining 1 tbsp of coconut flakes.

Bake at 350F for 40-45 minutes. The edges should be slightly browned and the center should be fully cooked, not still wet 🙂

Let it cool for awhile before removing from the pan and cutting into slices. It will still be very moist!

Nutrition Facts (for 10 slices):

Per slice: 90 calories   9g carbs   9g protein  1.5g fat

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Thai Peanut Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Delicious, healthy, and nutritious…a score in my book! I have never tried making lettuce wraps at home because I thought they would be too difficult and required a ton of ingredients…but not this recipe! This took under 30 minutes from start to finish, and I got two thumbs up from my family (my food jury :)) They were gone in 2 days!

Makes 8-10 lettuce cups

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups chopped broccoli slaw (usually by the pre-packaged salad mixes) 
  • 1/2 of a red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup scallions, chopped (about 3-4)
  • 1 can water chestnuts, rinsed, drained and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground ginger (or freshly grated)
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 package (I think it was 15-16oz) of lean (or extra lean) ground chicken
  • 2-3 tbsp unsalted raw peanuts (halved or chopped)
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro

 

  • 3 tbsp Thai Peanut Sauce
  • 3 tbsp Braggs Aminos (health food stores…substitute for soy sauce)
  • 3 tbsp Rice Vinegar (unflavored)
  • 2 tbsp unsweetened almond milk

Optional:

  • 1-2 stalks of finely chopped celery
  • 1-2 tbsp (toasted) sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup cooked edamame

Substitutions:

-Use ground lean/extra lean turkey instead of chicken

-Omit the Thai peanut sauce/sub Braggs Aminos/rice vinegar and add 1-2 tsp sriracha (will be spicy!)

-Use chopped cashews for peanuts

-Use finely diced carrots/cabbage instead of broccoli slaw (the slaw is the easier way though!)

 

Finely chop all your veggies and mix together in a large bowl. Saute the veggies with the ginger and garlic in a (very) large pan/skillet (Don’t forget your spray!)

Once the veggies are softened, add your ground chicken to the mix. ***Another option would be to cook the chicken separately, but I found cooking them together was easier). Break up the chicken so it crumbles and mix thoroughly with the veggies.

When the chicken is fully browned and mixed with the veggies, add the wet ingredients for the sauce (Thai peanut, rice vinegar, Braggs Aminos and almond milk). Feel free to add more of these if you wish…Turn the heat to a low setting in order for the chicken/veggie mixture to simmer and mix with the sauce for a few minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the peanuts and cilantro. Let it cool for a few minutes while you get the lettuce cups ready. Rinse the lettuce thoroughly and break apart each leaf. Fill each cup with about 1/2 cup of the chicken/veggie mixture. Top with more Thai Peanut sauce, Braggs Aminos, or Sriracha if desired, and enjoy!

lettuce wraps