Let’s face it: Standard abs exercises like sit-ups and crunches are a little archaic and extremely mundane—not to mention, no amount of crunches or ab moves will turn your stomach into J. Lo’s. A lot more goes into what your stomach looks like besides muscles themselves (see: genetics, diet, body shape, etc.). And, while we’ve been to covet six-pack abs, you can be strong and fit and love your body without them, That said, everyone can benefit from a stronger midsection—which, yes, might result in a more firm stomach. If you want to build a strong core (and get all the non-aesthetic benefits that come with it) consider these tips and unique abs exercises that’ll help you get there.
7 Tips for a Firm Stomach
1. Choose Variety Over Reps
Before you get started, top trainers, instructors and sports-medicine doctors are doing some firm stomach myth-busting, For best results, mix up the order of your abs moves during each workout, and change your routine every three to four weeks. (This 12-minute at-home firm stomach routine is another option to toss into the rotation.) “Alternating your workout is more important than cranking out 100 crunches every day,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery. “Perform 15 to 20 reps of each exercise, then move on.”
2. Forget the “Upper Vs. Lower Abs” Idea
It’s all one sheath of muscle: the rectus abdominis. “If you feel the upper abs working, it doesn’t mean the lower abs aren’t engaged,” says Alycea Ungaro, owner of Real Pilates in New York City and author of The Pilates Promise. Where you feel it depends on the move’s anchor point. For example, leg lifts engage more of the lower section since your upper body is against the floor.
3. Engage Your Pelvic Floor
To target your abs more effectively, strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. “These muscles assist your deepest abs in doing exercises correctly,” says Olson. Actively engage them by gently pulling your belly button toward your back. Place one hand on your abdomen; if you feel your stomach pushing out while you do sit-ups, you’re pushing the pelvis down rather than pulling muscles up and in, cheating your abs of the full workout. Keep muscles contracted when working abs. Strong pelvic-floor muscles also help you rediscover your ab strength post-pregnancy.
4. Work Your Abs, Not Your Neck
Pretend you have an orange tucked under your chin to release the tension during firm stomach moves such as the bicycle crunch. Or press your fingertips into the base of your neck and give yourself a nice neck massage while curling up. Another strategy: To stop neck muscles from tensing, place your tongue firmly on the roof of your mouth as you crunch. (Related: These Are the Ultimate Ab Workout Moves, According To Trainers)
5. Uncover a Firm Stomach with the Help of Cardio
All the exercises in the world mean nothing if there’s a layer of fat the ab muscles lying underneath. If you really want to see your abs, aim for about 45 minutes of cardio to burn calories, three to five times a week. “You need to burn body fat through regular aerobic exercise to see strong abs,” says Olson. (Psst…here are 7 reasons you might not be losing belly fat.)
6. Make Abs Your Transition Workout
When you have time to do strength training and cardio in one workout, try to sandwich 10 minutes of ab work in between. Cool down from cardio, hit the mat for stretches, reverse curls and planks (quite possibly the most versatile of all firm stomach moves). This is a great way to shift the focus from cardio to strength training; it helps you zero in on your abs and core strength as you lift.
7. Know When to Rest
You can tell you’ve worked your abs well when they’re sore the next day. Like other muscles, the abs respond best to intense training every two days. Work them too hard, too often, and you’ll see minimal progress, says Holland. (Check out how to use active recovery rest days to get the most out of any workout.