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Ab Exercises for Women

The Dumbbell Core Workout for Tight, Toned Abs

Tighten your abs and strengthen your lower back in two easy steps a day — along with a four-move routine you can complete anywhere with nothing more than a dumbbell and a pillow.

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“Many people believe that their core is simply their abdominal ‘six-pack’ muscles, and to strengthen them, all they need are crunches,” says Teri Jory, Los Angeles–based personal trainer, professional ice skater, fourth-degree black belt and creator of the POISE method and the creator of the following dumbbell core workout. 

The reality of good core work goes much deeper, however. “We have deep inner core muscles that serve as pillars for stabilizing our pelvis and lower back, giving the rest of our body a firm foundation to handle the movements we make throughout the day,” Jory explains. 

Effectively training the myriad muscles that crisscross our abdominal and lower-back region requires attention both inside and outside the gym. Take some time during each day — no matter where you may be, whether it’s school, work, running errands or hanging out at home — and try the following two-step core exercise:

1) First, pull your bellybutton in toward your spine. “This activates your transverse abdominis, which I call your built-in corset,” Jory explains. “Your corset works in harmony with your multifidus muscles that run from your pelvis and low back up to your neck. Think of these as laces that tie your corset and hold your belly muscles in tight by activating them.” 

2) Second, activate your pelvic floor muscles. “The pelvic floor muscles look like a hammock running from the front of your pubic bone to the back of your tailbone,” Jory says. “They hold your internal organs up and together. You activate them by doing the same thing you’d do when trying to stop the flow of urine — squeeze tight.”

By pulling in your bellybutton and squeezing your pelvic floor muscles simultaneously for five to 10 seconds, four to five times per day, you’ll start your journey toward a strong and healthy core. Add the following resistance-training workout designed by Jory — which just requires one 5- to 10-pound dumbbell and a regular sleeping pillow — one to two times a week for optimal conditioning and results.

Exercise Sets Reps
Weighted Curl-Up 3 10+10 pulse reps
Weighted Arms-Extended Curl-Up 3 10+10 pulse reps
Weighted Oblique Twist 2 50
Core Refresh 2 25

Exercise How-Tos

Weighted Curl-Up

Sit on the floor and place the pillow behind you, your glutes on the edge of it so it doesn’t move. (The pillow is there for support as well as to extend your core.) Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Cradle the dumbbell with both hands, one on each end of the dumbbell, bending your elbows to hold it on your chest, where it will remain throughout the move. While activating your inner core — sucking in your belly and squeezing your pelvic floor muscles — drop your shoulders, round your back and roll backward over the pillow as far as you can, then slowly curl your body back upward to the start. After 10 controlled reps, hold the down position on the final rep and do 10 small “pulse” reps as a finisher.

Weighted Arms-Extended Curl-Up

You’ll use the same start position as the curl-up, except that instead of keeping the dumbbell at your chest, you’ll extend it out in front of you, arms straight. As with the curl-up, round your back and roll back over the pillow as far as you can, keeping your core tight and arms extended up toward the ceiling as you do so, which engages more of your core and torso to stabilize you. On the final rep of each set, finish with 10 pulses.

Weighted Oblique Twist

Starting in the same position as the arm-extended curl-up, hold the dumbbell with a hand on each end, arms extended overhead. Twist your torso toward the left side as you bring the dumbbell to your left hip, then slowly and under full control, twist to the right until the dumbbell is at your right hip. Again, keep your core tight and activated. 

Core Refresh

Put the dumbbell aside and, with your feet still planted on the floor and your knees bent, lie back over the pillow, putting your arms at your sides with your palms facing the floor and fingers together. Release your core and pelvic floor muscles, fully relaxing them. Next, raise your arms straight up toward the ceiling, then lower them back to your sides, repeating this sequence for 25 reps. “Think of this like a cool-down for the core,” Jory adds. “The arm movement allows your core to organically relax and engage naturally.”