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16 ab exercises that won't hurt your neck or back

Put together an effective ab workout at home with these exercises that target your core.
Healthy woman doing plank workout using laptop at home
Planks work your entire core, plus the thighs, arms and back.Julia Amaral / Getty Images stock

You may start an ab routine with the goal of achieving a more toned midsection, but the benefits you can reap go far beyond aesthetics. A stronger core is important for stability, support in everyday movements, maintaining good posture and reducing back pain.

But what makes an effective ab routine? When most people think ab exercises, the first thing that comes to mind is crunches. While crunches can be effective if performed correctly, they are easy to get wrong.

Many people complain of neck or back pain when performing standard exercises like crunches and situps. The positioning of your hands behind your head presents an opportunity for you to pull on your neck, causing strain and also devaluing the exercise. Plus, it's easy to allow your body to recruit other muscles for help. You really need to have quite a strong core already to properly perform a full situp!

The good news is that situps and crunches are just scratching the surface when it comes to moves that target your abdominals. There are lots of effective exercises that strengthen your core. Plus, it’s worthwhile to diversify your workout with different ab exercises to target the core from different angles and create a well-rounded routine that doesn’t get stale.

Here are 16 abdominal exercises from personal trainer and TODAY fitness contributor Stephanie Mansour that you can try at home.

Pelvic Tilt Ab Exercise

Pelvic tilt

Mansour likes to start every ab routine with a pelvic tilt. It's a great exercise to wake up your core and practice engaging the proper muscles before jumping into other ab exercises. Lying on your back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground. Make sure your feet are open as wide as your hips. Reach your arms down toward your feet. Take a deep breath in and feel your low back arch slightly off of the ground. Then exhale as you tilt your pelvis forward and press your low back into the ground. Pull your naval in toward your spine as if you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants. Release and repeat 10 times.


Start on your hands and knees on the mat. Line your shoulders up over your wrists, and make sure your wrists are parallel with the front of the mat. Walk your knees back a few inches. Pull your navel in toward your spine as if there is fire on the mat and you’re trying to pull your stomach away from the fire. Tuck your toes under and lift your legs up off of the ground. Squeeze your quads and reach your heels toward the back of the room. Make sure your shoulders are over your wrists, and that you’re looking a few inches in front of your fingers to keep your head and neck elongated. Hold for 30 seconds.

Side plank

Come into a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists. Pull your naval in toward your spine, and hug your legs together as you bring the left foot to touch the right. Turn onto the right outer edge of the right foot, stacking the left foot on top. Press down through your right hand, keeping it directly underneath your right shoulder, and slowly bring the left hand onto your left hip. Pull the abs in toward the spine and the right hip away from the floor. Extend the left arm straight up to the ceiling, and hold the position for 30-45 seconds before coming through plank and switching sides.

Mountain climbers

Begin in plank position, keeping your back straight, your hips low and your core engaged. Bring your right knee under your chest toward your right elbow. Return your right leg back to plank position; bring your left leg under your chest toward your left elbow. Repeat, alternating your legs and keeping a steady pace. Remember to breathe and concentrate on engaging your abs, glutes and hamstrings.

Bird dog

Get on all fours with your palms directly below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Straighten your left arm straight out in front of you and your right leg out behind you. After that, bend your left elbow and your right knee, crunching your abs, until they touch underneath your stomach. Repeat using your right arm and left leg. Alternate between sides, performing 10 times on each side.

Scissor kicks

Lie on your back with your legs straight up toward the ceiling. Let your arms rest down at your sides. You can also place your hands under your butt for increased stabilization. Squeeze your core and lower both of your legs 6-12 inches down to about a 45-degree angle. Lift one leg up as your lower the other toward the floor. Switch legs. Continue to alternate, moving your legs in a flutter motion. Repeat for about 15 repetitions, and make sure not to speed up as you go.

Side reaches

This move works your lower core muscles. Stand with your feet hips-distance apart and your arms at your sides. Place the right hand on the back of the head like you would for a crunch. Begin moving your torso down toward the left, crunching the left oblique, so that your right elbow reaches up toward the sky. Reach your left hand down toward the ground. Hold this position, squeezing the abs, then switch sides.

Reverse crunches

With your knees bent, squeeze your abs and raise your legs so that your knees are hovering over your hips at a 90-degree angle. Keep your calves parallel to the mat so that your legs are in a table-top position. Engage your core as you lift your hips and knees toward your chest. Think of tilting your pelvis forward. Keep your entire upper body on the ground. Make sure that only the lowest part of your back comes off the ground; nothing higher. Keep the legs in a 90-degree angle throughout the entire movement as you come back down, through table top, and tap the feet on the ground. Repeat the steps, remembering to breathe slowly while squeezing your abdominals.

Windshield wipers

Lie on your back with your arms straight out at your sides forming a "T" shape with your body. Lift your legs off the ground and bend them into a tabletop position with the shins parallel to the floor. From this position, slowly lower your legs to the right hovering a few inches off of the floor, using your abs to control the movement. When your knees get close to the floor, reverse the movement of your legs, moving them back through center and down to the left side of your body. Repeat, moving side to side for a total of 20 reps (10 on each side).

Russian twist

Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet either hovering above the floor or resting on the ground. Tilt your upper body backward to a 45-degree angle (this will feel like you are at the top position of a situp). Hold a dumbbell in both hands, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your shoulders away from your ears. Keeping the dumbbell in front of your chest, twist your torso to the right, tapping the dumbbell on the floor, then move back through center and twist to the left, tapping the dumbbell on the floor. Repeat 5 times on each side. For a modification, perform the move without a dumbbell.

Toe reach

Lying down on your back, reach your legs straight up so your feet are reaching toward the ceiling. For a modification, you can slightly bend your knees. As you exhale, tighten your upper abs and curl your head, neck and chest off the ground as you reach your arms toward your toes. Repeat 20 times.


Seated on a mat, engage your core muscles and gently lean back a couple of inches. Slowly lift your legs up in the air so that are in a table-top position. Reach your arms straight out in front of you so that they are parallel with the mat. Keeping your core engaged, extend the legs straight up to a 45-degree angle, forming a “V” shape with your body. If you feel balanced here, attempt reaching your arms up toward the ceiling. You always have the option to leave them straight out in front of you. Hold this position for 10 seconds. Keep the shoulders relaxed, abs pulled in and the inner thighs squeezing together. Release your legs and arms down to the starting position.

Open leg rocker

Sit up with your back straight and your knees bent with your feet flat on the ground. Lightly grab your ankles and lift your legs into the air, pointing your toes toward the ceiling, so that your body forms a "V" shape. Remember to keep your legs open as wide as your hips. Roll backward onto your shoulder blades, keeping your core engaged. Roll back up and straighten your back while keeping your legs straight up and open. Repeat, rolling back and forth, pausing at the top every time.

Bicycle crunch

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground as wide as your hips. With your hands behind your head and your elbows bent out to the sides, use your abs to lift your left shoulder blade off the ground. At the same time, bring your right knee to meet your left elbow. When your right knee is bent, straighten your left leg and reach it out in front of you at a 45-degree angle. Perform on the opposite side, bringing your left knee to your right elbow, straightening the right leg. Continue alternating legs and squeeze your core. Brush your inner thighs together as you switch sides to ensure you’re hugging your legs in towards the midline of your body.

Leg lifts

Lie on the floor with your arms at your sides and your legs straight out in front of you. Make sure to keep your low back on the ground as you pull your naval in towards the spine and squeeze your legs together. With your legs straight and together, lift into the air so that your body creates an L shape. Slowly lower your legs toward the mat without arching your back. Once your feet are hovering above the ground, hold for a few seconds before returning to the first step.

Standing crunches

Performing crunches while standing will help you avoid the back and neck discomfort that can be experienced when performing the traditional crunch. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and squeeze your abdominals, bringing your belly button toward your spine and your hips forward. Place your hands behind your head and perform a crunch, bringing your shoulder and head down toward the floor. Be sure to maintain the space between your chin and chest, and keep your elbows out to the sides to avoid pulling your neck. Reverse the move, returning back to an upright standing position. Repeat 10 times.