5 Surprising Exercises to Sculpt Your Abs and Burn Belly Fat

illustration of five compound ab exercises isolated on a teal background
The single-arm kettlebell swing is one of the best compound exercises for your abs, burning belly fat while strengthening your core.
Image Credit: South_agency/E+/GettyImages

If you're under the impression that building your core requires hundreds of crunches and leg lifts, you're sorely mistaken. (Pun most definitely intended.) While target core moves are great for isolating your six-pack muscles, you could probably never do another "ab exercise" and still build strong abs.

Here's why: The best total-body exercises do more than just work your arms, legs or hips. They work your core — hard, according to the American Council on Exercise.

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In fact, mounting research, including a June 2012 ​Human Kinetics​ study, suggests that weighted total-body moves are better at building the core than are traditional ab-isolation exercises. That's because proper technique hinges on maximally contracting and bracing all 360 degrees of your core, says Cameron Yuen, PT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.

Think of your core as the all-powerful link between your upper and lower body. It's the sole structure in charge of transferring force and power from one to the other. (If your core acts like limp spaghetti during a squat or deadlift, everything gives way.)

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Plus, because total-body moves recruit more muscles throughout your entire body, they burn more calories than micro-movements ever will. If you're trying to reduce your abdominal fat levels to uncover your abs, that's a bonus.

Try These Compound Exercises for Sculpted Abs

Next time you find yourself dreading ​yet another​ set of crunches, try these five compound exercises for abs instead.

Pin these compound ab exercises, print them or save them on your phone — whatever helps you stay motivated!
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com

Move 1: Single-Leg Deadlift

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part [ "Abs", "Legs", "Butt", "Back" ]
  1. Begin standing on your right leg with a slight bend in your knee, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in your left hand. Brace your core.
  2. Hinge at the hips and push them backward as you extend your left leg behind you.
  3. Keeping your back flat, lower the weight toward the ground.
  4. Drive through your right heel to return to standing.
  5. Do all reps, then switch sides

Tip

This dumbbell deadlift variation seriously works your core, as you have to stabilize yourself on one leg with a weight in front of you, Yuen says. As you return to standing, keep your core braced and avoid rounding your back.

Move 2: Single-Arm Bent-Over Row

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part [ "Abs", "Back", "Arms" ]
  1. Get in a staggered stance, with your left leg bent in front of you and a dumbbell in your right hand.
  2. Hinge at your hips and place your left forearm and elbow on your left knee for stability. Brace your core.
  3. Row the weight up to chest height, keeping your back flat and elbow close to your body.
  4. Bring the weight back down.
  5. Do all reps, then switch sides.

Tip

Avoid twisting your body as you lift the weight. Keep your hips square and torso parallel to the ground, Yuen says. That helps you get the most out of this compound exercise for abs.

Move 3: Single-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part [ "Abs", "Chest", "Arms" ]
  1. Begin lying on a flat bench with your feet on the ground, back rooted into the bench. Brace your core.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in one hand and keep the other hand out to your side for balance.
  3. Press the weight straight up over your body before lowering the weight back to chest height.
  4. Do all reps, then switch sides.

Tip

For this chest press, you'll likely need to use a lighter weight than you think, Yuen says. "By keeping all the weight on one side, you have to brace your core to prevent rotation of your body."

Move 4: Dumbbell Thruster

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part [ "Abs", "Butt", "Legs", "Shoulders", "Arms" ]
  1. Stand with your feet just wider than hip-distance apart and dumbbells at your shoulders with your palms facing in. Brace your core.
  2. Keeping your chest tall, hinge your hips back and down to sink down into a squat.
  3. Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.
  4. As you straighten your legs, press the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling. Your upper arms should stay close to your ears.
  5. Slowly bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells back down to your shoulders with control.

Tip

"As your weights go up into that overhead motion pull your ribs down and make sure you're not overarching your back," says Tatiana Lampa, a certified functional strength coach and creator of the Training with T app.

Move 5: Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Kettlebell Workout
Body Part [ "Abs", "Butt", "Legs", "Back", "Shoulders" ]
  1. Begin standing with your legs slightly greater than hip-width apart and a kettlebell on the floor in front of you. Brace your core.
  2. Shoot your hips back and, with a flat back, bend forward to grasp the kettlebell with one hand.
  3. Swing the kettlebell first between your legs, then extend your hips to raise the weight in front of your body to chest-height with your arm straight. (You can keep your free arm out to the side for balance.)
  4. Do all reps, then switch sides.

Tip

"As you propel the kettlebell forward during the swing, resist the tendency to let your body rotate with the swing arm," Yuen says. "Instead, keep your posture square throughout the entire movement."

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