This 20-Minute Arms and Abs Workout Protects Your Back, Thanks to One Simple Tweak

woman doing dumbbell workout a half-kneeling position on a blue mat
Doing half-kneeling exercises helps keep your back safe while working your upper body and core.
Image Credit: Hirurg/E+/GettyImages

While you've probably never thought much about it, most of the exercises you do are usually performed one of three ways: standing, seated or lying on your back. But when it comes to training your arms and abs, there's another option that's equally as challenging but safer for your back: the half-kneeling position.

"Compared to standing exercises, half-kneeling exercises allow you to lower your center of mass, which enables you to alleviate unnecessary motion through the lumbar spine and pelvis," says CJ Koegel, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer.

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In other words, the half-kneeling posture puts your body in a stable position, so you can engage the proper muscles in your upper body (especially during overhead exercises) without straining your back.

The half-kneeling position also stretches your hip flexors, which is another big bonus for your back. That's because when your hip flexors are tight, they can tug on your back muscles, leading to lower back pain.

And since the half-kneeling stance sets a narrower base (compared to standing exercises), your core must do a lot of work to control your movements and maintain your balance. Meaning: Half-kneeling exercises also build ab strength and trunk stability, Koegel says.

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Plus, being on one knee supplies the same benefits of unilateral movements — helping to improve balance and correct muscle imbalances – with less stability demands.

Ready to bend the knee? This 20-minute workout by Koegel is all half-kneeling exercises. They'll activate your core and work both sides of your upper body while still keeping your back safe. All you need is a pair of dumbbells to challenge your balance, stability and strength.

Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here – we've got something for everyone.

20-Minute Half-Kneeling Arms and Abs Workout

This arms and abs workout will take you through two circuits. Do 12 to 15 reps of each exercise in the first circuit (resting when needed) and repeat for a total of three times. Then do the same for the second circuit.

Tip

To make the half-kneeling position more comfortable, you can place an Airex pad, pillow or towel below your knee for a bit of cushion.

Circuit 1

Move 1: Half-Kneeling Shoulder Press

JW Player placeholder image
Reps 12
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part [ "Shoulders", "Abs" ]
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position by stepping one foot forward and bending the knee to 90 degrees. Your back knee should be bent on the ground and toes tucked.
  2. Bring your dumbbells to your shoulders into a front-rack position.
  3. Bracing your core and keeping your back flat, lift one arm straight up into a shoulder press, then lower it back down to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
  4. Repeat with your other arm, and continue alternating.
  5. Do 12 to 15 reps.

Move 2: Half-Kneeling Bent-Over Row

JW Player placeholder image
Reps 12
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position with dumbbells in both hands.
  2. Brace your core as if you’re about to get punched in the stomach.
  3. Hinge your upper body forward, squeeze your back and pull the weights toward you in a row.
  4. Then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  5. Do 12 to 15 reps.

“The half-kneeling bent-over row helps improve your posture and stabilizes your core, all while working your lower, mid and upper back,” Koegel says.

Move 3: Half-Kneeling Wood Chop

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Reps 12
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Abs
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position with your right leg forward and left leg behind you.
  2. Hold a single dumbbell by your outer left thigh with both hands.
  3. Shift your hips forward as you twist your torso and drive the weight up over your head and to the right.
  4. Then make a downward "chopping" motion toward your left knee with the dumbbell, keeping your core tight throughout the movement. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps, then switch sides and legs.

“Think of activities like lifting a child in and out of a car, and you’ll see why wood chops are a great functional exercise,” Koegel says. The half-kneeling variation challenges the stability of multiple muscles in your core, shoulders and hips, he adds.

Circuit 2

Move 1: Half-Kneeling Biceps Curl

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Reps 12
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position with your arms by your sides and dumbbells in both hands.
  2. Brace your core as if you’re about to get punched in the stomach and squeeze your glutes.
  3. Curl the dumbbells up through the full range of motion, squeezing your biceps at the top, then slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
  4. Do 12 to 15 reps.

“The half-kneeling biceps curl is a great way to eliminate momentum and focus on the bicep being the primary mover,” Koegel says.

Move 2: Half-Kneeling Overhead Triceps Extension

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Reps 12
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position with dumbbells in both hands.
  2. Brace your core as if you’re about to get punched in the stomach and squeeze your glutes.
  3. Press your weights overhead until your arms are straight and your biceps are near your ears with palms facing each other.
  4. Keeping your elbows in, bend them to lower the weights behind your head until your forearms are at least parallel to the floor.
  5. Straighten your arms to return to the starting position.
  6. Do 12 to 15 reps.

While the half-kneeling overhead triceps extension targets your triceps muscles, it also activates your core, Koegel says.

Move 3: Half-Kneeling Halo

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Reps 12
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Shoulders
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position holding one dumbbell at both ends.
  2. Lift the dumbbell to shoulder height as you brace your core and squeeze your glutes.
  3. Begin moving the dumbbell around your head slowly in a circular motion. Avoid moving your head. Once you make one full rotation around your head, reverse and repeat in the other direction.
  4. Do 12 to 15 reps.

The half-kneeling halo combines mobility and stability in one movement and is a stellar way to warm up the shoulders and thoracic spine, Koegel says.

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