While most people generally think of walking as a form of cardio to strengthen the heart, and potentially increase leg strength, walking can actually be a full-body workout if you take the right approach.
In particular, as a certified personal trainer for almost 16 years, I’ve found that one of the most common questions that my clients ask about walking for exercise is how to make their daily strolls more effective for strengthening their abs. First I share the bad news: Walking is never going to be a targeted abs exercise in the way that planks or Russian twists with a medicine ball are. But there’s also a silver lining: The abdominal muscles are used in almost any upright exercise to help stabilize the trunk and support the spine. And every step you take when you walk activates the psoas, a deep core muscle that connects the lower back/pelvis to the femur (thigh bone). What’s more, there are strategies you can incorporate into your walks to get those abs all fired up.
How to strengthen your abs while you walk
Ready to engage your abs on your walk? Follow these tips the next time you get your saunter (or all-out strut) on:
1. Pump your arms
Pumping your arms more vigorously when you walk increases the intensity of your workout by activating more muscle groups—including your abdominal muscles.
Keep in mind that the entire function of the core is to provide a stable base of support for your arms and legs. When you walk, your arms and legs are each working in a reciprocal pattern in opposition to one another: You swing your right arm when your left leg steps forward, and vice versa. The core is designed to function as a strong, stable pillar so that your hips/pelvis and shoulder girdle have a reliable anchor upon which the muscles can pull as you swing them when you walk.
Vigorously swinging your arms requires your abs to contract so that your torso doesn’t rotate with the momentum of your arms but instead helps to keep your pelvis and hips stable.
To take this idea one step further, you can even consider using walking poles, like the ones many hikers use. Firmly planting your walking poles and then pulling your body forward as you walk will help engage more of your upper-body muscles, including the abs.
2. Walk uphill
We often hear of the benefits of incline walking centering around burning more calories and increasing heart rate. A less well-known tip is that walking up an incline is also an effective way to better engage your abs.
When you walk up a hill, you have to engage your core muscles (mainly the rectus abdominis as well as the internal and external obliques, pelvic floor muscles, and hip flexors) to help you draw your leg higher up towards your chest for each step. Otherwise, you would trip and catch your foot on the inclined slope.
To get even more bang for your buck (or stride), think about using a marching step so that you are hiking your knees up towards your chest. This is essentially like doing a standing bicycle crunch, squeezing the abs and hip flexors to help pull your leg up.
3. Wear weights
Wearing or carrying weights while walking has its pros and cons. Ankle weights and hand weights can help you better work your abs while you walk because you have more resistance to work against.
However, walking with ankle weights, in particular, can put excessive stress on your knees and hips because the weight pulls on your joint capsules from a distance (the longer the lever arm, the greater the torque on the joint). So, this tip should be used with caution. Only try it if you don’t have joint issues, and ditch the weights if you start to feel negative effects.
Generally, a weighted vest is the best way to add resistance to increase the intensity of walking workouts. However, this won’t necessarily help you work your abs more when you walk.
For wrist weights, I like the Bala Bangles ($55) because they are light enough that they don’t really cause any shoulder or elbow strain and they keep your hands free since the wrist weight is a flexible, attractive bracelet cuff that wraps around your wrist instead of being a dumbbell you’ll have to hold.
4. Support the mind-body connection with a waist pack
Wearing a little waist pack for walking can help bring your awareness to your core. And this matters because much of the abs workout you will get from walking (or any form of exercise) is contingent upon properly activating the abs.
Most people—not just beginners—struggle to engage the abs consciously, but a physical waist pack, or placing your hands on your belly, can help draw awareness to these muscles and help you build the mind-body connection to use your abs when you walk. Since you’re supposed to be swinging your arms when you walk, the pack is a great option!
I recommend a hydration pack like the ergonomic Thule Rail Hip Pack ($55). Not only will it help you consciously think about using your abs, it provides a convenient way to carry water to stay on top of your hydration needs for longer walking workouts. Win-win!
5. Maintain good posture
Remember to use good walking form with an upright posture, tight core, shoulders back and down, and gaze forward. This will help engage your abs, protect your lower back, and improve the efficiency of your walking stride. And watch your pace: Walking faster will increase trunk muscle activation compared to a slow shuffle.
6. Try belly breathing
Every so often while you walk, perform “abdominal drawing in,” which refers to sucking in your stomach as tight as possible while continuing to breathe. This helps engage the transversus abdominis, a deep core muscle that encircles your entire abdomen like a corset. You can try it for 10 to 20 seconds every five or 10 minutes while you walk.
7. Walk on trails
Hiking trails or walking on grass or sand can be a way to add a bit of an abdominal workout while you walk. These unstable surfaces require greater activation of your core muscles to help stabilize your hips and pelvis.
Remember, while walking is never going to be a targeted abs workout, you are using your core muscles in a functional way as you walk. While we rarely need to do a crunch in day-to-day life, most of us do walk, so building abdominals that can support the motion naturally will only come in handy.
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
- Lynders, Christine. “The Critical Role of Development of the Transversus Abdominis in the Prevention and Treatment of Low Back Pain.” HSS journal : the musculoskeletal journal of Hospital for Special Surgery vol. 15,3 (2019): 214-220. doi:10.1007/s11420-019-09717-8
- Ghamkhar, Leila, and Amir Hossein Kahlaee. “Trunk muscles activation pattern during walking in subjects with and without chronic low back pain: a systematic review.” PM & R : the journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation vol. 7,5 (2015): 519-26. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2015.01.013
- Saint-Maurice, Pedro F et al. “Association of Daily Step Count and Step Intensity With Mortality Among US Adults.” JAMA vol. 323,12 (2020): 1151-1160. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.1382
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