"The scissors ab exercise is a core move that focuses on working and targeting your transverse abdominals," says Anthony Crouchelli, a New York City-based trainer and boxing expert. It's an ab-focused move that involves lying on your back, raising both legs off of the ground, then criss-crossing one over the other in a scissors-like motion without letting them drop (yes, it burns). Since your legs are moving throughout the exercise, it doubles as a lower body strengthening move, too. Keep scrolling for the low-down on the ab move, including the best variations to try in your next workout.
Benefits of the scissors exercise
According to Crouchelli, the scissors exercise acts as a foundation to other ab-specific moves. "It has the dual purpose of lengthening and creating a foundation for your core muscle groups," he says. Fitness expert Andrea Marcellus adds that the exercise works the transverse abdominals through an isometric hold (even though your legs are moving), which means you're working on endurance in your core—something that also benefits your ab workouts.
"Scissors are great to include in a workout because they work the abductors, aka the muscles that take the legs away from the midline of the body, and the adductors, aka the ones that bring them back, while they engage the transverse abdominal, the deepest core muscles that wrap around you like a corset," says Marcellus.
Doing scissor-style abs exercises can also address imbalances within your lower body. "Our quadriceps tend to be overdeveloped in relation to the other muscles in the inner legs," says Marcellus. "Including exercises that target the inner and outer thighs, glutes, and hamstrings helps you to create evenly developed legs and to promote stability in the knee joint."
While the exercise can be done without any equipment, you can add resistance by using certain pieces of fitness equipment. Crouchelli prefers adding weights, resistance bands, or towels if you want to upgrade the move. "My favorite variation is to incorporate a towel. Creating tension with a towel will engage the core from the start," he says. For those at advanced levels, Marcellus suggests using ankle weights or a light band tied around your closed legs—just be sure to maintain proper form.
The most common mistakes in form to avoid
Despite appearing to be a straightforward ab move in which only your legs move, there are plenty of mistakes that trainers see people make when they do a scissors exercise. First off: having the lower back lifted. "The most common mistake I see people make with scissor kicks is that they forget to press their lower back into the mat," says Crouchelli, who notes that this creates discomfort on the lumbar spine and prevents you from fully engaging your core during the exercise. "Proper form is key so you're not causing any strain on the body, especially since the lower back is the most common complaint of discomfort that comes from improper form."
Maintaining straight legs is also key, according to Marcellus, who says the mistake she sees all the time is having a bend in the knees. "The exercise is all about length and depth. Pulling the legs long and deepening the abdominals strengthens the quadriceps and transverse abdominals to protect your back," she says. "Work only in the range of motion you can in order to keep your legs straight." She adds that back strain can happen when your knees are bent, too.
Before you knock out some reps—as is the case with all exercises—warming up is important. "As with all challenging abdominal exercises where the legs are reaching away from the body, scissor exercises require you to be fully warmed up and to stay within the range of motion that is right for you," says Marcellus. "As your hamstrings loosen up and your transverse abdominals strengthen, your range of motion and endurance will increase." So move through a core warmup (a plank is good for this) and dynamic stretches that focus on your lower body before you drop to the mat.
How to do the scissors exercise
1. Scissors exercise
Lie down on your back with your hands either at your sides or underneath your glutes for added back support. Extend your legs out straight, then twist them in and out above each other, or straight up and down—either way, don't let your legs drop to the mat as you're working through your reps. Make sure your core is engaged and that your lower back is pressed onto your mat throughout. Move with slow and controlled movements. Do four sets of 45 seconds on with a 15-second break.
2. Ascending cross-scissor kicks
Crouchelli likes this variation to switch things up while still working your transverse abdominals. Start by lying flat on your back with your legs pointed directly out above your hips. Slowly flutter your feet in opposite directions. Think of raising your flutter kicks upwards on a five second count. At the top of your flutter pattern, you'll begin the same tempo on a descending pattern, returning the legs to your starting position. Do four sets of 45 seconds on with a 15 second break.
3. Towel scissor kick
Lie flat on your back with a towel or resistance band pressed straight above your sightline. Press your lower back into the mat and elevate your legs above your hips. Using the towel, allow your arms to create tension by pulling it away from each end. Slowly alternate your legs in a scissor pattern by lifting one leg up as the opposite leg lowers. Crouchelli adds that you should think of pressing your bellybutton into the floor throughout the exercise. Do four sets of 45 seconds on with a 15 second break.
4. Scissor walks
Marcellus recommends trying two variations of scissor walks. Lie flat on your back as you draw your legs straight up to the ceiling. Place the heel of your right foot in the instep of your left. Curl up in your upper body and take a breath, then use your exhale to scoop out your stomach by deepening your navel to your spine. Begin crossing the legs by wrapping your thighs back and forth, keeping your legs as straight as possible and switching feet. Keep your shoulders off of the ground as you do four crosses, then lower your legs about a foot. Repeat this two more times and then begin working your way back up in a set of four crosses.
Do one round with your legs in parallel, then repeat with your legs turned open to involve the medial glutei and other external rotator muscles deep within the hip. Focus on pulling your legs longer and deepening the abdominals further throughout the exercise.
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