The Best Abdominal Exercises, According to the Experts

female pole vaulter showing off abdominal strength

This is a very common question we get:

“What are the best ab exercises I can do?”

People know that strong abs and a tight “core” are very important for overall fitness, injury-prevention, and body aesthetics. The abs, along with the lower back, protect some of the most vital organs in your body, while also assisting in nearly every movement — making them extremely important for athletes. But they are also one of the first things people look at when your shirt comes off.

And who doesn’t want a lean, flat, sexy, “fitness model” stomach or a bodybuilder’s perfect “six pack” to show off during pool season? 🙂

There are literally 100’s of different ways to work your ab muscles on your way to a strong core and pain-free back. But which abdominal exercise are really the best? If we had to choose only 2, they would be hanging leg raises and Swiss ball roll-outs because these movements provide multiple benefits beyond just working the abs (e.g. increased functional strength and great spine stretching/lengthening).

The ACE Study 

Several years ago the American Council on Exercise (ACE) sponsored a fairly in-depth study comparing several different core exercises. Researchers at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University examined 13 of the most popular ab movements and ranked them from least effective to most effective. They looked at muscle stimulation/activity — in both the rectus abdominus (primary abdomen muscle) and the side oblique muscles — as measured using electromyography sensors.

According to the ACE study, the top 3 ab muscles are:

1. Bicycle Maneuver – A not-so-easy exercise that combines a crunch movement with riding a pretend bicycle.

2. Captain’s Chair – A type of leg/knee raise, performed on a “power tower,” that is much more effective when done slowly and without using any momentum.

3. Exercise Ball Crunch – A great overall stomach exercise that strengthens the smaller core “stabilizer” muscles and improves balance.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the exercise ball crunches generated less overall abdominal muscle activity than some other exercises, but still ranked them at the top in terms of effectiveness. That’s because the ball crunches involved much less thigh muscle activity, making them more focused/targeted to the core area and (at least in theory) more effective than the other options.

say no to the Ab Roller products

The study also looked at some popular “infomercial” ab products like the Ab Rocker, Ab Roller, and Torso Track, but did not find these machines to be significantly more effective than regular bodyweight movements. They were also found to be more likely to cause lower back discomfort for the study participants. According to the ACE experts:

“The results of this study support ACE’s long-time opinion that it is not necessary to spend upward of $150 on a piece of exercise equipment to strengthen abs… if a consumer is going to invest in a piece of equipment, make it a high-quality exercise ball…”

Here are the complete rankings of the ab exercises examined for the study, in order of best to worst:

Top Rectus Abdominus Movements:

1. Bicycle maneuver
2. Captain’s chair
3. Crunches on exercise ball
4. Vertical leg crunch
5. Torso Track
6. Long arm crunch
7. Reverse crunch
8. Crunch with heel push
9. Ab Roller
10. Hover
11. Traditional crunch
12. Exercise tubing pull
13. Ab Rocker

Top Obliques Movements:

1. Captain’s chair
2. Bicycle maneuver
3. Reverse crunch
4. Hover
5. Vertical leg crunch
6. Crunch on exercise ball
7. Torso Track
8. Crunch with heel push
9. Long arm crunch
10. Ab Roller
11. Traditional crunch
12. Exercise tubing pull
13. Ab Rocker

No matter which exercises you choose to flatten your tummy it’s a good idea to switch things up often. The abs are exceptionally good at adapting to new stimuli so, by changing how you “attack” them every few weeks (or even every other workout), you’ll keep making progress!

Learn more about the ACE study here: ACE-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises

What do you think are the “best” ab exercises in the world? Leave your comments below!




Pole-vaulting athlete photo by Sangudo

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