If you’ve been trying to figure out what the best ab exercises are to strengthen your core, you’re not alone.

 

Building better abs and a stronger core might be one of the most popular fitness goals around. But not everyone agrees on how to do it.

 

What should you be doing in the gym to work your abs?

 

    • Copy the guy on the exercise mat who’s been doing sit-ups for an hour?
    • Follow along in a boot camp class and grind out crunches on an exercise ball?
    • Do the same move as the guy holding a medicine ball twisting from side to side?
    • Accept a plank challenge from a friend to see who can build a stronger core in a month?
    • Or drop a pile of money on a gimmicky piece of equipment that promises to help you build better abs?

 

If you’ve created your own abs exercise routine based on one of these strategies, don’t worry. So have a lot of other people. Maybe you got results. Maybe you didn’t.  

 

The point is picking abs exercises based on a guessing game is a poor way to train your abs. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

Not all ab exercises are created equal

It’s hard to say what prompted San Diego State University researchers to create a study to identify the best and worst ab exercises.[1] But they did.

Maybe it was the $25 million class action lawsuit against a company that made a piece of ab exercise equipment.[2] The claim: Train your abs three minutes a day and lose 10 pounds in two weeks. FYI – No amount of ab training is going to have a significant impact on weight loss.

Maybe somebody on the team secretly wanted to get shredded, build muscle, or complete a transformation.


Or maybe the team of researchers were just tired of see too many overweight and out of shape people on the beaches of San Diego, Calif.

In any case, they set up a study to prove that not all ab exercises are created equal.

 

Measure ab muscle activiation

Researchers picked 13 popular ab exercises and recruited 30 people to participate in the study. Some of the exercises included specific pieces of equipment (that the study proves you don’t need to train your abs).

 

Ab exercises selected for the study included:

  • Bicycle kicks
  • Captain’s chair leg raises
  • Exercise ball crunches
  • Vertical crunches
  • Torso Track
  • Long-arm crunches
  • Reverse crunches
  • Crunches with heel push
  • Ab Roller
  • Planks
  • Traditional crunches
  • Exercise tubing pull
  • Ab Rocker

 

Can you guess which ab exercises were most effective and which ones were pretty much worthless?

 

Make your picks, then check the list below for the top three best and worst ab exercises.

In a lab setting, each person performed the ab exercises while being monitored with electromyography equipment. This allowed researchers to measure ab muscle activation in the rectus abdominus and the obliques in real time.

Now for the results…

 

Least effective ab exercises in the study

Let’s start with the bad news first.

 

If you’ve been doing endless rounds of reps and sets of old-school crunches on an exercise mat, you’re making ab training a lot harder on yourself than you need to.

The ab exercises that showed the least amount of muscle activation included:

 

  • Traditional crunches
  • Exercise tubing pull
  • Ab Rocker

 

There’s just not enough ab-specific muscle isolation happening when you perform these moves.

 

You might feel like your abs or core are engaged. But more than likely, you don’t feel much. And when that happens, a lot of people think ramping up the reps and sets will make a difference.

 

Most effective ab exercises in the study

Now for the good news. Maybe these ab exercises have been a regular part of your routine:

Based on the study, the top three ab exercises that generated the most muscle stimulation included:

 

  • Bicycle kicks
  • Captain’s chair leg raises
  • Exercise ball crunches

 

Use good form to perform these ab exercises, and you will stimulate core muscles to help you get stronger.

 

But to show off your abs, you’ll still need to dial in your diet and get your body fat percentage down to 15 percent or less for men, or 20 percent or less for women.

 

More ab exercises to strengthen your core

While the study looked at 13 abs exercises, there are many more exercises you can do to strengthen your core.

 

Bodyweight exercises, like the ones featured in the study, can be part of your abs training plan. But resistance exercises to build stronger abs are highly effective too.

 

And believe it or not, it’s possible to get six-pack abs without doing any ab-specific training at all.

 

A training plan that includes compound lifts and a smart diet that gets calories and macronutrients right can get you shredded too.

Other ab exercises I recommend and use include:

 

  • Cable rope crunches
  • Ab-machine crunches
  • Oblique twists with bar
  • Seated leg tucks
  • Weighted incline-bench leg raises
  • Decline bench crunches with rotation
  • Hanging leg raises
  • Dumbbell side crunches

 

Reps, sets, and frequency

You don’t need to train your abs every day. They need a break to repair and recover just like the rest of your muscles do.

 

My recommendation: Train your abs twice a week on days when your they’re not already being taxed by compound lifts like squats and deadlifts.

 

Pick 3 to 4 exercises that hit all the areas of the abs (rectus abdominus, external obliques, internal obliques, transvers abdominus, erector spinae), and do 4 sets x 10 to 30 reps.

 

Want six-pack abs and a stronger core? Check out my custom training plans to get the workouts and nutrition guidelines to get results. 

 


References

  1. Jennings, P. (2001). Study reveals best and worst abdominal exercises. American Council on Exercise. From: https://www.acefitness.org/about-ace/press-room/246/american-council-on-exercise-ace-sponsored-study-reveals-best-and-worst-abdominal-exercises.
  2. Lordan, B., (2012). Marketers of ‘Ab Circle Pro’ device to pay as much as $25 million in refunds to settle FTC charges. Federal Trade Commission. From: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2012/08/marketers-ab-circle-pro-device-pay-much-25-million-refunds-settle.