The most effective abs exercises are the ones that truly activate the abdominal muscles. This means just because you flex your abs in your workouts, it doesn’t mean your abs are getting challenged.
When it comes to working your abs, not all exercises are created equal.
Effective ab exercises should target multiple abdominal and core muscles. In the abdomen alone, there are three muscles (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, and obliques). When working your abs, your workouts should also target your pelvic floor, spine stabilizing muscles, and glutes.
Together, they help build a stronger core that supports your mobility, flexibility, and posture. They also help prevent injury and increase your range of motion.
Thankfully, science is here to shed light on which popular abs exercises challenge your abs muscles and how they stack against each other.
American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a biomechanic study at San Diego State University. The researchers of the study lab tested 13 popular abs exercises to measure their abs muscle activation. The idea was that the more muscle activity they see in different abs muscles, the more effective the exercise is.
The results are in and here are the five top-ranked abs exercises based on their electromyography (EMG) activity results.
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1. Bicycle Crunch
Ranked highest in the list of most effective abs exercises was the bicycle crunch. This floor rotational ab exercise showed one of the highest activity in both obliques and rectus abdominis.
It showed 290% more activation in the obliques and 248% more activation in the rectus abdominis than the classic crunch.
How to do the bicycle crunch:
- Lie face-up on a yoga mat with your knees bent. Place your hands behind your ears and bring your knees up until your thighs are perpendicular to the floor.
- Support your head with your hands and try not to pull your neck. Engage your core and lift your shoulder blades off the floor.
- In one motion, rotate your torso to your right to let your right elbow meet your left knee and extend your right leg.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
- Complete 2-3 sets of 10 reps per side.
2. Captain’s Chair
Ranked highest in the oblique activity and second highest in rectus abdominis activity is the Captain’s Chair.
This abs workout involves gym equipment with two handles and a pad on the back. Then handles are placed higher off the ground, and there is no seat.
This is to allow crunch motions done vertically to strengthen the abs and core and the entire upper body.
How to perform the Captain’s Chair exercise.
- Stand in front of the Captain’s Chair equipment with your back facing the equipment.
- Rest your forearms on the arm rests and grip the handles tight with your hands.
- Your legs will dangle. Using your abs, crunch up and bring your knees in toward your chest. Hold the position for a moment and return to the starting position with control.
- Complete 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps.
3. Crunches on an exercise ball
The ball crunch was ranked as the third most effective ab exercise for your rectus abdominis. The test measured twice as much activity in the front abs than the classic crunch.
If you have an exercise ball at home, it’s an easy way to elevate the effectiveness of your abs workout by adding a ball to your regular crunch.
How to perform the exercise ball crunch.
- On an exercise ball, lie on your back and walk back until your feet are flat on the ground and your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Make sure your pelvis and lower torso are rested on the ball.
- Place your hands behind your head and engage your abs to start.
- Pull your torso in with your abdominal muscles off the ball until your torso is about 45 degrees upright.
- Return with control and repeat 10 times. Complete 2-3 sets.
4. Vertical leg crunch
The vertical leg crunch is a crunch variation with your legs up and perpendicular to the ground.
It’s a challenging core exercise that brings more intensity and demand to your abs and core than the regular crunch.
Having your legs up while crunching up can add 129% more muscle activation to your rectus abdominis and 216% more to your obliques.
How to perform the vertical leg crunch.
- Lie flat on your back on a yoga mat with your hands behind your head.
- Lift your legs up toward the ceiling until they are perpendicular to the ground.
- Gently press your back against the floor, and curl your torso up to lift your shoulder blades off the floor. Don’t use your hands to pull from your neck. Instead, engage your abs and core to pull from your abdomen.
- That’s one rep. Return to the starting position and complete 10 reps. Aim 2-3 sets.
5. Reverse Crunch
The reverse crunch exercise ranks top 3 on the list of best abs exercises for your obliques. It also challenges your rectus abdominis, the front abdominal muscles slightly more than the basic crunch.
How to perform the reverse crunch.
- Lie flat on a mat with your knees bent and hands resting at your sides. Gently press your lower back to the ground and engage your core.
- Lift your legs up toward the ceiling until they are over your hips. Using your abs, lift your hips slightly off the ground toward the ceiling.
- With control, return to the starting position. Repeat for 10 times and aim 2-3 sets.