Your workout is never complete until you work the abs.
But when you only have a few minutes left, what do you do? Do you crunch, plank or twist.
Well, lucky for you. You no longer have to wonder which ab exercises can give your core the best bang for your buck.
Because ACE did the heavy lifting for us and came up with 13 best and most effective moves for your abs that get you fast and biggest results.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) sponsored study led by Peter Francis, Ph.D. at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University, researchers tested out exactly which ab exercises score high in getting results (1).
The study compared 15 of the most common ab exercises and ranked them from the least to most effective.
Each exercise was monitored using electromyography equipment to test muscle activation not only in the rectus abdominus and oblique, but also in the rectus femoris.
So, here are 13 of the most effective ab exercises for getting results, based on science.
1. Bicycle Crunch
Lie on the floor, with your lower back pressed into the ground. Place your fingertips lightly to your temples. Bring your knees over your hips, bending your knees at 90° so that your shins are parallel to the floor.
Slowly rotate your left shoulder towards your right knee whilst extending the left leg out away from the body. The lower down you bring the leg the more difficult this move will be.
Tips: To modify this exercise keep the knees over the hips omitting the leg extension or tap the toe down to the floor.
2. Captain’s Chair
Stabilize your upper body by gripping the hand holds and gently press your lower back against the back pad.Begin by you holding your body up with legs dangling below.
Using slow controlled movement, lift your knees in toward your chest then return to the starting position.
3. Ball Crunch
Sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor toes pointing forward. Slowly, let the ball roll back until you are now lying back on the ball with your thighs and torso parallel with the floor.
Squeeze your glutes. Place your fingertips lightly to your temples, slightly tucking your chin in toward your chest (this is the one time you want a double chin!).
Contract your abs and exhale while raise your torso up no more than 45°, inhale down to the starting position.
Tips: To modify this exercise move the feed wider apart, to make it more challenging move the feet closer together.
While crunches on an exercise ball generated less muscle activity than the bicycle maneuver or captain’s chair it’s worth noting that this exercise produced less activation in the rectus femoris, means less hip flexor activity.
This alone makes it more of an isolation move for the abs than the top two exercises, giving you more bang for your buck!
4. Vertical Leg Crunch
Lie on the floor, with your lower back pressed into the ground and your legs extended above your hips, as an option you can cross your ankles.
Place your fingertips lightly to your temples. Contract your abs and exhale raising your torso up towards your toes, inhale as you return to the start position.
5. Torso Track
Kneel on the floor with knees hip distance apart on the pads, grabbing the handles. Contract your abs and find neutral spine.
Exhale leaning the upper body forward moving in one line, exhale bringing the upper body back to the starting position, keeping the abs contracted throughout to protect the lower back.
Using this equipment it’s important to move the body as one unit in a line. Try to ensure the hips do not initiate the movement, especially on the return back to the starting position.
6. Long Arm Crunch
Lie on the floor, with your lower back pressed into the ground and your knees bent with feet on the floor toes pointing forwards. Extend your arms out over your head with your biceps by your ears.
Contract your abs and exhale raising your upper body off the floor keeping your biceps in line with your ears, inhale as you return to the start position.
7. Reverse Crunch
Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed to the ground. Place your arms down by your sides along the floor.
Crossing feet at the ankles lift your feet off the ground until your knees are bent at 90° angle. Press the lower back into the floor, engaging the core and lift the hips off the floor reaching the legs towards the ceiling.
Exhale as the hips lift, inhale as they lower. Ensure in this position that the hips and legs lift up and that the legs don’t shoot over the head.
8. Crunch with Heel Push
Lie on the floor, with your lower back pressed into the ground. Your knees are bent with heels pressed into the floor toes upwards. Lightly touch your fingertips to your temples elbows back.
Contract your abs and exhale raising your head and shoulders off the floor. At the top press the heels into the floor, and push the back against the floor.
Inhale as you return to the start position. The action of pushing the heels into the floor isolates into the abs more, and reduces activation of the rectus femoris.
9. Ab Roller
Begin by lying on your back, knees bent feet on the floor about hip distance apart and with your head resting on the pad. Lightly grab the rail above your head with both hands, palms facing forward.
Engage the core, pressing the lower back into the floor, exhale and roll the head and shoulders up off the floor into a crunch.
Inhale as you release down into the starting position. Avoid the temptation to muscle the movement with the arms, the arms provide support for the movement the abs are the prime mover here! It
10. Hover Plank
While it didn’t score too highly on the rectus abdominus activation study the hover, or plank as it’s more commonly known works the core, glutes, shoulders, arms, back, hamstrings and calves making it more of a total body exercise than pure abs.
Begin by lying face down on the floor, feet hip distance apart and elbows directly under shoulders with forearms extended on the floor in front.
Brace the core first by pulling the belly up and in. Once the core is engaged push through the forearms and lift the body off the floor so you are supported on your elbows, forearms and toes. To avoid any tension in the neck, keep the head looking at the floor between your forearms.
Tips: For a modification drop the knees to the floor and just lift the hips. It’s important to ensure that your hips remain the same height as your shoulders and don’t droop too low down; this will avoid any tension in the lower back.
11. Traditional Crunch
Lie on the floor, with your lower back pressed into the ground and your knees bent with feet on the floor toes pointing forwards.
Place your hands slightly on the back of your head. Do not lock your fingers or pull the head forward as you crunch up.
Contract your abs and exhale raising your head and shoulders off the floor, inhale as you return to the start position.
Tips: As a modification you can do this move with the arms crossed over the chest. For a progression see the long arm crunch above.
12. Exercise Tubing Pull
Begin by anchoring the tubing to something behind your head. Lie on the floor, with your lower back pressed into the ground and your knees bent with feet on the floor toes pointing forwards.
With the handles of the tubing in each hand place, place your hands behind or to the sides of your head, elbows pushing back in line with the ears.
Contract your abs, and exhale raising your head and shoulders off the floor, inhale as you slowly return to the start position.
Tips: In this exercise ensure your elbows stay back and your neck stays in alignment with the spine. The extra resistance from the tubing makes it easy to push the chin forward.
The further away you are from the tubing anchor point the more resistance this exercise provides. There is also different resistance tubing strengths to make this exercise more challenging.
13. Ab Rocker
Sit with your buttocks lined up with the center of the pad, feet comfortably in front, knees are bent with toes pointing forward.
Place your arms on the arms of the rocker and roll the arms into the chest, then with the abs engaged push the arms forward.
The forward motion of the ab rocker arms will roll the seat back, contracting the core in a seated crunch. Keep the neck in line with the spine and avoid pushing the chin forward.
Notes: This piece of exercise equipment may seem like it makes core work easy, and it does. However it doesn’t activate the core well at all hence it’s at the bottom of the list.
There you have it!
These 13 ab exercises are proven effective. Dr. Francis recommends choosing 2 to 3 exercises to add to your abs routine.
Regardless of exercises you choose, strengthening the abs will help improve posture and provide relief from lower back pain, which is essential for your everyday health.
As with any exercise program, always listen to your body and modify exercises when necessary.