Fitness Articles

A Trainer's Take on 13 of the Most Popular Abs Exercises

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Updated by Melissa Rudy, 2/2/17

We often get questions about the best abdominal exercises—after all, who doesn't want to exercise their tummy muscles in the most efficient way possible? There are countless exercises that target the abs, including fitness DVDs and even the pricey machines that you often see on infomercials. But do you need a video or specialized piece of equipment to get the abs of your dreams?

A study conducted at San Diego State University's Biomechanics Lab (and published by the American Council on Exercise) says no. Their research revealed that the best exercises for your abs don't require any gizmos or gadgets, and are surprisingly easy to fit into your day.

Researchers looked at the effectiveness of 13 common abdominal exercises—everything from crunches to the "Ab Roller"  machine—and ranked them from best to worst. Using EMG (electromyography), researchers measured the muscle activity of the participants to determine which exercises best targeted the abs and the obliques, while also limiting the activity of the hips and thighs (because when an abdominal exercise is executed poorly, the hips and thighs engage to "help out" the abs).

ACE-certified personal trainer Shane McLean weighed in on each exercise and why it works so well so you can stop wasting time and start working toward the abs of your dreams.

1. Bicycle Crunches
  • Muscles worked: Rectus abdominals, obliques, hip flexors
  • Why it’s effective: This exercise is a combination of a crunch with the rotation of the opposite arm/leg, which targets most of the abdominal area. You'll feel the burn on this one. 
  • Considerations: Putting the fingers behind the ears rather than hand behind the head will prevent you from wrenching the neck, a common form mistake with this particular move. 
2. Knee Lifts on Captain's Chair
  • Muscles worked: Obliques, Rectus abdominals, hip flexors
  • Why it's effective: It works the obliques and your six-pack abs simultaneously, giving you more bang for your core buck.
  • Considerations: Keep your back against the pad during this exercise to protect the low back. Taking your knees to the opposite shoulder brings a little spice to this exercise.
3. Crunches on Ball
  • Muscles worked: Obliques, Rectus abdominals 
  • Why it’s effective: The instability of the ball assists in activating the abdominal muscles more than the floor. The ball also helps support the lower back.  
  • Considerations: Placing your feet wider apart will give you a greater base of support. Taking a foot off the ground during the exercise will increase the stability challenge.
4. Crunches with Vertical Legs
  • Muscles worked: Obliques, Rectus abdominals, hip flexors and lower back
  • Why it’s effective: This exercise is just like a traditional crunch, but with your legs extended up into the air, in line with the hips. Having the legs vertical focuses on the abs and helps in adding intensity to the crunch.
  • Considerations: Hamstrings and legs may tire before the abs. People with tight hamstrings or lower-back pain may want to avoid this exercise.
5. Torso Track Machine
  • Muscles Worked: Obliques, Rectus abdominals 
  • Why you shouldn’t bother: Although this is an effective core exercise, this machine is expensive and currently unavailable on Amazon. Using an ab roller wheel is cheaper and just as effective. 
  • Considerations: If you have shoulder issues, you may want to avoid the ab roller exercise. Make sure to engage the glutes at all times and avoid hyperextension of the back.
6. Crunches with Arms Extended
  • Muscles worked: Rectus abdominals, obliques, some hip flexors
  • Why it’s effective: This exercise is just like a traditional crunch, but you extend your arms overhead, squeezing your upper arms by your ears as you crunch up and lower down. Having the arms behind the head provides less support and a longer lever, which increases the intensity of the crunch.
  • Considerations: If you have neck or lower-back issues, you may want to avoid this exercise. Keeping the lower back neutral or pressed into the floor is recommended for this exercise. 
7. Reverse Crunches:
  • Muscles worked: Obliques, Rectus abdominals, hip flexors
  • Why it's effective: Traditional crunches cause spinal compression, which is a no-no for people with low back issues. The reverse crunch is the opposite of this, targeting the abs in a safer fashion.
  • Considerations: If you’re having to bend your head backwards while performing this, put a towel or foam block underneath your head to keep your back straight. 
8. Crunches with Heel Push:
  • Muscles worked: Obliques, Rectus abdominals, hip flexors, lower back 
  • Why it’s effective: Similar to the crunches with vertical legs mentioned above, with this move you slightly lift your hips off the ground and your feet toward the ceiling as you crunch up. The additional movement of pushing the heels toward the ceiling causes more of an intense contraction in the abdominal muscles.
  • Considerations: See reverse and vertical leg crunch. 
9. Ab Roller
  • Muscles worked: Rectus abdominals and obliques
  • Why you shouldn’t bother: This is just another piece of equipment you need to buy, and there are far more effective options from which to choose. Besides, not many vendors stock these anymore. 
10. Plank
  • Muscles worked: Everything, from head to toe
  • Why it’s effective: The plank is more of a total body exercise, which is why it ranks so low on this list. The plank and its numerous variations help the body to be strong and stable. They are difficult for a reason.
  • Considerations: These should form the majority of your core routine. 
11. Traditional Crunches
  • Muscles worked: Rectus abdominals, obliques, hip flexors
  • Why you shouldn’t bother: According to Men’s Health magazine, it takes almost 22,000 basic abdominal crunches to burn a pound of fat from your midsection. Who has time for that? Nobody. There are far more effective and much safer options on this list.
12. Exercise Tubing Pull
  • Muscles worked: Rectus abdominals, obliques
  • Why you shouldn’t bother: There is really nothing wrong with this exercise, other than the fact that you need to purchase a resistance band and there are far more effective options on this list. Shane recommends this far more effective core exercise to do with a resistance band. 
13. Ab Rocker
  • Muscles worked: Rectus abdominals, obliques
  • Why you shouldn’t bother: You shouldn’t have to fork out money to train your abs when your own body is a far better option. It ranks last on this list for a reason. Shane recommends trying this exercise instead. 
To view the entire study report from ACE, click here. (You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download this PDF.)

The big takeaway from this study is that you really don't need to buy anything special to train your abs. However, if you are going to invest in one piece of exercise equipment, a simple and inexpensive stability ball is extremely versatile for all types of exercises.

Remember, every individual performs exercises differently, and a movement that is effective for one person may be ineffective or uncomfortable for someone else. Listen to your body, work at a level that is comfortable for you and never perform an exercise that causes pain. Your abs are just like any other muscles in your body, so train them accordingly. That means one to three sessions per week, and one or two days of rest in between workouts. Also, be sure to avoid the top 10 abs training mistakes.

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Member Comments

  • Great list! I love it when you don't need to buy anything to get started!
  • MUSICNUT
    Looking forward to trying these!
  • Great useful and practical info. Thank you.
  • Great useful and practical info. Thank you.
  • This would be so much nicer with pictures. The information was good though.
  • For those of us with mobility issues, we need exercises that can be done standing or seated in a chair.
  • Hi! For many days I'm suffering from back pain that's why I don't usually do exercise in a plain floor. I use ball which give me more relaxation as well as comfortable. This really effective for abs exercise.
    Through http://treadmillr
    eviewzblog.com/ -this link you can gather a clear knowledge about best, reliable & comfortable treadmill product.
  • I am all for taking care of the core, but ab rollers and crunches are not the main things to spend your time with, lift weight on a bosu. planks, ball work. I can tell you chiropractors made a bit of money with me until I learned to stop using the "roller". Stability is where it's at!
  • If you have a bad back, try the low-impact core exercises for new mothers. These are the same exercises my PT has me doing instead of crunches, which are terrible for your lower spine.
    http://www.spar
    kpeople.com/r
    esource/fitne
    ss_articles.asp?id=541
  • The BEST abs exercise is the one that you DO.
  • I am having trouble around the waist as well I can lose hips easily but not the "waist buldge".
  • DBESMAN
    I need to get rid of the ' spare tyre ' around my waist. I've tried almost everything. Nothing seems to work HELP !!!!!!!!




















  • I'm surprised that planks rate so low! When I do traditional ab exercises (like the #1 rated exercise) my abs never feel worked out (none of that "good" soreness the next day) but my hip flexors sure do! The most workout I feel that my abs have gotten is when they need to help me stabilized myself for other exercises, like tricep presses (believe it or not) or standing (slightly leaning back) rows. Best yet is some of the belly dance moves that I've learned, done drill-style (100 chest lifts - working the upper abs, 100 omi - working lower abs, lower back, and obliques, camels - working lower back and lower abs, they are also really awesome for a sore lower back!).

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

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