The 5 Most-Effective Exercises for Your Abs, According to Science

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First and foremost, the most effective abs workout is the one you’ll do consistently. But if we’re getting specific, it should target all the different muscle groups in your abdomen (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, pelvic floor, and obliques). Together they’re responsible for protecting your spine, maintaining good posture, enabling all sorts of movement, and preventing injury, says Christopher Gagliardi, CPT, a certified personal trainer. But according to a new study, when it comes to challenging your abdominal muscles, not all abs exercises are created equal.

Experts In This Article
  • Christopher Gagliardi, ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor, and Medical Exercise Specialist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NBHWC certified NBC-HWC, and NASM Certified Personal Trainer

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned the biomechanics lab at San Diego State University to find the scientific best abs exercises. For its research, the lab tested 13 popular moves to figure out which ones challenged these muscles the most. They did that by attaching electrodes to the outermost layers of abs, the upper and lower rectus abdominus (i.e. six pack abs) and the external obliques, which allowed them to measure muscle activity. They also monitored activity in the rectus femoris (or hip flexors), to help them keep an eye on whether the subject was using those muscles, a sign that they were doing the move incorrectly. The overall idea was, the more activity in the abs—and the less in the hip flexors—the more challenging the move.

The researchers used crunches as their baseline because the muscle activity they trigger received a score of 100 percent. So if a move caused twice as much activity as the crunch, it received a score of 200.

The most challenging abs exercise for the rectus abdominis proved to be the bicycle, a popular move that resembles riding a bicycle while laying on your back. And the second most challenging was the Captain’s Chair, performed using a piece of gym equipment that requires using your low abs to do knee tucks. When it comes to the obliques, the order was reversed, but these were still the top two, most-challenging moves. Now that’s called dominance!

The study was fairly small—it only tested 13 out of the multitude of abs exercises out there, and performed tests on just 30 men and women for one hour each. So it shouldn’t be considered the end all, be all authority on core workouts. But its insights are still valuable.

For example, it found that “exercises that require constant abdominal stabilization, as well as body rotation, generated the most muscle activity in the obliques.” The takeaway? Make sure you pick a mix of moves that challenge all of your abs muscles and utilize all three planes of movement—forward and back, side to side, and rotating around your spine. The study’s lead, Peter Francis, Ph.D., recommends sticking to moves in the top third of the list as they’re the most challenging. “This will help train different muscles and combat boredom,” he explains in a write-up of his findings.

The 5 most-challenging abs exercises

1. Bicycles

Lie flat on your back on a mat, interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head, then bring your legs into tabletop (knees over hips, shins parallel to the floor). Keeping your head heavy in your palms, curl your head, neck, and shoulder blades up off the floor as you rotate your torso over toward your right leg and extend your left leg to straight at a 45- degree angle. Think left armpit to right hip. Reverse the movement to return to center, lower your head down, as you draw your left leg back into tabletop before switching sides.

2. Captain’s Chair

This one involves using the Captain’s Chair exercise equipment, which is a chair back with two handles, elevated above the ground, with no seat. To do the move, place your forearms onto the arm rests of the chair and grip the handles; your legs will dangle. Now slowly tuck your knees in toward your chest. The motion should be controlled and deliberate as you bring the knees up and return them back to the starting position.

3. Crunches on an exercise ball

Lie back over a large exercise ball until your thighs and torso are parallel with the floor, feet flat on the ground. Cross your arms over your chest and slightly tuck your chin in toward your chest. Contract your abdominals and raise your torso up off the ball no more than 45 degrees. For better balance, spread your feet wider apart. To challenge the obliques, make the exercise less stable by moving your feet closer together.

4. Vertical leg crunch

Lie flat on your back on a workout mat, interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head, then extend your legs straight up toward the ceiling so your feet are over your hips. Keep your head heavy in your palms and curl your head, neck, and shoulder blades up off the floor. Make sure to keep your chin off your chest with each contraction, like you’re pinning an orange against your chest with it.

5. Reverse Crunch

Lie flat on a mat with your lower back pressed to the ground. Put your hands behind your head or extend them out flat to your sides—whatever feels most comfortable—then extend your legs straight up toward the ceiling so your feet are over your hips. Contract your low abs to lift your hips a few inches up off the floor, like you’re trying to touch your toes on the ceiling. Lower back down with control.

It doesn’t get more hard core than this.

For more ways to work your midsection, try this 10-minute workout: 

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