Strengthening the abdominal muscles is very beneficial for trunk stability, injury prevention, rehabilitation, good posture, alleviating lower back pain and increasing sport performance. But let’s be real – the reason a lot of us exercise is to look good. Everyone longs for a slim and trim core and flat abs.
But what is the best, most efficient route to tighter abs?
First of all, what you put in your mouth matters. It’s crucial to slimming down your waistline. Secondly you need to regularly work your core muscles to get those abs to show up. Most people just don’t have the time and energy for 25 to 30 minutes of crunches and leg-raises, five or six days a week. If you are one of us who lead a busy life, then you have no time to lose. You need to find the most effective exercises to activate your abdominal muscles and burn the fat off. So, let’s see what the science really says about the best ab exercises!
In a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), researchers compared 13 of the most common abdominal exercises, and ranked them from most to least effective. After extensive data collection and analysis, researchers concluded that exercises requiring constant abdominal stabilization, as well as body rotation, may generate the most muscle activation. 3, 4
For strengthening the rectus abdominis muscle, the 13 exercises were ranked most to least effective:
- Bicycle maneuver / Bicycle crunch
- Captain’s chair / Roman chair leg raises
- Crunches on exercise ball (Swiss ball)
- Vertical leg crunch
- Torso Track
- Long arm crunch
- Reverse crunch
- Crunch with heel push
- Ab Roller
- Traditional crunch
- Exercise tubing pull
- Ab Rocker
In another study conducted by researchers at Andrews-Paulos Research and Education Institute, eight Swiss ball exercises and two traditional abdominal exercises were tested, and a similar conclusion was made. 2
Researchers found that muscle activity was greater when exercises require stabilization, and were performed on a Swiss ball. The exercises tested were the followings:
- Swiss ball roll-out
- Swiss ball pike
- Swiss ball knee-up
- Swiss ball skier
- Swiss ball hip extension right
- Swiss ball hip extension left
- Swiss ball decline push-up
- Swiss ball sitting march right
- Regular crunch
- Regular bent-knee sit-up
Researchers found that Swiss ball roll-out and pike were the most effective exercises in activating upper and lower rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and latissimus dorsi muscles, while minimizing lumbar paraspinals and rectus femoris activity.
A third study at University of Derby sought to examine any differences in abdominal muscles (upper rectus abdominis and lower rectus abdominis muscle) activity during four exercises:
- regular curl-up
- Swiss ball curl-up
- Swiss ball jackknife
- Swiss ball rollout
Similarly, researchers found that the activity of abdominal muscles may be the greatest when exercise was performed on an unstable surface (i.e. Swiss ball) in comparison to the regular curl-up on a stable surface. In addition, the found that lower rectus abdominis muscle activity – that can be hard to involve for most of us – was maximized during the Swiss ball jacknife.1
For best results, choose several of the top-rated exercises and do a five to ten minute exercise 3 to 5 times a week.
A sample workout structure for a 5 minute workout
- Choose 5 exercises
- 20 Seconds each
- 10 Seconds rest/transition time
- 2 rounds
- 5 Minutes total
If one exercise is uncomfortable, try other ones and build a variety that meet your needs. This can you to help train different areas of the core muscles and prevent boredom.
- Duncan M.: Muscle activity of the upper and lower rectus abdominis during exercises performed on and off a Swiss ball. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2009 Oct;13(4):364-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2008.11.008. Epub 2009 Feb 26.
- Escamilla RF1, Lewis C, Bell D, Bramblet G, Daffron J, Lambert S, Pecson A, Imamura R, Paulos L, Andrews JR.: Core muscle activation during Swiss ball and traditional abdominal exercises. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010 May;40(5):265-76. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2010.3073.
- American Council on Exercise (ACE)-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises. Published on-line, May 14, 2001 https://www.acefitness.org/about-ace/press-room/press-releases/246/american-council-on-exercise-ace-sponsored-study
- Mark Anders: New Study Puts the Crunch on Ineffective Ab Exercises. ACE-Commissioned Study, May/June 2001 ACE Fitnessmatters, published on-line: https://www.acefitness.org/getfit/studies/BestWorstAbExercises.pdf