What are the most effective ab exercises?

A lot of people start working out to get those nice abs that are seen in magazines. There are millions of workout and diet videos, articles about how to build six-packs. Not to mention, the so-called “revolutionary ab machines” promoted on the TV.

How do we know what the best ab exercises are? It’s quite simple. We have to analyze them, for example with electromyography (EMG) equipment, and see how the muscles are activated during the exercise. The results will show us what works the best and worst.

Fortunately, there are people who, instead of just claiming what exercises are the best for the abdominal muscles, make a complete investigation on the topic.

The Biomechanics Lab managed such research at San Diego State University. They picked the 13 most popular abdominal exercises and analyzed them. The results are exciting.

How the study was made

Peter Francis, Ph.D., was the leader of the project. They involved 30 women and men with a healthy fitness level. These people know how to perform the exercises correctly, and they work out almost every day.

The participants had to perform 13 types of abdominal exercises, among them the most typical ones, such as various crunches and leg lifts. They had to perform 10-12 repetitions of each exercise with two seconds at the concentric phase and two at the eccentric phase. During the test, they used electromyography (EMG) equipment that showed the muscle activity of the rectus abdominis and the external obliques. Also, they checked the movement of the rectus femoris to know if the exercises are performed correctly.

Based on the data they got, a score was given for each practice. The baseline was the traditional crunch with 100. So, if muscular EMG activity was higher, more points were given, and vice versa. This way, they can set up a list with the most beneficial and least useful ab exercises.

What ab exercises are the best?

The results revealed that those exercises that require body rotation and abdominal muscle stabilization are the ones that generated the most EMG activity. With that, there is no surprise that the bicycle maneuver and hanging leg raises are the absolute winners for both the obliques and the rectus abdominus. But the analysis also revealed that the exercise ball crunch generated less action in the rectus femoris, which means it targets the abdominal muscles effectively.

Muscle Activity in Rectus Abdominis

ExerciseMuscle Activity
1. Bicycle Maneuver248
2. Captain’s chair212
3. Crunch on exercise ball139
4. Vertical leg crunch129
5. Torso track127
6. Longarm crunch119
7. Reverse crunch109
8. Crunch with heel push107
9. Ab wheel105
10. Hover100
11. Traditional crunch100
12. Exercise tubing pull92
13. Ab rocker21
Activity in rectus abdominis

Muscle Activity in Obliques

ExerciseMuscle Activity
1. Captain’s chair310
2. Bicycle Maneuver290
3. Reverse cunch240
4. Hover230
5. Vertical leg crunch216
6. Exercise ball147
7. Torso track145
8. Crunch with heel push126
9. Longarm crunch118
10. Ab roller101
11. Traditional crunch100
12. Exercise tubing pull77
13. Ab rocker74
Activity in obliques

Interestingly, the various tested crunches have almost the same effect on the rectus abdominus. The difference is minimal between the traditional crunch and the reverse crunch, for example. Although, some crunches worked the obliques more than it was expected. And what’s the last on both lists? The Ab Rocker exercise equipment, which far underperformed all the other bodyweight exercises with no equipment.

What is unusual for me is that the ab roller, aka ab wheel, brought quite bad results for both the abs and the obliques. But, I see it as a core exercise equipment rather than equipment for abs. So, I continue using it for sure.

Key points

This study reveals some interesting facts, for example, that there are much better exercises than crunches and the seen on TV types of ab equipment are almost useless. But, we shouldn’t forget that the study was made by testing people who have an acceptable level of fitness. So, for beginners, crunches are still useful exercises to start. If you are at a higher fitness level, and you can do numerous crunches, you’d better switch to more advanced practices that are found on the top of the lists.

Did you like this study? Share the infographic.


Written by Imre

Imre has been working out for over 20 years. He likes all sorts of strength training and boxing. Since he's a busy father he works out only at home.