In recent years, a host of infomercial products and exercise videos have preyed on people’s desire for a toned midsection. And many avid exercisers are quick to share their own favorite recipes for abdominal success. But what is the best, most efficient route to tighter abs? A recent study conducted by the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University reveals a unique look at 13 of the most common abdominal exercises, ranking them best to worst.
Led by Peter Francis, Ph.D., researchers recruited 30 healthy women and men to participate in the study. The subjects, ages 20 to 45, ranged from occasional exercisers to those who work out daily. Participants were put through a battery of exercises that target the midsection, including the traditional crunch, modified crunches, partial body weight exercises and exercises using both home and gym exercise equipment. All of the exercises were introduced in random order and participants were allowed to practice each exercise briefly. Subjects then completed 10 to 12 repetitions of each exercise, maintaining a two-count cadence throughout (two seconds at the concentric phase, two at the eccentric phase). Using electromyography (EMG) equipment, researchers monitored each participant’s muscle activity as they exercised. Activity was recorded in the upper and lower rectus abdominus and the external obliques. Researchers also measured activity in the rectus femoris to indicate activity in the hip flexors. These data are important because high levels of activity in this area suggest that an exercise is either done incorrectly or requires the body to recruit muscles other than the abdominals and obliques.
Using the EMG data, researchers established the mean muscle activity for each exercise and normalized it to that of a traditional crunch—the baseline for comparison (score of 100). Exercises were then ranked best to worst based on the average amount of EMG activity recorded in each of the muscle areas.
After extensive data collection and analysis, Dr. Francis and his researchers found that exercises that require constant abdominal stabilization, as well as body rotation, generated the most muscle activity in the obliques. Topping the list of the most effective exercises was the bicycle maneuver, followed closely by the second ranked, hanging leg raises. As for home exercise equipment, crunches on an exercise ball ranked highest—coming in third overall. Although crunches on an exercise ball generated less activity in the obliques and rectus abdominus than the top two exercises, the exercise also generated significantly less activity in the rectus femoris—making it, arguably, the best overall exercise of the lot.
Not all of the variations of the crunch fared so well. Both the long arm crunch and the crunch with heel push were shown to be only slightly more effective than the traditional crunch.
The Ab Roller was proven to be virtually no more effective than the traditional crunch while the AB Rocker was shown to be up to 80 percent less effective. This begs the question, why spend €150 on a piece of exercise equipment that does less to work your abs than a crunch?
The Bottom Line
Many of the exercises tested proved to be relatively effective at working the abdominal muscles—some are just more effective than others. The important thing to remember is that you don’t need to purchase a piece of exercise equipment to strengthen your abs. If, however, you find that an ab device inspires you to stick with your exercise program, then it may be valuable. It’s also important to remember that everybody does ab exercises differently, and people need to get out of the mindset that all exercises work for all people. As expected, the effectiveness of each exercise varied from subject to subject depending on factors such as athleticism, familiarization with the exercises and past injuries. For best results, Dr. Francis recommends choosing several of the exercises that landed in the top-third of the list and try doing a five-minute exercise session daily. If an exercise is uncomfortable or doesn’t feel right, try another one. This will help train different muscles and combat boredom. No matter which exercises you choose, take the time to train and strengthen your abdominal muscles. Strong abs help with good posture, alleviate lower back pain and are essential for long-term health and well being.