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The 10 Best Ab Exercises

The abs are one of the hardest areas to target. They’re a constant source of frustration for lots of you. You’re likely to find lots of articles online about the best ab exercises, but most of these have no scientific backing … they’re based on opinion.

The list of best ab exercises you’ll see on this page are based on results of a study conducted by researchers at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University. These researchers compared muscle activation in 13 of the most common ab exercises to determine which were the most effective. They used electromyography (EMG) equipment to measure the amount of muscle stimulation for each abdominal exercise.

Here’s what they found (the higher the “mean % of activity” number is, the more effective the exercise was at stimulating muscle fibers):

10 best ab exercises

RANKING EXERCISE MEAN % OF ACTIVITY
1 Bicycle Maneuver 248
2 Captain's Chair 212
3 Exercise Ball Crunch 139
4 Vertical Leg Crunch 129
5 Torso Track 127
6 Long Arm Crunch 119
7 Reverse Crunch 109
8 Crunch with Heel Push 107
9 Ab Roller 105
10 Hover 100

How to do them

1. Bicycle Maneuver: lying with your back flat on the floor with your legs straight out, use your ab muscles to raise your body up, while simultaneously raising your legs. Touch your left elbow to your right knee. Hold at the top and squeeze your abs for a couple seconds and then switch and touch your right elbow to your left knee. Do as many reps as possible.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

best ab exercises2. Captain’s Chair: the Captain’s Chair (pictured) is a piece of equipment you’ll find in most gyms. You can also pick one up on Craigslist (I did) or Amazon. Here’s how to do the exercise: hoist yourself up and hold your body up by the two arm rests, with your back resting against the pad. Slowly lift your knees toward your chest, keeping your lower back firmly against the pad. Hold your knees for two seconds while squeezing your abs at the top of the movement. Do as many reps as possible. An even more difficult version of this is to keep your legs straight and use your abs to raise and lower them. This is, in my opinion, the absolute best ab exercise (and one of the hardest) you can do.

Difficulty level: Advanced

3. Exercise Ball Crunch: this exercise obviously requires you to have an exercise ball (which is an expensive piece of fitness equipment everyone should have). Lean your lower back against the exercise ball and balance your weight with your body at a 45-degree angle. Lifting your arms in the air in front of you, contract your abs and roll your body up and forward, squeezing your abs hard when you get to the top of the movement. Do as many reps as possible. A more difficult variation is holding a medicine ball in the air while performing the movement.

Difficulty level: Beginner

4. Vertical Leg Crunch: lie on your back on the floor with your lower back pressed firmly to the ground. Raise your legs so they’re straight up in the air. With your hands on the sides of your hips, raise your shoulders off the ground and perform a crunch. Squeeze your abs at the top of the movement, then lower yourself back down and repeat.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

ab wheel exercise5. Torso Track: the Torso Track is a machine (pictured) in which you grip the handles and glide forward as far as you comfortably can. This is one of my favorite ab exercises and you don’t need a machine to do it. You can use a barbell, exercise ball or ab wheel instead, all of which are under $20. This is great exercise for strengthening your lower back but be careful not to extend too far when first starting out, because it could result in injury.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

6. Long Arm Crunch: to perform this ab exercise, lie on your back and extend your arms out in front of you. Use your abs to lift your body while keeping your arms long and straight. Lift until your arms are parallel with your thighs. Be sure to use your body to raise and lower yourself … don’t strain your neck muscles.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

7. Reverse Crunch: lie on your back on the floor or a bench with your hands resting at your sides or underneath your butt. Slowly bend your knees, lift your legs up and bring your knees toward your chest until they create a 90-degree angle. Squeeze your abs at the top of the movement. Be sure to keep your head down and your lower back flat against the floor. Let your ab muscles do the work, not your momentum.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

8. Crunch with Heel Push: lie on your back with your knees bent and hands on the sides of your head. Push your heels into the floor and perform a standard crunch by using your midsection to lift your shoulder blades off the floor. Repeat for as many reps as possible.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

9. Ab Roller: this exercise is very similar to the Torso Track. Get on your knees and grip the handles of the ab roller. Glide forward as far as you comfortably can, and return to the starting position. Don’t extend too far out when first starting out.

Difficulty level: Beginner

10. Hover: the hover is also known as a “plank.” To do this ab exercise, lie down on your stomach and lift your body off the floor, resting your weight on your forearms (elbows at 90 degrees) and your toes. Keep your body in a straight position (without arching your back) and hold for as long as possible. For added difficulty, raise one arm off the ground and point forward, then repeat arms.

Difficulty level: Beginner

Here are some of my other favorite ab exercises

These didn’t make the “best ab exercises” list, but that’s because they weren’t among the 13 exercises measured in the study. In my experience, they really work.
Bridge: lie down with you back flat on the floor, arms out at your sides (palms flat on the floor). Slowly thrust your midsection up into the air, holding at the top for 5-10 seconds, then slowly lowering your body back down to the ground. Focus on using your abs to lift your body, not your arms. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions.

Difficulty level: Beginner

Canoe Row: grab a light dumbbell or medicine ball (or any other weighted object) and sit with your butt on the floor and your feet out in front of you flat on the floor. Raise your feet up so your weight is supported and balanced by your butt. Holding the weight out in front of you, rotate your body using your hips and “row" the weight to the left side. Repeat the maneuver on the right side and continue to switch back and forth, like you’re rowing a boat. Do 10-15 reps and repeat for 3 sets.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Supermans: lie on the floor face down and reach forward with both of your arms. At the same time, lift your legs off the floor so you’re in a “superman" position. Hold the position for as long as possible, focusing on keeping your arms and legs straight and your core tight and engaged.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Side Plank with Leg Lift: lie on your side with one foot on top of the other, lifting your body and supporting your weight on your forearm and your bottom foot. Hold the position and lift your outside leg up and down, raising your outside arm at the same time. Switch sides and repeat.

Difficulty level: Advanced

Want More Tips on Getting Tight and Toned?

This article is #10 in my free 12-part tutorial called “Exercise 101: How to Get In Shape“.

Next up is article #11, where you’ll see my list of the 10 best medicine ball exercises.

Or you can go back to article #9 and read about some of the best foam roller exercises.



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