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Which Abs Exercises Work Best?

The ACE Abdominals Study

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Updated September 22, 2012

In 2001, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a study by Peter Frances at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University in which they studied 30 men and women aged 20-45 with a range of fitness and weight training expertise. The researchers used electromyography (EMG) equipment to monitor muscle activity as they exercised.

Here are the top six exercises for the rectus abdominis and the obliques according to muscle activation scores. The relative score is to the right.

Rectus abdominis

  1. Bicycle Maneuver 248
  2. Captain’s Chair 212
  3. Exercise Ball Crunch 139
  4. Vertical Leg Crunch 129
  5. Torso Track (roll-out machine) 127
  6. Long Arm Crunch 119

Obliques

  1. Captain’s Chair 310
  2. Bicycle Maneuver 290
  3. Reverse Crunch 240
  4. Hover 230
  5. Vertical Leg Crunch 216
  6. Exercise Ball 147

Read the complete ACE study for additional information and exercise description and pics. You may also read other research that reaches slightly different conclusions and recommendations, so be aware that as with many fitness issues, this is an evolving science.

Summing Up

Even so, this does not need to get too complicated. Here are my recommendations based on a synthesis of current research and practical application for weight training the abdominal muscles.
  • Utilizing and alternating several abs exercises will provide sufficient stimulation for development of these muscle groups and provide variety.
  • The standard crunch, the reverse crunch or bicycle maneuver, the fitball crunch and the captain's chair leg raise are all that most people will ever need to train the abdominals well.
  • Use the abdominal brace to prepare the abs for the work. Do this by tightening the abdominal muscles without drawing or sucking in. Think of preparing for a punch in the stomach.
  • To increase the workout intensity either add weights to the exercises or utilize an incline bench
  • For safety, always keep the lower back flat on the floor, round the back on the lift (standard crunch) and keep the head and neck steady.

Sources

American Council on Exercise, Abdominals Exercise Study, 2001

Barr KP, Griggs M, Cadby T. Lumbar stabilization: core concepts and current literature, Part 1. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2005 Jun;84(6):473-80. Review.

Chiu, Loren ZF. Are Specific Spine Stabilization Exercises Necessary for Athletes? Strength and Conditioning Journal 29:1:15-17, 2007

Grenier SG, McGill SM. Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2007 Jan;88(1):54-62.

Delavier F. Strength Training Anatomy, Second Edition, 2006.

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