While sculpted abdominal muscles are often featured in advertisements, social media posts and magazine articles, there is more to strong abs than good looks. Strong abdominal muscles are key to increasing core strength and endurance, improving posture, reducing low-back pain and enhancing sports performance.
In addition, a strong core is essential for proper stability and mobility, which helps with performing activities of daily living like lifting heavy objects and recreational activities like swinging a golf club.
Stated simply, core conditioning should be part of any well-rounded workout program.
[READ: Muscle Recovery After Workouts.]
The Best Ab Exercises
To determine which exercises most actively engaged the abs, research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise looked at seven popular exercises. The traditional crunch was used as the standard against which all other exercises were compared.
— Yoga boat pose
— Stability ball crunch
— Decline bench curl-up
— Captain’s chair crunch
— Bicycle crunch
— Side plank
— Front plank
In addition, the researchers evaluated several pieces of abdominal training equipment including ab rollers, coasters, wheels, straps and more.
The study participants performed the exercises and used the equipment while researchers measured how intensely each muscle was working. The following muscles were tested:
— Upper rectus abdominis
— Lower rectus abdominis
— External obliques
— Rectus femoris (a quadriceps muscle)
The rectus femoris, one of the quadriceps muscles found in the front of the thigh, was included in this study because it is involved in many abdominal exercises.
When doing ab exercises, the goal is to minimize activation of this muscle while maximizing activation of the abdominal muscles. In other words, you want to work the core without using the quads to compensate for any weakness in the abs or lower back.
[See: 11 Benefits of Strength Training That Have Nothing to Do With Muscle Size.]
Exercises for Your Upper and Lower Abs
The researchers found that nothing worked better than the traditional crunch at working the upper and lower rectus abdominis muscles, and several of the other exercises were considerably less effective.
Another interesting but not surprising finding of this research was that there was no apparent difference between the upper and lower abs in terms of a person’s ability to recruit one region versus the other. So, exercises or products that claim to target the upper or lower abs might not work as advertised.
Exercises for Your Obliques
Four of the pieces of equipment, as well as the captain’s chair crunch and decline bench curl-up, were more effective than the traditional crunch at targeting the external obliques, likely because these exercises and equipment allow a bit more freedom of movement.
The key takeaway from this study is that it’s certainly possible to effectively train your abs at home with little or no equipment. While the traditional crunch may not be appropriate for everyone, especially people with low-back pain, it’s the most effective choice for most people. Also, it’s important to remember that no single exercise is going to challenge all of the abdominal muscles in the most effective way, so a comprehensive approach using a variety of exercises is essential.
[READ: 12 Best Equipment-Free Strength Exercises for Older Adults.]
Sample Ab Workout
This sample core workout features a variety of exercises from this research, along with exercises that target the hip and low-back musculature. This workout will effectively engage the muscles on the front, side, and back of the trunk to promote good posture and muscular strength and endurance.
This workout uses supersets, to target opposing muscle groups within the same workout for a fun and efficient core conditioning exercise session. Supersets involve alternating sets of two different exercises with little or no rest in between exercises. It is a time-efficient way to increase exercise intensity.
Superset 1: Stability ball crunch and bird dog
Superset 2: Side plank and glute bridge
Superset 3: Supine bicycle crunch and front plank
— Complete 12 or more repetitions of each exercise.
— Rest for 30 seconds or less between exercises within a superset and for two to three minutes between supersets.
— Complete two or three sets of each superset before moving on to the next.
For example, complete 12 stability ball crunches, rest for 30 seconds or less, and then complete 12 bird dogs (six on each side). Rest for two or three minutes, then complete your next set of superset 1.
|Superset 1||Stability ball crunch
|Superset 2||Side plank
|Superset 3||Supine bicycle crunch Front plank|
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