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[Study] The 8 Best Abs Exercises of All Time, According to Science and EMG Data (Also, Ditch these 5)

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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When it comes to achieving that coveted six-pack, not all exercises are created equal. With a plethora of options available, it can be overwhelming to decipher which moves will truly deliver results.

But fear not, as we’ve delved deep into the world of ab exercises, backed by science and EMG (electromyography) data, to bring you the crème de la crème of core workouts.

best abs exercises
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So, which abs exercises should you do next? Let’s find out. But first:

Understanding EMG: A Scientific Approach to Measuring Muscle Activity

EMG study
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We’ve scoured loads of scientific research to find out which exercises are truly effective at building your core muscles, and which ones aren’t.

EMG, or electromyography, is a technique used to evaluate and record the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. It is an essential tool in medical and research settings, providing valuable insights into muscle function and health.

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How Does EMG Work?

EMG involves the use of electrodes that are placed on the skin or inserted into the muscle to detect the electrical signals associated with muscle activity. When a muscle contracts, it generates an electrical signal that can be measured and analyzed by the EMG equipment. The data collected can then be used to assess the level of muscle activation and the coordination of muscle activity during different movements.

Why Use EMG in Ab Exercise Research?

When it comes to researching the effectiveness of ab exercises, EMG is a preferred method for several reasons:

  1. Objective Measurement: EMG provides an objective way to measure muscle activity, eliminating the subjectivity that can come with visual observations or self-reported data.
  2. Quantifiable Data: The electrical signals recorded by EMG can be quantified, allowing researchers to compare the effectiveness of different exercises in activating the abdominal muscles.
  3. Targeted Analysis: EMG can be used to analyze specific muscle groups, making it an ideal tool for studying the activation of different abdominal muscles during various exercises.
  4. Real-Time Feedback: EMG provides real-time data on muscle activity, enabling researchers to observe how muscle activation changes throughout the exercise movement.

By utilizing EMG, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of how different ab exercises impact the abdominal muscles, ultimately helping to identify the most effective core exercises, for strengthening and toning the core. This scientific approach ensures that recommendations are based on solid evidence, providing individuals with reliable information to guide their fitness journey.

Related: How Long Does It REALLY Take To Get A 6 Pack?

The 8 Best abs exercises

Bicycle Crunches

Bicycle Crunches
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Bicycle crunches are a dynamic ab exercise that involves simultaneous leg and arm movement, mimicking the motion of riding a bicycle.

Why it’s effective: Bicycle crunches engage multiple muscle groups in the abdominals, including the rectus abdominis and the obliques. This exercise has been shown to produce the most muscle activity in the abdominals, making it a top choice for core strengthening.

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your legs lifted, knees bent at 90 degrees.
  2. Bring your right elbow and left knee towards each other while extending your right leg out.
  3. Switch sides, bringing your left elbow and right knee towards each other while extending your left leg out.
  4. Continue alternating sides in a fluid motion.

Variations:

  • Cable Crunch

Captain’s Chair

Captain’s Chair
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The Captain’s Chair exercise requires a special gym equipment that allows you to support your body weight on your forearms while your legs hang free.

Why it’s effective: The Captain’s Chair isolates the abdominal muscles without involving other muscle groups, allowing for focused strengthening of the core.

How to perform:

  1. Stand on the Captain’s Chair and place your forearms on the pads, gripping the handles.
  2. Lift your knees towards your chest in a controlled manner.
  3. Lower your legs back to the starting position and repeat.

Variations:

  • Hanging leg raises

Crunches on an Exercise Ball

Crunches on an Exercise Ball
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Crunches on an exercise ball involve performing the traditional crunch movement while seated on a stability ball.

Why it’s effective: This variation of crunches provides a targeted exercise for the abs with less activity in the leg muscles, ensuring the focus remains on strengthening the core.

How to perform:

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  • Creatine has no known side effects
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  1. Sit on an exercise ball with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Walk your feet forward and lean back until your upper back and shoulders are resting on the ball.
  3. Place your hands behind your head and lift your torso towards the ceiling in a crunch motion.
  4. Lower back down and repeat.

Variations:

  • Stability ball knee tuck

Vertical Leg Raise

Vertical Leg Raise
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The Vertical Leg Raise is a simple yet effective exercise that involves lifting your legs while lying on your back or hanging from a bar.

Why it’s effective: The Vertical Leg Raise ranked high in all four studies reviewed, making it a scientifically-backed choice for ab strengthening.

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight and arms at your sides.
  2. Lift your legs towards the ceiling, keeping them straight.
  3. Lower your legs back to the starting position and repeat.

Variations:

  • Dragon flag

Declined Bench Curl-Up

Incline Bench Curl-Up
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The Decline Curl-Up is a variation of the traditional curl-up, performed on an declined bench.

Why it’s effective: The Curl-Up ranked highest for both upper and lower abs in two studies, making it a top choice for comprehensive core strengthening.

How to perform:

  1. Lie on a declined bench with your feet secured at the top.
  2. Place your hands behind your head and lift your torso towards your knees in a curl-up motion.
  3. Lower back down and repeat.

Variations:

  • Weighted curl-up

Roll-Out

Roll-Out
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The Roll-Out exercise involves extending your body forward while supporting your weight on a roller or ab wheel.

Why it’s effective: The Roll-Out works not only the abdominals but also the deltoids, serratus, and back, providing a full-body workout.

How to perform:

  1. Kneel on the floor with the roller or ab wheel in front of you.
  2. Place your hands on the roller and roll it forward, extending your body into a straight line.
  3. Use your abs to pull the roller back to the starting position and repeat.

Variations:

  • Barbell Roll Outs

Notable mention: Planks

Planks
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There were not a lot of EMG evidence for this exercises, but trusted experts swear by it (and so do I). https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/straight-talk-on-planking-2019111318304

Planks are a versatile and effective exercise that involves maintaining a push-up-like position for a set period of time.

Why it’s effective: Planks engage multiple muscle groups, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis, as well as the shoulders, chest, and legs. This exercise is known for its ability to build core strength and stability, improve posture, and enhance overall functional fitness. Planks are also a “crunch-free” option, making them a more spine-friendly alternative to traditional ab exercises.

How to perform:

  1. Start in a push-up position with your arms straight and hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Engage your core and glutes to maintain a straight line from your head to your heels.
  3. Keep your neck neutral and gaze slightly ahead of you.
  4. Hold the position for a set period of time, starting with 20-30 seconds and gradually increasing as you build strength.
  5. Rest and repeat for the desired number of sets.

Variations:

  • Side Plank: Lie on your side with your forearm on the ground and your legs stacked. Lift your hips to form a straight line from your head to your feet. Hold for a set period of time, then switch sides.

Notable mention: Russian Twists

Russian Twists
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Same goes for Russian twists.

Russian Twists are a dynamic ab exercise that involves rotating your torso while holding a weight or simply clasping your hands together.

Why it’s effective: Russian Twists target the obliques, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis, providing a comprehensive workout for the entire core. This exercise also engages the shoulders and hips, making it an effective full-body movement. Additionally, Russian Twists can improve balance, flexibility, and rotational strength, which are essential for various sports and daily activities.

How to perform:

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat.
  2. Lean back slightly, keeping your back straight, and lift your feet off the ground.
  3. Hold a weight with both hands or clasp your hands together.
  4. Rotate your torso to bring the weight or your hands towards the floor beside you, then twist to the other side.
  5. Continue alternating sides in a controlled manner.

Variations:

  • Weighted Russian Twists: Perform the exercise while holding a dumbbell, medicine ball, or kettlebell to increase resistance.

The 5 Worst ab exercises

Traditional Crunch

Traditional Crunch
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The traditional crunch is a classic ab exercise where you lie on your back, place your feet flat on the ground, and lift your upper body towards your knees.

Why it’s less effective: Some studies have ranked the traditional crunch as the least effective ab exercise. The limited range of motion and potential for neck strain make it a less optimal choice for core strengthening.

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands behind your head or across your chest.
  3. Lift your upper body towards your knees, keeping your lower back on the ground.
  4. Lower back down and repeat.

Resistance Crunch

Resistance Crunch
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The resistance band crunch involves performing a crunch while pulling on a resistance band to add extra challenge to the exercise.

Why it’s less effective: The addition of the resistance band can cause other muscle groups to become involved, detracting from the focus on the abdominal muscles.

How to perform:

  1. Attach a resistance band to a sturdy object and lie on your back with the band behind you.
  2. Hold the ends of the band with your hands and position them near your shoulders.
  3. Perform a crunch, lifting your upper body towards your knees while pulling on the band.
  4. Lower back down and repeat.

Sit-Up

Sit-Up
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The sit-up is a more intense version of the crunch, involving lifting your entire upper body off the ground.

Why it’s less effective: Sit-ups have been shown to be less effective in activating the abdominal muscles compared to other exercises. The hip flexors often take over, reducing the work required by the abs.

How to perform:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands behind your head or across your chest.
  3. Lift your entire upper body towards your knees, keeping your feet on the ground.
  4. Lower back down and repeat.

Ab Rocker

Ab Rocker
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The ab rocker is a piece of equipment designed to support your neck and back while you perform crunches.

Why it’s less effective: Studies have shown that the ab rocker is 80% less effective than other ab exercises. The support provided by the equipment can actually reduce the work required by the abdominal muscles.

How to perform:

  1. Sit on the ab rocker and place your hands on the handles.
  2. Lean back until your upper body is supported by the equipment.
  3. Lift your upper body towards your knees, using the handles for support.
  4. Lower back down and repeat.

Ab Circle Pro

Ab Circle Pro
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The Ab Circle Pro is a fitness equipment that involves kneeling on pads and swinging your lower body from side to side.

Why it’s less effective: Research has shown that the Ab Circle Pro results in lower muscle activation in the upper rectus abdominis compared to the traditional crunch.

How to perform:

  1. Kneel on the pads and place your hands on the handles.
  2. Swing your lower body from side to side, using the handles for support.
  3. Keep your abs engaged and maintain a steady pace.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

The Benefits of Ab Exercises

When we talk about sculpting a strong, defined core, it’s not just about aesthetics. The benefits of ab exercises extend far beyond the surface. Let’s dive into the science-backed advantages of incorporating abdominal workouts into your fitness regimen.

1. Improved Posture and Balance A strong core is the foundation of good posture. When your abdominal muscles are well-developed, they support your spine, helping you stand taller and more confidently. This not only improves your overall appearance but also reduces the risk of back pain and injuries. Moreover, a robust core enhances your balance and stability, crucial for everyday activities and sports performance.

2. Enhanced Athletic Performance Whether you’re a Crossfit enthusiast, a weekend warrior, or a professional athlete, a powerful core is your secret weapon. Ab exercises strengthen the muscles that are pivotal for explosive movements, agility, and endurance. This translates to improved performance, be it lifting heavier weights, running faster, or jumping higher.

3. Better Breathing and Oxygen Flow Did you know that a strong core can improve your breathing? When your abdominal muscles are toned, they support your diaphragm, facilitating deeper, more efficient breaths. This, in turn, enhances oxygen flow to your muscles, boosting your energy levels and overall vitality.

4. Alleviation of Lower Back Pain Lower back pain is a common ailment that plagues many of us. The culprit? Often, it’s a weak core. Ab exercises target the muscles that support your lower back, providing relief from pain and preventing future occurrences. It’s like having a natural back brace that protects you from injuries.

5. Improved Digestion and Organ Function A strong core also plays a role in supporting your internal organs. When your abdominal muscles are in tip-top shape, they help facilitate the movement of food through your digestive system, promoting better digestion and preventing constipation. Additionally, a robust core supports your liver, kidneys, and other vital organs, ensuring they function optimally.

6. Enhanced Flexibility and Mobility A flexible and mobile body is a healthy body. Ab exercises often incorporate movements that stretch and strengthen your muscles, improving your range of motion. This is particularly beneficial for older adults, as it helps prevent stiffness and maintains joint health.

Additional Tips for Effective Ab Training

Fueling Your Core: Nutrition’s Role in Ab Development

You’ve heard the saying, “abs are made in the kitchen,” and it couldn’t be more accurate. A clean, balanced diet is paramount in unveiling those abdominal muscles. Prioritize whole foods like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And remember, portion control is your friend. No matter how intense your gym sessions are, you can’t out-train a bad diet.

Diversity is Your Ally

Variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s the secret sauce to a chiseled core. Incorporate a mix of exercises that target your upper abs, lower abs, and obliques. This holistic approach ensures no part of your core is left behind, leading to balanced and functional strength. So, mix it up and keep your muscles guessing!

Consistency is Key

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are six-pack abs. Consistency is the cornerstone of any successful fitness journey. Aim to include abdominal exercises in your routine 2-3 times per week, focusing on quality over quantity. Remember, it’s not about doing a thousand crunches in one session; it’s about regular, focused training that will lead to results over time.

Mind Your Form

Proper form is non-negotiable when it comes to ab training. Incorrect form can lead to injuries and diminish the effectiveness of the exercise. So, take the time to learn the correct technique and be mindful of your body’s alignment during each rep. Your future self will thank you!

Incorporate Functional Movements

Functional movements mimic everyday activities, enhancing your overall fitness and preventing injuries. Incorporate exercises that challenge your core in a functional way, such as planks, twists, and lifts. These movements not only sculpt your abs but also improve your balance, core stability and, and coordination.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Breathing plays a crucial role in ab training. Proper breathing ensures that your muscles receive the oxygen they need to perform at their best. So, focus on deep, controlled breaths during your exercises. Inhale as you prepare for the movement and exhale during the exertion phase. This simple yet effective technique can make a world of difference in your training.

Parting Notes

Some extremely effective abs exercises were intentionally left out, like GHDs and Toes to bar, mainly because they work a lot of additional muscle groups, and not strictly your core. But these are fantastic, I do them every week.

Studies and Research

About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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