The Most Effective Ab Exercises
Abdominal Muscle Activation Study

On this page I discuss the results from a study on the "most effective ab exercises".

The study was conducted at the biomechanics lab at San Diego State University by Dr. Peter Francis, a well respected authority in the fitness industry.

Before we get to the results, let's define "effective".

Effective Equals Muscle Activation Not Fat Loss

In this study, the researchers were measuring muscle activation in the rectus abdominus (6 pack) and the internal and exeternal obliques during 13 different abdominal exercises.

The "most effective" abdominal exercises were the ones that yielded the most muscle activation in the targeted muscles.

They did not measure the change in appearance of the abdominal muscles, a change in the size of the waist, or a decrease in body fat percentage. So many people still make the BIG MISTAKE of thinking that abdominal exercises will magically melt fat off your stomach.

No matter how much muscle activation is achieved in the abdominal muscles through exercise, even 100 effective abdominal exercises cannot magically get rid of subcutaneous fat.

Spot Reduction is the #1 Ab Exercise Myth.

Sorry to disappoint you if you thought the most effective abdominal exercises would finally give you a six pack or a flat stomach. This is a vicious myth perpetuated by the big marketing companies that make millions of dollars selling ab machines and gimmicks.

Trust me, I've tried tons of ab machines and slaved away on the floor doing crunches, leg raises, and sit ups for hours, and that does not make you look like a model-- but it will make you super fit and super strong.

Okay back to the results.

The Most Effective Ab Exercises Results
Muscle Activation in the Rectus Abdominus

This first set of data is for muscle activation in the rectus abdominus. The rectus abdominus runs straight down the center of your abdomen, and it is the muscle that people refer to as the 6 pack.

The 13 abdominal exercises are listed from the highest activation to lowest activation in the rectus abdominus.

Ranking Exercise Mean % of Activation

1 Bicycle Maneuver 248
2 Captain's Chair 212
3 Exercise Ball Crunches 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
11 Traditional Crunch 100
12 Exercise Tubing Pull 92
13 Ab Rocker 21

In this graph, traditional crunches (100%) were the baseline and all the other ab exercises were measured against the muscle activation level compared with crunches.

I'll discuss the results of both sets of data further after sharing the results for the obliques.

The Most Effective Ab Exercises Results
Muscle Activation in the Obliques

The internal obliques and the external obliques run on a diagonal line and attach the ribs to the pelvis. They help to bend the spine forward like a traditional crunch, tilt the pelvis back like in a reverse crunch, rotate the spine to the sides, and bend the body to the side.

The 13 abdominal exercises are listed from the highest activation to lowest activation in the obliques.

Ranking Exercise Mean % of Activation

1 Captain's Chair 310
2 Bicycle Maneuver 290
3 Reverse Crunch 240
4 Hover 230
5 Vertical Leg Crunch 216
6 Exercise Ball Crunch 147
7 Torso Track 145
8 Crunch with Heel Push 126
9 Long Arm Crunch 118
10 Ab Roller 101
11 Traditional Crunch 100
12 Exercise Tubing Pull 77
13 Ab Rocker 74

Again, traditional crunches (100%) was the baseline score for muscle activation in the obliques and the other ab exercises were measured against crunches to determine if they stimulated the obliques more or less than traditional crunches.

Discussion of Results

Did any of those results surprise you?

Most Effective Ab Exercise

A quick glance a the results might suggest that Bicycle Crunches are one of the most effective ab exercises because it really stimulates both the rectus abdominus and the obliques really well.

I have always loved bicycle crunches, and I teach them to nearly all of my clients. They are so effective because your upper body and lower body add resistance to your ab muscles. In addition, when you rotate you really increase the muscle work in the obliques. Bicycle crunches activate your abdominals from almost every angle during this one exercise.

Bicycle crunches are my favorite ab exercise!

Least Effective Exercise

It probably seems pretty obvious that from this list that the Ab Rocker is the least effective exercise for stimulating the abdominal muscles.

One of the reasons is that the resistance is not in the ideal spot to stimulate the abdominal muscles. During the Ab Rocker exercise, you sit down and push forward. The problem is that instead of your abdominal muscles pulling you forward, gravity pulls you forward. When gravity pulls you forward, it's actually your lower back muscles that will contract to stop you from falling forward.

According to this study the Ab Rocker is more than 75% less effective than traditional crunches at stimulating the rectus abdominus (6 pack). I'd save the $70+ on this ab machine and invest in an exercise ball and a good pair of walking shoes.

Exercise Ball Crunches

Exercise Ball Crunches actually score really well for both the rectus and the obliques, but a hidden gem was that the exercise ball crunches showed significantly less activation in the hip flexors.

They also measured muscle activation in the hip flexors (rectus femoris muscle). This muscle is on the front of the thigh and it bends (flexes) the hip. When the legs are moving or contracting additional pressure is placed on the lower back, this is a normal biomechanical phenomenon. However, when the lower back is irritated or injured, some therapists try to limit the tension on the spine and avoid exercises that have high activation in the hip flexors.

In comparing hip flexor (rectus femoris) activity, crunches on an exercise ball generated significantly less activation in the hip flexors than the bicycle crunches and the captain's chair, which may make exercise ball crunches one of the best ab exercises because it works the abdominal muscles harder than crunches but doesn't put a ton of pressure on the lower back.

Just to firm up this point... During bicycle crunches and captain's chair knee raises your legs are moving and your hips are bending. Any time your legs move during an ab exercise you will have more pressure on your back. When doing crunches on an exercise ball, your hips stay stationary and your legs don't move. In addition, crunches on the ball stimulate the butt (glutes) and back of the thigh (hamstrings) and this also de-emphasizes the hip flexors.

I am a big fan of crunches on the exercise ball.

Captain's Chair Knee Raises

This is another really effective abdominal exercise. One of the reasons this exercise has such a high activation level is gravity. Our legs are heavy, and on the Captain's Chair gravity is lined up to pull our legs straight down.

This exercise by itself has the advantage that the weight our body has to move is heavy. Note: If they compared weighted crunches to the Captain's Chair the numbers would likely have been different. The heavier the weight the higher the muscle activation, and since our lower body weighs more than our upper body the Captain's Chair may have an unfair advantage.

Even though the Captain's Chair has an advantage in this study, I still think it's a good ab exercise.

If you don't have access to a Captain's Chair to do hanging knee raises, don't worry just add some resistance to your ab exercises with dumbbells, medicine balls, or cables.

The bottom line is that all ab exercises have pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages. So my recommendation is to use a variety of exercises so that your core strength is well rounded. You want to develop strength in all directions and in all ranges of motion.

Visit the Directory of Abdominal Exercises to learn all the ab exercises on this site or try one of our free ab workout routines.

Yours in Health,
Dr. Charles Inniss Physical Therapist/ Personal Trainer

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