Finding the Best Abdominal Exercise for Your Ab Workout Routine

What is the best abdominal exercise?

This is a question that is debated continually in fitness and rehab, and if you’ve asked this question before you likely received many different answers. I will help to clarify some of the confusion, so that you can make smarter more informed workout decisions and ultimately reach your goals faster.

In order to figure out which exercise is the best abdominal exercise for you, you have to a clear goal, an understanding of functional training, and an understanding of how your body works.

Let’s start with a clear goal.

Most people want to find the best abdominal exercise for losing fat from around the stomach. Unfortunately, spot reduction is an exercise myth, and there is no magic ab exercise that by itself can magically get rid of stomach fat under your skin.

Don’t be discouraged by the fact that spot reduction is a myth.

In order to lose stomach fat and get great abs you need a comprehensive fitness approach including aerobic exercise, weight training, ab exercises, stretching exercises, and a sound nutrition philosophy. I walk you through all these components at Get Six Pack Abs or a Flat Stomach.

Okay, back to a clear goal. Your goal cannot be to find the best abdominal exercise to get rid of stomach fat, because it doesn’t exist. It’s like trying to find the fountain of youth.

Although ab exercises cannot magically get rid of love handles, ab exercises can strengthen your muscles, make your muscles hypertrophy (grow), support toning (you need all components to maximally tone), increase core stability, improve your posture, relieve and prevent back pain, increase your speed, and improve sports performance.

If you have one of the above goals, then it is much easier to figure out which exercise is best for you.

Although you cannot target a specific area for fat loss, you can target a specific area for strengthening, toning (making a muscle more firm), increasing stability and increasing coordination. This is an important point.

You cannot spot reduce, but you can spot strengthen.

You can strengthen your muscles in certain spots and in certain ways to increase your performance, support your posture, prevent back pain, and improve function.

Understanding Functional Training

Functional Training is an exercise philosophy that simply says that if you want to improve some type of performance or functional activity, your exercise must mimic that activity.

For example, if you are trying to find the best abdominal exercise for golfing, you would look for exercises that have some rotational component to them. Crunches are great, but they may not be the best exercise for improving the strength of a golf swing.

If your goal is a functional goal, then you need to find exercises that mimic the movement pattern.

Understanding how your body works.

There is no way to cover this is a quick paragraph, but let’s focus on a couple of key points.

When your back arches, pressure is placed on the joints of your lower back. So if you have arthritis or joint problems, the best abdominal exercises are ones that don’t tend to arch the back.

When your legs move, your abs must work harder to stabilize your back. If your abs cannot stabilize your back, your back has the tendency to arch.

If your abs are weak and you have joint problems, you might want to avoid exercises that involve a lot of movement from the legs when you are just beginning an exercise routine and build up to the more challenging exercises over time.

This is just scratching the surface of understanding how the body works, but the best abdominal exercise for you depends on your current fitness, ab strength, flexibility, and lower back.

On this site, I’ll do my best to help you choose the best ab exercises for you.

Finding the Best Abdominal Exercise amid 1000's of Variations

There are a million variations of every ab exercise. But, let’s just talk about crunches for now. In regards to crunches, there are many variations that you can perform, and anytime you change something about your position or technique you change the exercise.

Sometimes the change will make a significant noticeable difference and sometimes the change will be so subtle that in the end it doesn’t really make a big difference. But the point is that every time you change something about an exercise you change the effect of the exercise.

Finding the Safest Abdominal Challenge

One of the ways you can perform crunches is with the feet lifted off the floor and your hips bent at 90 degrees. In a study reported in the journal, Medicine and Science and Sports and Exercise (click to view abstract), researchers sought out to find the safest abdominal challenge. They compared work to compression ratios.

What this means is that they measured how hard the abs were working and compared it with how much pressure was placed on the lower back during different exercises.

The best exercise for the rectus abdominus (six pack) according to their criteria was the one that worked the abdominal muscles really hard, but put the least pressure on the joints of the lower back.

Of the 9 exercises they tested, crunches with the feet up and the hips at 90 degrees scored the highest on the work-compression indices. In other words, this exercise challenges the ab muscles a lot, but it does not put that much pressure on the lower back.

Of the 9 exercises, the exercise that worked the abs the hardest was hanging double straight leg raises—imagine hanging from a bar and lifting both of your feet out in front of you like a gymnast.

This would appear to be the best exercise for working the stomach because it works the abs harder than crunches, but the downfall of this exercise is that it also puts the most pressure on the lower back.

Quick Side Note: The side plank challenged the obliques the most and put little pressure on the back, but barely challenged the rectus abdominus.

Why do hanging leg raises put so much pressure on the back?

One thing that you should know about ab exercises is that any time you move your legs you increase the challenge and pressure on the lower back. This is not a bad thing if you are flexible enough and strong enough to control the movement of your pelvis, lower back and legs.

In fact being able to control your pelvis and legs is essential for anyone looking to improve their core strength and function and is even more important for anyone involved in athletics, recreationally or competitively.

One of the muscles that bends your hips and moves your thighs closer to your chest (hip flexor) attaches to your spine. So when that muscle is tight or when that muscle is working it pulls on the spine. This is normal, but if your abs are really weak or you are really inflexible you will have added pressure on your back.

So, the answer to the question, “What is the best abdominal exercise?” depends on your definition of best. I’d like you to think that every exercise has benefits and risks, pro’s and con’s. And I know everyone wants the 1 right answer, but often in fitness there is no 1 exact correct answer. This is why it is so confusing to read the magazines; there is at least a little truth in so much of what is said.

So, what is the best abdominal exercise?

Crunches with the feet up could be one of the best exercises for beginners. It works the stomach muscles relatively well and does not put too much pressure on the back.

Another note about back pain: When the back arches excessively more pressure is placed on the joints of the back. Lifting the feet off the ground and bringing the hips to 90 degrees decreases the arch in the back and takes off some pressure.

Side Planks could be the best abdominal exercise if you, are looking to target and strengthen the obliques without putting much pressure on your back.

Hanging Leg Raises could be one of the best exercises for athletes with good flexibility and a strong lower back because it really challenges and works the ab muscles hard. It can be a great way of strengthening the core in a way that could improve performance for athletes involved in running, jumping, kicking, or throwing sports.

Now, just to add a little more insight to finding the best ab exercise, you can read about another study from Dr. Peter Francis about the most effective ab exercises. This study takes a different approach the finding the best abdominal exercise and focuses only on muscle activation in the rectus abdominus (6 pack) and obliques during 13 ab exercises.

If you’re just getting into an exercise program, begin by mastering
ab crunches and then you can move forward from there.

Also, check out what other personal trainers think are some of the
best ab exercises.

And, you can read my favorite Top 12 Best Stomach Exercises.

Have Fun and Keep Working,
Yours in Health
Dr. Charles

Return to the Ab Core and Stomach Exercises Home Page from Finding the Best Abdominal Exercise for your Ab Workouts

Or visit the Directory of Abdominal Exercises.

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