Abdominal exercises are those that affect the abdominal muscles (colloquially known as the stomach muscles or “abs”).

Most Effective Ab Exercise:

Bicycle

  1. Lie face up on your mat and place your hands behind your head, lightly supporting it with your fingers.
  2. Bring the knees in to the chest and lift the shoulder blades off the floor without pulling on the neck.
  3. Rotate to the left, bringing the right elbow towards the left knee as you straighten the other leg.
  4. Switch sides, bringing the left elbow towards the right knee.
  5. Continue alternating sides in a ‘pedaling’ motion for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Captain’s Chair

The captain’s chair leg raise is the second most effective move for the rectus abdominis as well as the obliques. You can do a variety of exercises on the captain’s chair, which is a rack with padded arms that allows your legs to hang free and can be found in most health clubs and gyms. The key to keeping this move safe and effective is, first, to avoid swinging the legs or using momentum to bring the legs up. Second, keeping the knees bent will help you focus more on the abdominals and less on the hip flexors.

How to:

  1. Stand on the chair and grip handholds to stabilize your upper body.
  2. Press your back against the pad and contract the abs to raise the legs and lift knees towards your chest.
  3. Don’t arch the back or swing the legs up.
  4. Slowly lower back down and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Ball Crunch

The exercise ball is an excellent tool to strengthen the abs and is the third most effective move for targeting the rectus abdominis. What makes this move a bit more effective than crunches on the floor is that the legs are often involved in floor crunches. On the ball, the abs do more work, but you still involve the entire body to help stabilize you throughout the movement, a nice bonus that floor crunches don’t always offer.

How to:

  1. Lie on the ball, positioning it under the lower back.
  2. Cross your arms over the chest or place them behind your head.
  3. Contract your abs to lift your torso off the ball, pulling the bottom of your ribcage down toward your hips.
  4. As you curl up, keep the ball stable (i.e., the ball shouldn’t roll).
  5. Lower back down, getting a stretch in the abs, and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Vertical Leg Crunch

The vertical leg crunch is another effective move for the rectus abdominis and the obliques. It’s similar to a regular crunch, but your legs are straight up, forcing you to use your abs to do all the work and adding intensity to the exercise.

How to:

  1. Lie on the floor and extend the legs straight up with knees crossed.
  2. Place your hands behind the head for support, but avoid pulling on the neck.
  3. Contract the abs to lift the shoulder blades off the floor, as though reaching your chest towards your feet.
  4. Keep the legs in a fixed position and imagine bringing your belly button towards your spine at the top of the movement.
  5. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.

The Torso Track

The Torso Track comes out as number 5 for effective ab exercises, but this is one of my least favorite exercises because it can cause lower-back pain, particularly if you roll out too far. In fact, in the ACE study, researchers found that a significant number of subjects reported lower-back pain, so you may want to skip the expense, and discomfort, of this one and choose other exercises that can target the abs with equal effectiveness.

How to:

  1. Grip the handles of the Torso Track and pull the abs in without holding your breath (as though bracing them).
  2. Exhale and glide forward as far as you comfortably can.
  3. If you collapse in the middle and feel it in your back, you’ve gone too far. Shorten your range of motion as needed to protect your back.
  4. Contract the abs to pull your body back.
  5. Add tension by using more tension chords.

Long Arm Crunch

The long arm crunch is ranked the 6th most effective ab exercise, changing the traditional floor crunch by straightening the arms behind you. This adds a longer lever to the move, adding a bit more challenge and difficulty. This move also emphasizes the upper part of the abs, although it’s important to remember that your rectus abdominis is actually one long muscle that travels from your lower chest to your pelvis. While you can emphasize one part, any exercise you do will work the entire muscle.

How to:

  1. Lie on a mat and extend the arms straight out behind the head with hands clasped, keeping the arms next to the ears.
  2. Contract the abs and lift the shoulder blades off the floor.
  3. Keep the arms straight and avoid straining the neck. If you feel neck pain, take one hand behind the head while keeping the other arm extended.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.
  5. You can add intensity by holding a light dumbbell if you need more of a challenge.

Reverse Crunch

The reverse crunch comes in 7th place for effective ab exercises, with a focus on the rectus abdominis. With this move, you’re curling the hips off the floor, so you’ll feel this in the lower part of the abs. The key to this move is to avoid swinging the legs to raise the hips. This is a small, subtle move, so you only need to lift your hips a few inches off the floor.

How to:

  1. Lie on the floor and place hands on the floor or behind the head.
  2. Bring the knees in towards the chest until they’re bent to 90 degrees, with feet together or crossed.
  3. Contract the abs to curl the hips off the floor, reaching the legs up towards the ceiling.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.
  5. It’s a very small movement, so try to use your abs to lift your hips rather than swinging your legs and creating momentum.

Crunch With Heel Push

The crunch with a heel push looks like a traditional crunch, but in this version you push your heels into the floor, which engages the rectus abdominis muscles more than regular crunches.

How to:

  1. Lie on your back with the knees bent and the hands gently cradling the head.
  2. Flex your feet and keep them flexed as your contract the abs, lifting the shoulder blades off the floor.
  3. Try not to pull on the neck with your hands, but lightly support your head.
  4. At the top of the crunch, press your heels into the floor while pressing your back against the mat and slightly raising the glutes off the floor.
  5. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Ab Roller

The Ab Roller is number 9 for targeting the rectus abdominis and you’ve probably seen this around the gym (or under your bed) for the last several years. What’s nice about this that it provides neck and arm support, something that might be helpful for people who feel strain in the neck when doing regular crunches. If you don’t have an Ab Roller, you can still get a great workout with a variety of core exercises.

How to:

  1. Sit on the Ab Roller and grab the bars in each hand.
  2. Contract the abs and rock forward, originating the movement from the abs rather than using momentum.
  3. Release and repeat for 1-3 sets of 12-16 reps.
  4. Go slowly to reduce momentum. Try to focus on the abs rather than pushing with the arms.

Plank

The plank exercise ranked number 10 in the ACE study and is a great way to build endurance in both the abs and back, as well as the stabilizer muscles. This move is also great for building strength for pushups, an exercise that requires quite a bit of core strength.

How to:

  1. Lie face down on mat resting on the forearms, palms flat on the floor.
  2. Push off the floor, raising up onto toes and resting on the elbows.
  3. Keep your back flat, in a straight line from head to heels.
  4. Tilt your pelvis and contract your abdominals to prevent your rear end from sticking up in the air or sagging in the middle.
  5. Hold for 20 to 60 seconds, lower and repeat for 3-5 reps.

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