Let’s get one thing very clear before we even discuss what may be the best ab exercise: if you’re looking to show off your abs, you need to watch what goes into your mouth. No amount of specific abdominal exercises can spot reduce the belly fat that’s covering up your muscles.
We all anatomically have a washboard, and exercise can make that washboard stronger and harder. Remember: good-looking abs are revealed with proper nutrition, but good functioning abs are built with proper training.
Core Wars: Science Shows Us the Most Effective Abs Exercises
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy has compared core muscle activation during Swiss ball and traditional abdominal exercises in order to help us see through the confusion and truth as to which abdominal exercise options offer the most bang for our abdominal training buck.
According to the researchers of this study, “Numerous Swiss ball abdominal exercises are employed for core muscle strengthening during training and rehabilitation, but there are minimal data to substantiate the ability of these exercises to recruit core muscles. It is also unknown how core muscle recruitment in many of these Swiss ball exercises compares to core muscle recruitment in traditional abdominal exercises such as the crunch and bent-knee sit-up.”
The researchers in this study looked at the EMG activity of several Swiss ball abdominal exercises like: pikes, knee tucks and roll-out, along with two traditional abdominal exercises (the crunch and bent-knee sit-up) as mentioned above.
Note: EMG is short for “electromyography.” EMG measures the electrical activity of muscles during exercise. It should be noted that while EMG doesn’t directly measure muscular tension, it is a way to measure the central nervous system’s signal to the muscles. In that, increased EMG activity is indicative of the nervous system’s attempt to produce more muscular force.
The researchers in this study looked for the exercises that created the highest EMG activity in the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, obliques internal and external) while also creating the lowest EMG activity in the lower back and hip flexors muscles.
At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that the “The Swiss ball roll-out and Swiss ball pike were the most effective exercises in activating upper and lower rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and latissimus dorsi muscles, while minimizing lumbar paraspinals and rectus femoris activity.”
Translation: The ball pike and ball roll-out exercises force your abdominals to work the hardest while your lower back and hip flexors – areas that can take over in other traditional abs exercises -are almost completely left out. So while a crunch works your abs only with help from other areas, the roll-out and pike isolate your abs much more effectively.
The Pike Roll-out: The Single Best Ab Exercise
In light of the above-mentioned study’s results, we’ve taken both the Swiss ball pike and ball roll-out exercise and combined them to make one ultimate ab exercise: The pike roll-out, which we’ve crowned “the single best ab exercise.”
The truth of the matter is, a comprehensive abdominal training program should include several different exercise applications to ensure your workouts are well-rounded and hit the abs from all angles. That said, the purpose of this article is to share with you the one abs exercise we put at the top of the list.
Three Ways to Do the Pike Roll-out
The beauty of this exercise is not only its effectiveness, but also in its versatility. In that, the pike roll-out exercise can be performed using a Swiss ball, suspension straps, or without using any special fitness equipment at all.
So no matter where you are and what type of equipment you’re working with (or not working with), you can do “the single best abs exercise.” Here are three variations of the pike roll-out to try.
1. Swiss Ball Pike Roll-Out
Set Up Hold yourself in a push-up position with your feet on a Swiss ball that’s between 55-65 cm in size. (To make the exercise easier, move the Swiss ball toward your belly button)
Action With your body in a plank (straight) position, keep your legs straight and push your hips toward the ceiling while keeping your back flat. After straightening your hips and coming back to the start position, push your body backwards on the ball until your arms are fully extended in front of you and your legs are fully extended behind you. Reverse the motion and repeat.
2. Pike Roll-Out With Suspension Straps
Set Up Assume a push-up position with your hands on the floor and your ankles inside of the straps at roughly the same height as your shoulders. Your feet should be directly underneath of the anchor point.
Action Drive your body backward until you feel like you can no longer maintain your spinal alignment. Then reverse the direction by moving your shoulders back over your hands while you simultaneously use your abs to pull your legs toward your chest by lifting your hips up into the air.
Note: You can also perform the suspension version of this exercise from your elbows. If you choose the elbow option, be sure to lower the straps so your feet are kept at the same height as your shoulders to ensure proper body alignment.
3. Bodyweight Pike Roll-Out
Set Up Assume an elbow plank position with your feet on a slippery surface, like a towel on a tile floor.
Action Drive your body backwards as far as possible until you feel you cannot maintain the straight spine position you began with. Then reverse the direction by moving your shoulders back over your elbows while you simultaneously use your abs to pull your legs toward your chest by lifting your hips up into the air.
Tips on Performing the Pike Roll-out:
Regardless of which of the three versions of the pike roll-out you’re doing, be sure to follow these tips to ensure you apply the exercise as safely and effectively as possible:
• On the pike aspect of the exercise, lift your hips up until they are almost above (but not directly above) your shoulders. Once your hips do get directly above your shoulders, the tension is greatly reduced on your abs, which you don’t want.
• If you feel pressure at your lower back as you perform the roll-out aspect of the exercise, you’ve gone too far beyond your strength threshold. Therefore, simply reduce your range of motion so you can perform the exercise in a pain-free manner.
• If you’ve got bad wrists that prevent you from performing the push-up position, simply perform the versions on your elbows.
• To decrease the difficulty of the exercise, you can modify the action by performing a knee tuck (instead of a pike) by bending your knees and pulling them into your chest.
Set & Reps
Perform 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps. Pause for 1-2 seconds at each end of the exercise. Also, be sure to transition through each position of each rep in a smooth manner using deliberate control.
J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2010;40(5):265-276, Epub 22 April 2010. doi:10.2519/jospt.2010.3073