Chances are, if you ask 10 different trainers to identify the best ab exercise, you’ll get 10 different answers. Fortunately, there’s a scientific way to settle this controversy. Scientists have a tool called electromyography (EMG) to estimate how hard the muscle works during an exercise. EMG studies show that the six best ab exercises are the Roman chair leg raise, bicycle maneuver, hanging leg raise, exercise ball crunch, vertical crunch and reverse crunch.
- Roman Chair Leg Raises
According to EMG, this exercise produced the most ab activation. Keeping your shoulders down and your back flat, balance your weight evenly between your forearms and allow your body to hang freely inside the machine. Then, exhale and slowly lift your legs upward, keeping them straight and avoiding the use of momentum, until your body forms an “L” shape in mid-air. Pause a moment before slowly lowering your legs back to the start. Repeat.
- Bicycle Maneuver
This exercise works the whole abdominal region, especially the obliques and hip flexors. Lie on the floor with your fingers touching your ears, your elbows flat on the ground and your knees bent. Lift your feet off the floor so they make a 90-degree angle with your hips, and point your toes. This is the starting position. From here, lift and twist your upper body while simultaneously bringing one knee in toward your head. Try to touch your right elbow to your left knee without allowing your arm to fold across your face, and push your right leg out and away from the body. Come back to the center. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Hanging Leg Raises
Take an overhand grip on a pull-up bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart and allow your body to hang freely. Keeping your legs straight and toes pointed, exhale and slowly lift your legs upward, avoiding the use of momentum until your body forms an “L” shape in mid-air. Pause a moment before slowly lowering your legs back to the start.
Alternative Hanging Oblique Raises: Position yourself on the pull-up bar in the same manner as for the hanging straight leg raise and bend your knees as if you were sitting in a chair in mid-air. From here, simultaneously lift and twist, bringing your knees up and to the side of your body. Pause a moment before returning to the start and repeating on the other side.
- Exercise Ball Crunch
This exercise works primarily the rectus abdominis and allows the spine to move through its complete range of motion. Balance yourself on an exercise ball with your arms folded across your chest or behind your head, your focus on the ceiling and your feet flat on the floor. Your starting position should find your back slightly arched over the curve of the ball. Exhale and slowly lift your upper body off the ball, keeping your focus high and your elbows wide. Pause a moment in the topmost position before inhaling and slowly lowering yourself back to the start. You can also change the difficulty of this exercise by changing the position of your feet. The farther they are apart, the greater the balance and the simpler the motion. The closer they are together, the greater your imbalance, the more difficult the motion, and the more stabilization you require from your obliques.
- Vertical Crunch
Lie on the floor with your back flat, your hands behind your head and your legs elevated straight up from your hips. Pick a spot on the ceiling on which to focus and exhale slowly, lifting your head and shoulders off the floor by using your abs. Avoid pulling on your head and neck with your hands. Pause a moment at the peak contraction before slowing lowering yourself back to the start. Go right into the next repetition.
- Reverse Crunch (on bench)
Position an abdominal bench so it rests at a slight angle. Lie on the bench with your hands over your head gripping the pad or bar behind you, your back flat and your knees bent and held above your hips. This is your starting position. From here, slowly curl your knees up and in toward your head, lifting first your tailbone, then your hips, off the bench. When your knees come to eye level, reverse the motion and slowly uncurl one vertebra at a time. Pass the start position and extend your legs straight out and away from you, keeping your back on the pad and your shoulders down. Pause a moment and come back to the start. Repeat.