Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises

Americans are tired of empty promises when it comes to turning flabby tummies into stronger, flatter, leaner abdominals. For those willing to put a little effort into their workout, a new study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) "the workout watchdog" reveals the best and worst methods for getting definite results.

The study, led by Peter Francis, Ph.D., at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University, compared 13 of the most common abdominal exercises, some involving equipment, and ranked them from most to least effective. Subjects in the study included 30 healthy women and men, ages 20-45, ranging from occasional to daily exercisers. They were put through a battery of exercises, including the traditional crunch, modified crunches, partial body-weight exercises and exercises using both home and gym exercise equipment. Muscle activity was monitored during each exercise using electromyography equipment.

Each of the 13 exercises were ranked for muscle stimulation in the rectus abdominus (long, flat muscle extending the length of the front of the abdomen) and the obliques (long, flat muscles extending along the sides of the abdomen at an angle).

Overall, the top three abdominal exercises were bicycle maneuver, captain's chair and crunch on exercise ball. (See below for full list of results.)

According to the researchers, although crunches on an exercise ball generated less activity in the obliques and rectus abdominus than some of the other exercises, the exercise also generated significantly less activity in the thigh muscle, making it more targeted to the abs and the best overall exercise.

Of the three pieces of informercial equipment tested, the Torso Track faired better than the Ab Rocker. The Torso Track was only marginally more effective than the traditional crunch. However, a significant number of subjects reported lower-back discomfort while using the Torso Track. The Ab Roller was no more effective than the traditional crunch, while the Ab Rocker was up to 80% less effective. These results are consistent with ACE's 1997 study of popular ab exercise products.

The results of this study support ACE's long-time opinion that it is not necessary to spend upward of $150 on a piece of exercise equipment to strengthen abs. ACE recommends that if a consumer is going to invest in a piece of equipment, make it a high-quality exercise ball, which retails at approximately $30, depending on size.

For best results, Dr. Francis recommends choosing several of the top-rated exercises and doing a five minute exercise session daily. If one exercise is uncomfortable, he says to try others until you come up with a variety that meet your needs. This will help train different areas of the muscle and prevent boredom.

No matter which method is selected, strengthening the abs is essential for preventing injuries, maintaining good posture, alleviating lower back pain, and improving performance in other athletic pursuits.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the benefits of physical activity and protecting consumers against unsafe and ineffective fitness products and instruction. As the nation's workout watchdog, ACE conducts university-based research and testing that targets fitness products and trends. For more information on ACE and its programs visit ACE Web site at

San Diego State University/Ace Abdominal Study Results

For strengthening the rectus abdominus, the 13 exercise were ranked most to least effective:

  1. Bicycle maneuver
  2. Captain's chair
  3. Crunches on exercise ball
  4. Vertical leg crunch
  5. Torso Track
  6. Long arm crunch
  7. Reverse crunch
  8. Crunch with heel push
  9. Ab Roller
  10. Hover
  11. Traditional crunch
  12. Exercise tubing pull
  13. Ab Rocker

For strengthening the obliques, the 13 exercise were ranked most to least effective:

  1. Captain's chair
  2. Bicycle maneuver
  3. Reverse crunch
  4. Hover
  5. Vertical leg crunch
  6. Crunch on exercise ball
  7. Torso Track
  8. Crunch with heel push
  9. Long arm crunch
  10. Ab Roller
  11. Traditional crunch
  12. Exercise tubing pull
  13. Ab Rocker

For information on how to perform some of these exercises read Workout Series: The Abominable Abdominal.

The Captain's Chair is a piece of equipment in the gym used to develop abs. You know... the one where you support the weight of your body with your forearms (allowing your legs to hang) and then you lift your knees/legs up towards your chest.

This information and other information on this site is intended for general reference purposes only and is not intended to address specific medical conditions. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice or a medical exam. Prior to participating in any exercise program or activity, you should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. No information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.