Your Guide To The Best Ab Exercises

The Ab Crunch is King

*Good information even though it is study is from 2014.

The plain old abdominal crunch is now taking its place back as the number one exercise to stimulate the rectus abdominis muscle. A recent study by the Clinical Exercise Physiology program at the University of Wisconsin La-Crosse has proven that no other exercise elicits greater muscle activation than the traditional crunch.

The study recruited 16 healthy volunteers between the ages of 16 to 24 years old.  Each participant practiced each exercise in the study along with exercises from several highly advertised ab equipment. The equipment free exercises included the following: the yoga boat pose, the plankthe side plank and the bicycle crunch.  The exercises utilizing ab equipment were the Ab Circle Pro, Ab Roller, Ab Lounge, Perfect Sit-Up, Ab Coaster, Ab Rocket, Ab Wheel, Ab Straps, the stability ball crunch, decline bench curl-up, and the captain’s chair crunch.  Researchers placed electrodes on the upper and lower rectus abdominis (URA and LRA), external obliques (EO) and the rectus femoris (RF) of each subject and measured the maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) of theses muscles during the performance of the above exercises.

The Findings

Researchers found that none of the exercises elicited greater muscle activation than the good old basic crunch. In fact, the Ab Wheel*, Ab Circle Pro, side plank and front plank all had significantly lower muscle activation in the upper and lower abdominal region compared to the traditional crunch. 
*The Ab Wheel only had a significant lower muscle activation in the upper ab region

They also found that there isn't any significant difference between the upper abs and lower abs. When performing abdominal exercises, you can't selectively work the muscles in the upper abs versus the lower abs. This was found in all of the exercises performed above.  

As for the basic or traditional crunch itself, there is no difference in muscle recruitment if you put your hands on your chest as opposed the back of your head and neck. It has been long thought that some individuals put their hands behind their head and wrench of their body up and forward when performing the crunch, which is considered bad form.  As you can see, that there was no difference in muscle activation between the two types of crunches.

As far as the external oblique muscles this is what the researchers found:

"As for the EO(external oblique muscles), there were six abdominal exercises that had significantly higher muscle activation than the traditional crunch: the decline bench curl-up, Ab Lounge, Ab Wheel, captain’s chair crunch, Ab Straps and the Ab Coaster.  Researchers point out that the likely reason for this higher activation is because those machines are more free-moving and require the subject to maintain balance and control throughout the exercise, using the EO to stabilize the entire body."

The Plank

The plank is still one of the best exercises to do when you are trying to work the transverse abdominus which helps to stabilize the spine. Even though the plank didn't significantly effect the rectus abdominal muscle, don't drop it from your workout because there is no single ab exercise that effectively challenge all of the muscles of the core.

The Bottom Line

If you don't have a lot of money to spend on equipment and you want to work your core, the basic crunch will do the job very nicely.  However, if you would like to buy some ab equipment to make you commit to an ab routine, most of the machines above except for Ab Circle Pro will do just fine.

What do you think of the University of Wisconsin La-Crosse's findings?  Read the complete study here.


  1. So, interesting...sometimes new and improved isn't the way to go. I like doing ab crunches on the fit ball. The crunching and balancing give me a great ab workout!

    1. The crunch on the stability ball ranks very high on the list Sami.

  2. Definitely a great post, i am in a middle of a diet , started in Jan. and my body was to sore but now i think i am ready to start doing some crunches , i am going to check out a few sites before i really commit because i want to make sure i am dong things right for my body... great post and thanks for share :) @tisonlyme143

  3. I just lost 50 pounds and my body is more flabby than muscular. I think I need to start with some of your suggestions above.

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  5. I think they confused me a little. They said the Ab Wheel did not activate more muscles than a basic crunch and then they stated the Ab Wheel was 1 of 6 that did activate more muscles than the basic crunch.

    Other than that - very interesting article. In boot camp we tend to run the gamut on exercises including Russian Twists, crunches (without pulling or leading with your neck so tuck the chin), standing ab twists, leg lifts, planks, side planks, straight arm planks, bicycles and the list goes on. Variety is key to develop those ab muscles but ultimately in the end we all know abs are made in the kitchen. :-)

  6. This is a very interesting study, and over the past few years, I've actually heard of similar studies with similar outcomes. I wonder how many crunches were performed for this particular test. If my memory serves me right, the effectiveness decreased for the crunches as the number of crunches performed increased (significant increase). I don't remember how the numbers differed per the different ab machines.

  7. Amen to that... because I don't want to spend a lot of money on my abs. I've worked with so many trainers who were completely non-motivating and ineffective. If there are any other all-around amazing ab exercises, send them my way! :)

    Diary of a Debutante

  8. i workout from home and it is very effective

  9. I learned alot on different exercises, it helps to know which ones help target what area. Thanks.

  10. I love these ideas! Thank you!

  11. Very interesting especially because some ab exercises are just so odd to do. I love crunches so it is good to see it take back its rightful place as you mentioned.

    Maria @ The Good Life

  12. How interesting- looks like the crunch is making a comeback! Thanks for sharing!

  13. I don't know really about muscles and such. I Do know planks are very hard and I can only do 10 seconds at a time that said I've been doing about 100 sit ups daily with a rest every three days and while I haven't found my abs I have lost an inch off my waist.

  14. It's so nice to know there is a way to tone up my abdominal muscles without expensive equipment or having to belong to a fancy gym, especially when that method is something so simple to do.

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