Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises

How to get six-pack abs

A study lead by Peter Francis, PhD, director of the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University, looked at a variety of common abdominal exercises in order to determine what really works. The study looked at 13 abdominal exercises, ranging from the traditional crunch to more complicated activities, using at-home and gym equipment.

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

The top three abdominal exercises were:

Bicycle maneuver


Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed to the ground. Put your hands beside your head. Bring your knees up to about a 45-degree angle and slowly go through a bicycle pedal motion. Touch your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee. Breathe evenly throughout the exercise.

Captain’s chair

This was one of the few on the “most effective” list that involves gym equipment. Start with your legs dangling and slowly lift your knees in toward your chest. The motion should be controlled and deliberate as you bring your knees up and return them back to the starting position.

Crunch on an exercise ball


Sit on the exercise ball with your feet flat on the floor. Let the ball roll back slowly and lie back until your thighs and torso are parallel with the floor. Contract your abdominals raising your torso to no more than 45 degrees. To work the oblique muscles, make the exercise less stable by moving your feet closer together.

Among the equipment studied, the Ab Rocker, by Body by Jake, was the worst piece of equipment tested. The Ab Roller and the Torso Track were better than the Ab Rocker, but statistically they were not much better than the basic crunch. The best piece of equipment was a large exercise ball.

Full Study Results:

Best to worst exercises for strengthening the rectus abdominus:

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

Best to worst exercises for strengthening the obliques:

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

From our Archives. Written by Elizabeth Quinn for RaceCenter magazine.
Elizabeth Quinn, M.S., is an exercise physiologist and health information writer and researcher. She currently manages the clinical health information development for a NW health care organization.