The Best and Worst Ab Exercises for Athletes

Research provides a list of the best and worst ab exercises

Mid adult woman doing sit-ups in gym weight room
Paul Burns/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The best ​and most common abdominal exercises were put to the test by researchers at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University. The researchers wanted to compare the muscles activation and engagement in the most common abdominal exercises to find out if there are actually good and bad exercise for muscle building and to learn if any of the ab equipment on the market does, in fact, work better than basic body weight exercises.

The research study was one of the first, and most comprehensive, studies that was widely promoted and is still used today to compare the pros ad cons of some of the most common ab exercises. The study included the most common thirteen abdominal exercises and popular ab exercise equipment of 2001. The researchers then ranked each exercise for muscle stimulation while the exercise was performed. Objective muscle activation measurements were obtained with electromyography (EMG), and were measured for each of the follow muscle groups in the abdominal muscle anatomy:

  • rectus abdominis
  • external obliques
  • internal obliques

Ab Exercise Study Results

The results of the study gave us the following list of the best ab exercises for each specific muscle groups, as well as the best overall ab exercises.

Top 3 Overall Ab Exercises

  1. Bicycle Crunch Exercise
  2. Captain's Chair Exercise
  3. Crunch on an Exercise Ball

Best Abdominal Exercise Equipment

Of the equipment studied, performing a crunch on an exercise ball and a using a vertical knee raise machine showed the most muscle activation.

  1.  Stability Balls
  2. Vertical Knee Raise Machine

The Ab Rocker 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.

Full Results of the Ab Exercise Study

Best to Worst Exercises for Rectus Abdominis

  1. Bicycle Crunch Exercise
  2. Captain's Chair Exercise
  3. Ab Crunch on an 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. Plank Exercise.
  11. Traditional Abdominal Crunch
  12. Exercise tubing pull
  13. Ab Rocker

Best to Worst Exercises for Obliques

  1. Captain's Chair Exercise
  2. Bicycle Crunch Exercise
  3. Reverse Crunch
  4. Plank (Hover) Exercise
  5. Vertical Leg Crunch
  6. Ab Crunch on Exercise Ball
  7. Torso Track
  8. Crunch with heel push
  9. Long Arm Crunch
  10. Ab Roller
  11. Traditional (Basic) Abdominal Crunch
  12. Exercise tubing Pull
  13. Ab Rocker

Test Your Abdominal (Core) Strength and Stability

The Plank exercise can be used to assess your core strength. Sports coach, Brian Mackenzie, created this test as a way to determine current core strength and stability and to monitor progress over time.

Ab Exercise Technique

If you want to learn more about the proper way to exercises your abs, start with the following articles that cover ab anatomy and answer the most frequently asked questions about ab exercise.

Ab Exercise Equipment

A variety of equipment is helpful for building ab and core muscle strength. Some of the better products and equipment for developing core strength include:

Medicine Balls
Stability Balls
Vertical Knee Raise Machine
Ab Roller

Balance products such as the Bosu Ball, balance boards, wobble boards, and others also help build core strength.

View Article Sources
  • ACE Study.
  • Anders, Mark. "New Study Puts the Crunch on Abdominal Exercises." ACE Fitness Matters Magazine, 5/14/2001.