The Best Ab Exercises You Can Do

If you really want to get your strongest, firmest abs, you want to choose exercises that target all the muscles of the core, including the rectus abdominis (or the "six pack"), obliques, transverse abdominis, and the lower back.

While there are a wide variety of exercises you can do for the abs, there are some that are better than others. In fact, the American Council on Exercise commissioned a study to find out the best and worst ab exercises.


Watch Now: 5 Crunches That Actually Work Your Abs

Keep in mind that if you want to change the look of your midsection, you may also need to change your eating plan. Eating a balanced, nutritious diet can be part of a comprehensive program for building a strong, lean core.

This workout includes all of the exercises that came out on top for firing up the most muscle fibers in your abs. Do this workout two to three times a week for your best abs.

Bicycle Crunches

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Get started with bicycle crunches. This is a great move for working your obliques and deep abs.

  1. Lie face up on your mat and place your hands behind your head, lightly supporting it with your fingers.
  2. Bring the knees into the chest and lift the shoulder blades off the floor without pulling on the neck.
  3. Rotate to the left, bringing the right elbow towards the left knee as you straighten the other leg.
  4. Switch sides, bringing the left elbow towards the right knee.
  5. Continue alternating sides in a pedaling motion for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.

The Pilates bicycle exercise is an alternative that works your legs, buttocks, abs, shoulders, and arms all at the same time.

Captain's Chair Leg Raise

Also known as hanging leg raises, this move targets the hip flexors, abs, and obliques. If you don't have access to a captain's chair rack, you can also try holding onto a pull-up bar or ab straps. You can also try lying hip raises as an alternative.

  1. Stand on the chair and grip handholds to stabilize your upper body.
  2. Press your back against the pad and keep the shoulders relaxed.
  3. Bend the knees and contract the abs to lift the knees to hip level.
  4. Try not to arch the back or swing the legs up.
  5. Lower back down slowly and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.

The captain's chair leg raise, usually available in most gyms, works the rectus abdominis as well as the obliques.

Exercise Ball Crunch

Exercise Ball Crunch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

An exercise ball is an excellent tool to strengthen the abs. It's much more effective than floor crunches because the legs tend to be more involved when you're on the floor. When you're on the ball, the abs do more work.

  1. Lie on the ball, positioning it under the lower back.
  2. Cross your arms over the chest or place them behind your head.
  3. Contract your abs to lift your torso off the ball, pulling the bottom of your ribcage down toward your hips.
  4. Keep the ball stable (i.e., the ball shouldn't roll) as you curl up.
  5. Lower back down, getting a stretch in the abs, and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Vertical Leg Crunch

Vertical Leg Crunch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The vertical leg crunch is another effective move for the rectus abdominis and the obliques. It's similar to a regular crunch, but your legs are straight up, forcing you to use your abs to do all the work and adding intensity to the exercise.

  1. Lie on the floor and extend the legs straight up with knees crossed.
  2. Place your hands behind the head for support, but avoid pulling on the neck.
  3. Contract the abs to lift the shoulder blades off the floor, as though reaching your chest towards your feet.
  4. Keep the legs in a fixed position and imagine bringing your belly button towards your spine at the top of the movement.
  5. Lower and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Torso Track

The Torso Track comes out as number 5 for effective ab exercises. It is important to be aware that this exercise can cause lower-back pain, particularly if you roll out too far.

  1. Grip the handles of the Torso Track and pull the abs in without holding your breath (as though bracing them).
  2. Exhale and glide forward as far as you comfortably can.If you collapse in the middle and feel it on your back, you've gone too far.
  3. Shorten your range of motion as needed to protect your back.
  4. Contract the abs to pull your body back.
  5. Add tension by using more tension chords.

If you don't have a Torso Track, you can substitute by trying the ab roll out on the ball. Consider trying another exercise if you are prone to pain in your lower back.

In the ACE study, researchers found that a significant number of subjects reported lower-back pain using Torso Track. If you are prone to back pain, consider using other exercises that can target the abs with equal effectiveness.

Long Arm Crunch

Long Arm Crunch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The long arm crunch is ranked the 6th most effective ab exercise, changing the traditional floor crunch by straightening the arms behind you. This adds a longer lever to the move, adding a bit more challenge and difficulty.

  1. Lie on a mat and extend the arms straight out behind the head with hands clasped, keeping the arms next to the ears.
  2. Contract the abs and lift the shoulder blades off the floor.
  3. Keep the arms straight and avoid straining the neck. If you feel neck pain, take one hand behind the head while keeping the other arm extended.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.
  5. Add intensity by holding a light dumbbell if you need more of a challenge.

This move also emphasizes the upper part of the abs. However, it's important to remember that your rectus abdominis is actually one long muscle that travels from your lower chest to your pelvis.

While you can emphasize one part of the rectus abdominis muscle, any exercise you do will work the entire muscle.

Reverse Crunch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The reverse crunch comes in 7th place for effective ab exercises, with a focus on the rectus abdominis. With this move, you're curling the hips off the floor, so you'll feel this in the lower part of the abs.

  1. Lie on the floor and place hands on the floor or behind the head.
  2. Bring the knees in towards the chest until they're bent to 90 degrees, with feet together or crossed.
  3. Contract the abs to curl the hips off the floor, reaching the legs up towards the ceiling.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.
  5. Try to use your abs to lift your hips rather than swinging your legs and creating momentum.

The key to this move is to avoid swinging the legs to raise the hips. This is a small, subtle move, so you only need to lift your hips a few inches off the floor.

Crunch With Heel Push

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The crunch with a heel push looks like a traditional crunch, but in this version, you push your heels into the floor, which engages the rectus abdominis muscles more than regular crunches.

  1. Lie on your back with the knees bent and the hands gently cradling the head.
  2. Flex your feet and keep them flexed as your contract the abs, lifting the shoulder blades off the floor.
  3. Try not to pull on the neck with your hands, but lightly support your head.
  4. Press your heels into the floor at the top of the crunch, while pressing your back against the mat and slightly raising the glutes off the floor.
  5. Lower and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.

Ab Roller

The Ab Roller is number 9 for targeting the rectus abdominis, and you've probably seen this around the gym (or under your bed) for the last several years. What's nice about this that it provides neck and arm support, something that might be helpful for people who feel strain in the neck when doing regular crunches.

  1. Sit on the Ab Roller and grab the bars in each hand.
  2. Contract the abs and rock forward, originating the movement from the abs rather than using momentum.
  3. Release and repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 12-16 reps.
  4. Go slowly to reduce momentum. Try to focus on the abs rather than pushing with the arms.

If you don't have an Ab Roller, you can still get a great workout with a variety of core exercises.

Plank on Elbows and Toes

Plank on Elbows and Toes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The plank exercise ranked number 10 in the ACE study and is a great way to build endurance in both the abs and back, as well as the stabilizer muscles. This move is also great for building strength for pushups, an exercise that requires quite a bit of core strength.

  1. Lie face down on mat resting on the forearms, palms flat on the floor.
  2. Push off the floor, raising up onto toes and resting on the elbows.
  3. Keep your back flat, in a straight line from head to heels.
  4. Tilt your pelvis and contract your abdominals to prevent your rear end from sticking up in the air or sagging in the middle.
  5. Hold for 20 to 60 seconds, lower and repeat for 3-5 reps.

A Word From Verywell

When you do core exercises or work your abs, you are training the muscles in your abdomen, lower back, pelvis, and hips to work together. Not only does this build strength and tone the muscles, but it also leads to better balance and stability. Even if you are not an athlete, having a strong core is essential for good health and mobility.

If you are considering doing more ab exercises, you may want to speak to healthcare provider before changing your exercise routine. They can let you know what is right for you, especially if you have lower back pain. And, if you want help putting together a personalized plan that helps you meet your goals, consider speaking with a certified personal trainer for assistance and advice.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Council on Exercise. American Council on Exercise (ACE) - sponsored study reveals best and worst abdominal exercises.

  2. Sternlicht E, Rugg S, Fujii LL, Tomomitsu KF, Seki MM. Electromyographic comparison of a stability ball crunch with a traditional crunch. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(2):506-9. doi:10.1519/R-20436.1

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."