In 2003, ACE (American Council on Exercise) recruited Dr. Peter Francis, Ph.D. and Jennifer Davis, M. A., at the San Diego State University Bio mechanics Lab, to conduct a study on which exercises were the most effective for the abs. The results appeared in the ACE Fitness Matters magazine in an article, “New Study Puts the Crunch on Abdominal Exercises”.
The study examined a wide variety of abdominal exercises, including standard and modified crunches, partial body weight exercises, and both home and gym exercise equipment. Thirty healthy men and women, both occasional and regular exercisers, with an age range of 20 to 45, were recruited to participate in the study. Muscle activity in the upper and lower rectus abdominus, the external obliques, and the rectus femoris (hip flexors) were measured using electromyography (EMG) equipment.
The results of the study indicated that the exercises that required constant stabilization and rotation recruited the most muscle activity in the obliques. At the top of the list were the Bicycle Maneuver (#1) and the Captain’s Chair (#2).
Stability Ball Crunches (#3), which recruited somewhat less of the rectus abdominus and the obliques, ALSO recruited LESS of the hip flexors, which reasonably makes them one of the best exercises to target the abs specifically.
The publishing of the study was followed by a flurry of magazine articles, including one by Cooking Light, which featured these top exercises for the abs.
This prompted concerned fitness professionals, like Kellie Hibberd, to write to us:
“I had to question the validity of some of the exercises like the ‘Captain’s Chair’ and the ‘Bicycle Crunch.’ They seem real ‘old school’… Does she (Gin) endorse these types of ab exercises that involve more hip flexors than abs?
There was no mention of ‘core exercises’ and, frankly, some of the exercises demonstrated in the article I wouldn’t recommend to my clients.”
So here’s our 2 cents on the top two:
The Captain’s Chair
This exercise first requires significant upper body strength to support the full weight of the body, and the ability to stabilize the shoulder girdle in a neutral position while the lower body moves. Second, in the execution of the movement, the focus should be on controlled muscular contraction rather than momentum.
What less skilled exercisers may tend to do (“old school” style) is to swing the legs up and quickly allow them to drop, letting gravity “assist”, rather than “resisting” the pull of gravity.
When executed slowly, the abs serve to stabilize the pelvis and spine against both the lifting and lowering phase – and when you resist the pull of gravity, this is indeed an effective and challenging exercise.
The Bicycle Crunch
This exercise was at one time considered “contraindicated” or high risk, mainly because people tended to execute it quickly… like they were trying to win the Tour de France!
The other tendency in the “old school” execution was to pull excessively on the head with the chin into the chest to get the elbows over to the knees, which can cause compression of the cervical disks in the neck.
However, in the decades since this exercise was labeled as such, we seem to have educated the exercising public about keeping the chin a fist’s distance from the chest, elbows wide, and “resting” the head in the hands rather than pulling on the neck.
Of course novice exercisers, who have yet to develop adequate strength of the torso and the neck, may still tend to drive the chin to the chest in an attempt to execute this kind of advanced exercise.
But when executed properly with control, as recommended in the ACE article, the core serves to stabilize the pelvis and spine as the legs extend and the upper abdominal region and obliques contract to move the rib cage up and toward the opposite hip.
This example of proper execution is featured on Gin’s Seriously Strong workout.
While magazine articles may have failed to spell it out, these two exercises DO require significant core stabilization when properly executed with control. Both also DO significantly recruit the hip flexors as the primary movers of the legs, which is why the article suggests that the Exercise Ball Crunch is “arguably, the best overall exercise of the lot”.
Exercise Ball Crunch – “best overall of the lot”
We agree with this conclusion. As far as exercise equipment is concerned, you can get the most “bang for your buck” with an Exercise or Stability Ball. This inexpensive piece of exercise equipment not only provides an effective means to target the abs, but many other exercises can also be done using the ball.
The ACE on-line version of the article does not provide the actual numbered rank list from “best” to “worst” – perhaps in recognition of the fact that inexperienced exercisers are more likely to jump right into performing the relatively advanced top ranked exercises.
Recognizing that not all exercises are suitable for everyone, in the bottom line conclusion of the ACE article, Dr. Francis recommended selecting several exercises from the top third of the list, and if something does not feel right, select another exercise.
The list includes the following “Top Abdominal Exercises”:
Bicycle Maneuver Captain’s Chair Crunch on Exercise Ball – supine position Vertical Leg Crunch – legs straight up, crunch upper and lower region at the same time Reverse Crunch – knees bent at 90 degree angle, lower region crunch only
Some of the “other” exercises listed:
Hover – forearm plank, prone position Long Arm Crunch – arms extended overhead Traditional Crunch – hands support head Crunch with Heel Push – the vertical leg double crunch with added hip lifts