What’s the Best Exercise for Building a Six-Pack?

It’s no secret that every human being, man and woman alike, are enamoured with having ripped, rock-hard, six-pack abs. It’s no wonder that the fitness world is full of different ab exercises and exercise tools promising fast results. But what really works at the end of the day? What’s the absolute best exercise, or machine, for building six-pack abs? No BS! No Marketing! Just straight facts. And backed by research!

We now have one way to answer this question, thanks to the American Council on American Exercise (ACE) commissioned research that compared the different ab exercises and tools to the traditional crunch. This post will provide you with a nice summary of said research and get to the bottom of this question: what’s the best exercise and/or tool for getting ripped abs.

So keep reading, the answer might surprise you!

The Research Study on the Best Exercise for Stronger, Flatter, Leaner Abdominals

The study, led by John Porcari, Ph.D., and Edward Stenger, M.S., at the University of Wisconsin (LaCrosse and its Clinical Exercise Physiology program), compared 16 healthy men and women between the ages of 18 and 24. The study, first published in 2014, compared popular exercise equipment including:

  • Ab Circle Pro
  • Ab Roller
  • Ab Lounge
  • Perfect Sit-Up
  • Ab Coaster
  • Ab Rocket
  • Ab Wheel
  • Ab Straps

Popular ab exercises compared in the study included:

  • Yoga boat pose
  • Stability ball crunch
  • Decline bench curl-up
  • Captain’s chair crunch
  • Bicycle crunch
  • Side plank
  • Front plank

Subject were put through a battery of the above exercises, and muscle activity was monitored during each exercise using electromyography (EMG) equipment.

Each of the exercises were ranked for muscle stimulation in the upper and lower rectus abdominis (URA and LRA) (long, flat muscles extending the length of the front of the abdomen), external obliques (EO) (long, flat muscles extending along the sides of the abdomen) and the rectus femoris (RF) (in the thighs).  

Best exercise for building six-pack abs
Anatomy of the abdominal muscles.

Five reps were recorded for each exercise, and the middle three repetitions were used for analysis. For isometric hold exercises (front plank, side plank, and yoga boat pose), the middle nine second of data were used for analysis.

The Results of the Study on the Best Ab Exercises

Out of all the exercises and machines tested, the researchers determined that none of the exercises produced greater muscle activation than the traditional crunch.

According to the researchers, the Ab Wheel, Ab Circle Pro, side plank, and front plank all had significantly lower muscle activation in the URA compared to the traditional crunch, while the Ab Circle Pro, side plank, and front plank had significantly lower muscle activation in the LRA than the traditional crunch.

Dr. Porcari said, “another thing we found is that, regardless of the exercise, and this has been shown before in other research, there really doesn’t appear to be any difference between the upper and lower abs. You can’t selectively recruit the upper abs versus the lower abs. And this study reinforced the fact that, across 15 different popular ab exercises and ab devices, there really was no difference.”

In other words, there is no point in trying to target one part of the abs over another. All exercises will target the entire abdominus group of muscles. The only different is that some will emphasize one area over another.

According to the study, there were six ab exercises that elicited significantly higher muscle activation in the EO than the traditional crunch. There were as follows:

  • Decline bench curl-up
  • Ab Lounge
  • Ab Wheel
  • Captain’s chair crunch
  • Ab Straps
  • Ab Coaster

Researchers say that the most likely reason for this higher activation is because those machines are more “free-moving” and require the subject to maintain more balance and control by using the EO. This is in contrast to the traditional crunch, which requires going up and down with little twisting involved.

The RF also saw significantly higher muscle activation in nine exercises, including:

  • Yoga boat pose
  • Bicycle crunch
  • Decline bench curl-up
  • Perfect sit-up
  • Ab lounge
  • Captains chair crunch
  • Ab Straps
  • Ab Coaster
  • Front Plank

The Two Types of Crunches

In addition to comparing the various forms of ab exercises, the researches also tested two types of the traditional crunch: arms folders across the chest, and fingers interlocked behind the bead. According to the data, however, there was no significant difference in muscle activation between the two types of crunches. One might think that the hands-behind-back variation would be less effective, as you help lift your head up with your hands. “But there was no difference,” says Edward Stenger, M.S.

The traditional crunch.

The Bottom Line on the Best Exercise for Building Six-Pack Abs

“We spent a considerable amount of money on abdominal exercise equipment to basically show that you can effectively train the abs at home for free,” notes Stenger. “Obviously, laying on the ground doing the traditional crunch is not appropriate for everybody, especially people with low-back pain, but for the average person who wants to work his or her abdominal muscles to get stronger, have less back pain, and get better health benefits, all you need to do is get a comfortable spot on the floor, lay down and do some crunches. It doesn’t cost anything to work out. Everything else is kind of a waste of money from this standpoint.”

Dr. Cedric X Bryant, ACE’s Chief Science Officer, says “it’s important, however, to keep in mind that there is no single abdominal exercise that challenges all the abdominal muscles in the most effective way, and the best way to work the abs is with different types of exercise.”

Still, when considering cost and accessibility, there is no better exercise than the traditional crunch, especially for targeting those visible front rectus abdominis muscles (upper and lower). Mix in one or two more exercises to target the EO and RF (see above) and you’ve got yourself a simple yet extremely powerful set of ab exercises for fast results. No need for expensive machines or gym memberships!

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Author: Yous Kas