Abdominal Exercises. Which exercises work the abdominals best?


The abdominal muscle group is extremely important since it helps stabilize the torso, may alleviate back pain and acts as the foundation of your strength and power. Athletes and coaches have long debated the topic of the best abdominal exercises, but it's up to scientists to prove it. Scientists used a tool called electromyography to measure electrical activity and thus strength of contractions in the abdominal muscles. Theory has it that the bigger the signal, the more electrical activity in the particular muscle, the stronger the contractions and the more effective the exercise. These studies showed that the three best exercises for the abdominal muscle are the bicycle crunch, the hanging knee raise and the crunch on an exercise ball.

1. The bicycle crunch
Exercise execution: Lay flat on your back as if doing a crunch. Lift your legs up with the upper leg being parallel to the floor but not resting on it.
Start the exercise just like a normal crunch whereby you lift your upper shoulders off the floor but in a twisting motion. Performa a "one shoulder at a time" crunch and in a bicycle fashion, bring the left knee and your right shoulder off the floor towards the centre of your body. Next repetition, switch your crunch so that your left shoulder and your right knee come closer together.

Tip: Remember to slowly but deliberately lift your shoulder off the floor and focus on the abdominal muscle doing the work. Don't aim to get your shoulder off the ground as much as possible but to feel the abdominal contraction. You should not focus on bringing the shoulder up with any other muscle group such as the neck and shoulder.

2. Hanging Knee Raises
Exercise Execution: Position yourself for this exercise so that both your legs stay off the floor, preferably while hanging from a high bar, such as a chin up bar. This exercise can be also be done with your arms supporting your bodyweight on a dip bar. Start the exercise movement by simply bringing your knees to your chest and hold for a second while in this position and then bring the legs back down again.

Tip: Do not let your legs swing in the bottom position as this enables for momentum to take over and the abdominal muscles will get a less effective workout. Control your legs especially on the way down also called an "eccentric" muscle contraction. Too slow on the way down can lead to increased muscular damage and fatigue and is thus not recommended for those with less than 2 years exercise experience.

3. Abdominal Crunch on an exercise ball
If you haven't invested in one of these yet, do yourself a favour. The exercise ball is perhaps the best tool to not only help work your abdominals, but your entire body.

Exercise Exection: Firstly sit on an exercise ball until you feel comfortable with it. Slide your body underneath the ball and lie on it with your lower back. The exercise ball should be sitting somewhere from above your butt to your upper back. The more you position the ball towards your butt on your lower back, the more difficult the abdominal exercise. Start the movement by performing a regular crunch which is done by moving your upper shoulders more towards the roof and only slightly forward towards your abs.

Tip: Your shoulders should only move a maximum of a few inches and thus your lower and middle back should never leave the ball. Don't pull on your neck or head when initiating the movement, keep your neck and and spine in a straight line, and instead let the abs do the work.

REFERENCE: American Council on Exercise, May/June, 2001
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