The crunch is world famous, and probably the first exercise you think of when it comes to abs. It’s loved by some and loathed by others, known for generating an ever-increasing burn over the course of long sets as lactic acid builds up in the abdominal wall.
Truth be told, it’s very effective, delivering a direct hit on the muscles that make up the so-called six-pack, especially the upper abs. It’s also a move you won’t find anywhere on this list of top 10 ab exercises. That’s because we believe there are more interesting and productive options to be considered first. Some take aim at the harder-to-develop lower ab area — or, in some cases, hit the entire abdominal region — while others amp up the degree of difficulty to the extreme.
One thing is sure: Not everyone will agree with our rankings. We didn’t meticulously measure the abdominal activation of each with electromyo-graphy equipment, a popular approach for testing all manner of exercises. We instead weighed attributes such as an exercise’s degree of difficulty, its offer of a unique challenge that helps break the monotony of a typical ab routine and anecdotal reports from the training trenches.
With that said, here’s our list, ready to be disseminated, debated and, most important, adopted into your own routine as you strive for a stronger, more defined core.
10. Medicine-Ball Walkover
In the case of the ever-popular plank, your core engages to keep your hips from dropping toward the floor. While we have nothing particularly against the plank, we think the walkover does it one better, introducing activity that adds a layer of difficulty and causes your core to contract and release multiple times as you move up and over the medicine ball from side to side.
Main Areas Targeted: Upper and lower ab
Strengths: The walkover combines the isometric contraction of the plank with action. To keep your body straight from head to heels as you “walk” your hands over the ball, you must engage not only your rectus abdominis but also your obliques and lower back.
How-To: Start in the “up” position of a push-up with a medicine ball on the floor just outside your right arm. Pick up your right hand and place it on the ball, then lift your left hand from the floor and bring it atop the ball so that you balance your upper body on it. Next, place your right hand on the floor on the opposite side of the ball, then your left hand. Continue “walking” with your hands back and forth, onto and over the ball, for a predetermined amount of time like one minute (if your pecs and delts can keep up, that is).
9. Cable Woodchopper
“We live our gym lives in single planes of motion, but real life and sports are multiplanar,” says Dan Roberts, CSCS, creator of the exercise program X Combat (danrobertsgroup.com) and one of Europe’s top strength and conditioning coaches. “I love gym exercises that get you twisting. Your legs, abs and obliques do the work, but they work together in one fluid movement, improving your coordination.”
Main Areas Targeted: Obliques and deep transverse abdominis
Strengths: Using a cable introduces resistance all the way through the range of motion without losing any of the benefits of a strong, explosive contraction. “This exercise is functional to tennis, boxing, baseball pitching and batting, football … in fact, any sport with a rotational element will benefit,” Roberts says. “In addition, you condition your body to twist under a load, which will reduce chances of strains or injuries in your back when you’re not on the sports field.” It’s also versatile, as you can start from any pulley position to elicit a different stimulus: low to high (as described below), high to low, directly through the middle or any stop in between if you have a pulley system that allows for other heights.
How-To: For this version of the woodchopper, you’ll go up and across your body. Using a rope attachment to a cable pulley set to the lowest position, stand sideways to the machine in a staggered stance, keeping your elbows almost straight but not locked out. Holding the rope in both hands, initiate the movement at the ankles, knees and hips, forcefully pulling the rope across your body and toward head level on the opposite side. Complete your reps for one side, then switch sides and repeat.
8. One-Arm Dumbbell Sit-Up
This move is borrowed from the realm of mixed martial arts conditioning, aimed at fighters who need to generate core power when escaping from ground-and-pound attacks or submission attempts. When performed at a deliberate cadence, it helps improve core and body control; putting the resistance overhead (versus at the chest) decreases any leverage advantage, meaning the muscles do more work.
Main Area Targeted: Upper abs
Strengths: So many abdominal exercises are bodyweight-centric. People fear adding resistance, thinking it will thicken the midsection. But what adding weight really accomplishes is efficiency, pushing the muscles to failure in less time, meaning you need fewer reps to achieve a deep, meaningful burn in your belly, not to mention a measure of strength that’s invaluable in so many other movements. And while we’re touting the one-arm dumbbell version here because of the balance aspects — making each side of your body react differently to complete each rep — the two-handed barbell version is also sufficiently vicious and worth a try.
How-To: Lie faceup on the floor holding a dumbbell in one hand extended above your chest. From here, sit up, holding the weight in that same plane until your body forms an “L” with the dumbbell extended overhead, then lower yourself back to the floor. Complete your reps for one side, then switch the dumbbell to the other hand and repeat.
7. Medicine-Ball Toss Sit-Up
When the old-school sit-up hit a rough patch — universally blasted as an outdated, outmoded movement, relying too much on ancillary muscles like the hip flexors to power you through a complete rep — the era of crunches was born, limiting the move to the most critical and beneficial few inches of the motion. These days the traditional sit-up is making a comeback, and with good reason: Sure, it may involve more than the target muscles, but why is that such a bad thing? Prodding a range of muscles to fire in concert with one another so that the body works more efficiently and powerfully as a whole is the concept of functional training in a nutshell. All without compromising the primary goal of targeting the abs.
Main Area Targeted: Lower abs
Strengths: This exercise kicks the sit-up up a notch, introducing ever-changing resistance and an explosive catch-and-toss element that puts your core under all sorts of beneficial duress. The downside? It’s best done with a partner, although if you train alone you could also rep against a concrete wall with a medicine ball designed to provide some bounce.
How-To: Lie faceup on the floor with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor and a medicine ball held overhead with both hands. Engage your core to bring your torso toward an upright sit-up position and simultaneously toss the medicine ball forward to a waiting partner. Once you reach the top of the move, your partner should immediately toss the ball back to you. Catch it in front of you at head level or slightly above, then bring the ball overhead in one smooth motion as you return to the start position on the floor.
6. Bicycle Crunch
In 2001, the American Council on Exercise sponsored a study that gained a lot of traction in fitness circles. In it, researchers at the San Diego State University Biomechanics Lab tested 13 ab moves, using electromyography equipment to measure muscular activation in the rectus abdominis, obliques and hip flexors (via the rectus femoris). The winner — beating out common moves such as Swiss-ball crunches and vertical-bench knee raises as well as infomercial gadgets such as the Torso Track, Ab Roller and Ab Rocker — was the unassuming, no-equipment-required bicycle crunch.
Main Areas Targeted: Obliques and deep transverse abdominis
Strengths: The bicycle crunch involves constant motion, meaning your abdominal wall is engaged from numerous angles. The twisting back and forth as you bring each elbow to the opposite knee calls on the obliques, too, making this an all-in-one alternative for ab training.
How-To: Lie faceup with your lower back pressed into the floor. Place your hands lightly behind your head, elbows pointed out. Elevate your legs with your knees bent 90 degrees. Now pump your legs, straightening one knee as you bend the other, while twisting your upper body so that you bring your right elbow to your left knee and vice versa. You can count reps (once to each side equals one rep) or do these for a certain period of time. Full extension of the legs on each rep and an aggressive cross-body, elbow-to-knee crunch are crucial; don’t get caught in the trap of simply pedaling yourself silly.
5. Standing Pallof Press
Boston-area physical therapist John Pallof showed this move to strength coach Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, back in 2006 and Gentilcore (tonygentilcore.com) has been a fierce proponent ever since. “It’s a very user-friendly exercise that doesn’t require any fancy equipment,” he says. “Whether you’re a professional athlete or Bob from accounting, it’s very easy to learn and assimilate into your training toolbox immediately. It’s simple looking and many might scoff at it. But these ‘simple’ moves are often the most effective.”
Main Areas Targeted: Rectus abdomi-nis, obliques, deep transverse abdominis
Strengths: As you extend your arms away from your body, the pull on your core gets stronger and stronger, engaging the rectus and oblique muscles in the process. “The Pallof press trains the core musculature in a more functional manner, in that it forces one to resist motion and to stabilize,” Gentilcore explains. “In turn, this helps to improve force transfer from the lower body through the core to the upper body, which is the true function of the core.”
How-To: Set a cable pulley or Free-Motion machine to its midpoint so the line of pull is directly level with your sternum. Hold the attached D-handle at your sternum with your right hand on the handle and your left hand overlapping your right, upper arms along your torso. Stand sideways to and far enough away from the machine so the weight stack is lifted (providing resistance). Keep your knees bent and shoulders and hips square, feet a little wider than shoulder width. Deliberately press your arms straight out in front of you, resisting the pull of the weight; don’t let your upper body twist toward the machine. Stop at full elbow extension, pause for a one-count, then slowly bring the handle back toward you. Complete eight to 10 reps per side. (Note that you can also use a band, or do the exercise kneeling or from a lunge stance.)
4. TRX Knee Tuck
The TRX Suspension Trainer, created by former Navy SEAL Randy Hetrick a couple of decades ago, is a devious piece of equipment that allows you to use leverage, gravity and your own bodyweight as resistance to do a wide array of movements. Nearly every TRX exercise engages the core to some degree for stability, but the knee tuck takes aim directly at the rectus abdominis.
Main Area Targeted: Lower abs
Strengths: “This is an advanced version of the plank, so you’re working your core, but because your feet are elevated you also work your back and shoulders,” explains U.K.-based trainer Dan Roberts. “Then, as you move your knees in and out, your abs and glutes will work hard to make the movement happen. In addition, your pelvic stabilizer muscles will kick in. Remember, the slower and more controlled you perform your reps, the better.”
How-To: Start in a push-up position, both hands just outside shoulder width on the floor and both feet in the TRX cradles. Keeping your torso stable and abs tight, pull your knees as far into your chest as you can as you curl your lower back, then extend your back and legs out to the start.
Want to try one of the toughest abdominal exercises you can imagine? CrossFit has you covered with the simple yet devastating “toes-to-bar.” The name is apt because that’s exactly what you do: Hang from a pull-up bar and raise your legs until your toes touch the bar, folding yourself in half in the process. Main Areas Targeted: Obliques and deep transverse abdominis
Strengths: Toes-to-bar is essentially a hanging leg raise with a radically extended range of motion, calling upon all sorts of core and upper-body muscles to contract and stabilize while you drive your legs upward. You likely won’t be able to do many reps, but no matter; 100 standard crunches wouldn’t equal the stimulus that 10 of these can deliver. (If you’re a novice, we highly recommend that you begin with hanging knee raises, using a bar or a vertical bench, before graduating to leg raises. When you’re ready at least a few months down the line, try the toes-to-bar.)
How-To: Get in a dead hang position from a pull-up bar, using an overhand grip just outside shoulder width. Powerfully “fold” your body in two at the hips by lifting your legs in an arc to a point where your toes reach the bar, then return to the dead hang. Keep your knees straight (but not locked) throughout. Be careful not to let momentum take over during your reps; some swing is okay, but too much will reduce the workload on your abs. While CrossFitters tend to do these against the clock, you can extend the burn — and increase the benefit for the lower abs — by focusing on a powerful contraction and a more controlled negative.
2. Dragon Flag
Not that looks matter, but the dragon flag is arguably one of the most impressive-looking exercises ever created when performed to perfection, requiring an incredible amount of muscular control. Purportedly invented by legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, it was introduced to a new generation of fitness fanatics as part of Rocky IV’s unforgettable training montage. It’s not all about showing off, though; it’s a powerhouse that pushes the main movers and stabilizers of your core to their limits. Main Areas Targeted: Obliques and deep transverse abdominis
Strengths: This is an isometric-based exercise for the abdominals, in that you hold your core steady as you raise your torso against gravity rather than curling your midsection to close the distance between your pelvis and ribcage. Some would argue that should knock it down the list. To them, we respond, “Have you tried the dragon flag yet?” We’d also strongly argue that stabilization is the most important performance metric for abs, as that’s their main function all day long.
How-To: Lie faceup on a flat bench, holding the sides of the bench next to your head with both hands for support. Extend your legs and, maintaining full body control, begin to slowly lift your body upward: Your legs, glutes and lower back should all be aligned as you rise, with only your shoulders, upper traps and head in contact with the bench at the very top of the movement. Try to come up as high as you can, stopping just before your legs and mid-body come perpendicular to the floor, then lower yourself back down, controlling the descent the whole way. Halt just before your body touches the bench and begin the next rep. (Note: If you feel like filming your own montage, you can also perform these lying reversed on a decline bench, grasping the ankle pads behind your head for support.)
1. Double Crunch
This simple exercise combines two of the most essential ab moves into one, giving you the best of both. You basically do a crunch that engages the upper abdominals plus a reverse crunch that targets the lower abdominals.
Main Areas Targeted: Upper and lower abs
Strengths: The advantage here is the dual action: By bringing your upper body and lower body together simultaneously instead of moving just one end while the other end remains stationary, you activate the rectus abdominis from both ends. Many movements (including some on this list, admittedly) tend to focus on either the upper or lower abs but not both to an equal degree. It’s important to note that the rectus abdominis muscle does contract as a whole when you train abs; you can’t isolate one end or the other. But bringing your hips toward your shoulders generally activates the lower ab region more so than the upper, while bringing your shoulders toward your hips demands just a bit more of the upper ab region.
How-To: Lie faceup on the floor with your hands cupped gently behind your head and your legs almost completely straight and raised a few inches off the floor. Bring your knees to your torso while simultaneously crunching your upper body toward your legs. Squeeze for a one-count when you’ve closed the distance as far as you can, then return to the start (with legs still elevated) and repeat. For a more advanced version, consider the V-up: Lie faceup on the floor with your arms stretched overhead, knees straight and legs together, then simultaneously lift your arms and legs toward each other, forming a “V” shape with your body at the top as you balance on your glutes.