The Best Ab Workout in the Gym

It's easier than ever to find an ab workout thanks to smartphones with apps like Google and YouTube. Within minutes you can find dozens of videos and articles with ab exercises. With so many different options how do you know which exercises to do?

The ab roller is one of the best ab exercises in the gym. (Image: Barryj13/iStock/Getty Images)

In order to find out which ab exercises are the best, scientists can measure how hard your ab muscles work in each one. They measure this using EMG, or electromyography, which measures the amount of electrical activity in your muscles. By using EMG, it's actually possible to see which exercises cause the greatest stimulation.

While each study has slightly different results there are a few exercises that always seem to be consistently ahead of the rest. These exercises are: the ab rollout, crunch, bicycle, and captain's chair.

What Makes an Ab Exercise "The Best"

Each exercise works slightly different parts of your abdominals. The most well-known abdominal muscle is the rectus abdominis, which is the muscle that forms the six-pack. This muscle is divided into the lower half and upper half.

The muscles on the side of your six-pack are called the obliques. Technically, the external oblique is the muscle you can actually see and measure and the internal oblique is the muscle hidden underneath.

Each ab exercise works the ab muscles in a different way, so in order to create the best ab workout you must include multiple exercises.

Once you pick the best exercises, put them into a workout with the correct amount of sets and reps for each exercise, and then decide what order the exercises should go in.

To make this ab workout even more intense, pair the exercises together, meaning you do one set of an exercise then immediately go to the exercise it's paired with. For this workout the ab rollout and the crunch are paired and the bicycle crunch and the captain's chair or the hanging leg raise.

Perform each pair of exercises three times:

1. Ab Rollout

Even though this exercise is performed with a fairly simple piece of equipment it's one of the most challenging ab exercises in the gym.

HOW TO DO IT: Kneel on something soft like a blanket or rolled-up yoga mat. Grab an ab wheel with both hands and hold it on the ground in front of you. Roll the ab wheel forwards and push your hips down towards the ground until you form a straight line from your head to your knees.

The ab wheel should be directly under your shoulders. This position looks like the starting position of a push-up from the knees. Flex your abs and roll the wheel forwards. Keep rolling forwards until your arms are alongside your ears.

To get back up, pull the ab wheel down towards your knees until you push yourself back up to the start position with the ab roller directly under your shoulders. Perform eight to 10 repetitions of this exercise.


You might not be able to get back up if you go all the way down to the floor. If that's the case, simply go down as far as you can and then roll back up.

Read More: Ab Roller Benefits

2. Crunch

Some researchers didn't favor this exercise, due to it's potential strain on the lower back, while others said that it's just as effective as any other ab exercise for the obliques.

HOW TO DO IT: Get into a sit-up position, lying on your back with your feet close to your butt. Cross your arms over your chest. Breathe out and lift your head, neck, and shoulders off of the mat, curling up towards your knees but keeping your middle and lower back on the ground.

This is a much smaller movement than a full sit-up. Lower yourself back down to the mat slowly and with control. Perform 15 to 20 repetitions of the crunch.

Rest for a minute before you advance to the next pair of ab exercises.

3. Bicycle Crunch

According to an article in published by the American Council on Exercise, the bicycle exercise was the best for the rectus abdominis and second best for obliques when compared to 12 other abdominal exercises.

HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and legs in the air; knees bent at 90 degrees. Touch your left elbow to your right knee by turning your torso to the right, pulling your right knee back, and extending your left leg out straight.

After you touch your left elbow and right knee together, reach your right leg out straight, turn your upper body to the left, pull your left knee back towards your right elbow, and touch them together. Slowly perform 10 touches on each side for this exercise.

4. Captain's Chair/Hanging Leg Raise

According to the ACE study, the captain's chair exercise was the best exercise to target the obliques of the 13 exercises. The captain's chair has you positioned in a very tall contraption that looks like a chair with no seat. You lift and lower your legs to engage your abdomen.

A possible alternative is the hanging leg raise. It's a similar exercise and requires less specialized equipment. Perform either the captain's chair or the hanging leg raise for eight to 10 repetitions.

HOW TO DO IT: Hang onto a pull-up bar, or something similar, with your arms straight and feet dangling. Raise your knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground and knees bent at 90 degrees.

Avoid swinging your body back and forth. Instead, move slowly and put your feet down to reset if you start swinging too much. Lower your legs until they hang straight down to complete one rep.

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