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The Most Intense Ab Exercises

It’s a myth that abdominal exercises are all you need to have a flat abdomen. The exercises, by themselves, do not burn enough calories to make a significant reduction in abdominal fat. Studies have shown that you can’t reduce the fat in a particular part of the body by only doing specific exercises for that area.

But abdominal exercises do help to make your tummy look smaller by acting like a tight girdle to hold in your intestines, stomach, and other internal organs. Strong ab muscles also help to prevent lower back injury.

In 2001, the American Council on Exercise, a.k.a. the “workout watchdog”, asked Dr. Peter Francis of the San Diego University to rate 13 abdominal exercises to find out which exercise worked the abdominal muscles the most.

There are four muscles that form a multi-layered multi-directional girdle around the trunk. The most obvious to the naked eye, the rectus abdominis or the “six-pack” muscle, runs vertically down the middle of your abdomen. The external and internal obliques criss-cross the waist in opposing diagonal fibers. And the deepest muscle, the transverues abdominis, wraps around the middle of the torso like a big wide belt.

Francis measured the activity of the rectus and external obliques. The traditional crunch or half sit-up was used as the standard for comparison.

Four of the exercises used abdominal equipment – captain’s chair (also called a “high chair” or “Roman chair”, stability ball, Torso Track, and Ab-Rocker.

The captain’s chair is a gym machine wherein the user can “hang” off the ground by resting on the forearms while lifting the legs. It was 212 percent more intense than a crunch for the rectus and 310 percent for intense for the obliques.

Crunches done on a stability ball were 139 percent more intense for the rectus and 147 percent more intense for the obliques..

The Torso Track (a device that you use while on your knees as you roll forward on your hands) was just slightly more intense than a regular crunch. The least intense was the Ab-Rocker (a chair type of machine), which had a sort of negative rating because it had only 21 percent of the intensity that you would normally get from a traditional crunch. Put another way, it was 79 percent less intense than a crunch. In fact, it was the least intense of all the 13 exercises evaluated.

The big winner was an exercise done without equipment. It was 248 percent more intense than a crunch for the rectus and 290 percent more intense for the obliques. Francis called it the “bicycle maneuver”. Pilates fans know it as the “single leg stretch”. To do the exercise, you lie on your back, raise your knees over your hips, tighten your abs and then straighten one leg at a time at a 45-degree angle while you diagonally twist your upper body.

Other top winners were the “vertical leg crunch” and the “reverse crunch”. For a complete description of all the thirteen exercises in the study, go to the ACE website (www.acefitness.org).

The most intense exercises all involved using the abdominals as a stabilizing force to hold the trunk steady while the lower body did the movement. It makes sense that these types of exercises would be more intense than other kinds of crunches (even one done with both arms straight overhead) because the lower body weighs more than the upper body.

The exception in the ‘winner’s circle’ was the stability ball, which was the third most intense exercise of the 13 exercises rated (first was the bicycle, second was the captain’s chair, fourth was the vertical leg crunch, fifth was the reverse crunch). The reason is the ball is an unstable surface, which keeps moving underneath you. This makes the abdominal muscles contract hard just to keep you from falling off the ball.

Use this information wisely. This doesn’t mean that the traditional crunch is not worth anything in strengthening your abs. It was just used as the benchmark or the standard against which to compare the intensity of the other exercises.

Remember the principle of specificity of training, which states that you only get good at what you train for. If you have been used to doing the “bicycle maneuver”, you will probably find doing a crunch on a stability ball a “belly shaking” experience even though the latter is a less intense exercise.

If you are not used to doing abdominal exercises, the bicycle maneuver is not exactly the place to start, especially if your lower back is also weak. Your abs will not be strong enough to hold the lower back in place because of the weight of the legs.

Beginners can do these types of exercises but they need special instructions to modify them (like bicycling at 90-degrees directly on top of the hips) for their fitness level.

Advanced exercisers have many more challenging choices to choose from. It just so happened that these were the 13 exercises chosen for evaluation.

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