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Toning Your Tummy: The Best and the Worst Techniques

Written: 02/22/2008

The abdominals are one of the most loathed, yet most coveted, set of muscles that Americans want to define, but often don't know how. To be fair, it really isn't possible to "spot treat" your body and get rock-hard abs simply by doing some crunches. You must concentrate on a healthy diet and aerobic exercise first, to reduce fat and shape up your body overall, so that the work you do to tone your tummy can be seen.

However, assuming you're ready to get down to business and trim up your stomach just in time for swimsuit season, there are certain exercises that are much more effective than others (with the research to prove it).

Toning Your Tummy: The Best and the Worst Techniques

A study by researchers at San Diego State University, sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), tested 13 common abdominal exercises for muscle stimulation in the front and side abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominus and the obliques, respectively).

The exercises, some of which involved equipment (such as the "Ab Rocker"), were performed by 30 people aged 20 to 45, who exercised either daily or occasionally. Meanwhile, the activity of their muscles was monitored during the exercises using electromyography equipment.

The researchers concluded that exercises that "require constant abdominal stabilization, as well as body rotation, generated the most muscle activity in the obliques," and were, therefore, the most effective.

Meanwhile, they concluded that it's not necessary to purchase a piece of equipment to give your abs a good workout. (The only exception being if the equipment inspires you to routinely workout your abs and stick with the program.)

The Worst Exercises

Nearing the bottom of the list when it comes to ab exercises you're better of forgetting was the ever-popular crunch or sit-up.

"The problem with the sit-up is that it is ineffective," Peter Francis, Ph.D., the study's lead researcher, said.

It's ineffective because rather than relying on the abdominal muscles to sit up, most people use their hips. Meanwhile, sit-ups are notorious for straining the back, Francis says.

Other exercises that made the bottom of the list were:

  • The Torso Track: Though it was "marginally more effective" than a traditional crunch, a significant number of people experienced lower-back pain as a result.

  • The Ab Roller: This was no more effective than a traditional crunch.

  • The Ab Rocker: This was found to be up to 80 percent less effective than a traditional crunch.

"You don't have to spend $150 on a piece of exercise equipment to strengthen your abs," says Francis.

The Best Exercises for Your Abs

Following are the most effective abdominal exercises found by the study. To get the best results, Francis recommends alternating between several of the top exercises and doing a five-minute session each day.

  1. The Bicycle

    Lying flat on your back, raise your knees to a 45-degree angle. Move your legs in abicycle-pedaling motion, while touching your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee.

  2. The Captain's Chair

    (This uses a piece of gym equipment.) Grip the handholds of the equipment lightly and keep your lower back pressed against the back pad. Allow your legs to dangle below, then slowly lift your knees toward your chest in a controlled motion. Slowly return your knees to the starting position.

  3. Crunch on Exercise Ball

    Lie with your back on the exercise ball so that your thighs and torso are parallel to the floor. With your hands behind your head, or crossed over your chest, tuck your chin in toward your chest and contract your abdominals. Your torso should raise no more than 45 degrees from the ball. To vary difficulty, move your feet wider apart or closer together.

  4. Vertical Leg Crunch

    These crunches (along with the reverse crunch below) put less stress on the back than typical crunches. Lying flat with your back on the floor and your hands behind your head, extend your legs straight up, crossed at the ankle with a slight bend in the knees. Lift your torso toward your knees, contracting your abdominal muscles and keeping your chin off your chest.

  5. Reverse Crunch

    Lying flat on the floor with your back on the ground, put your hands beside your head or extend them flat by your sides. Cross your feet at the ankles and lift your knees to a 90-degree angle. Press your lower back to the floor and contract your abs so your hips rotate and your legs reach toward the ceiling.

- Ryan


American Council on Exercise (Picture Courtesy)

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