Sometimes all you need to spruce up your ab workouts is a new spin on familiar movements or a little extra attention to technique and exercise selection. Revamp your ab routine with these five pointers based on scientific research.
1) Work the ball. If you want a highly effective way to target the lower part of your abs, roll out a stability ball. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that the lower rectus abdominis (the muscle that produces that “six-pack” look) showed more activity on an electromyograph (EMG)—a device that measures working muscles—when subjects did ball crunches compared to when they performed reverse curls on the floor.
2) Talk yourself through it. How you think about crunches while you do them can significantly improve your ability to target your abdominals. A study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy showed that subjects increased muscle recruitment during crunches when given specific verbal cues, such as “draw your ribcage down and in as you lift” (for the rectus abdominis) and “flare out your ribcage” (for the obliques – those muscles that wrap around your waist).
The same subjects were able to reproduce the technique without further instruction one week later. Once subjects learned the basic skill, it was easy to repeat, explains study co-author Gregory M. Karst, PT, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
3) Consider your options. Crunches will always be popular and a good starting exercise for beginners. However, new research suggests that other moves may challenge the abs more. Researchers used EMG testing on 10 women and two men during four exercises: hip lifts, v-sits, bicycle curl-ups and standard crunches. Hip lifts produced 33% more activity in the rectus abdominis and 60% more activity in the external obliques than crunches. The v-sit and bicycle curl-up also scored higher.
Still, no single exercise can take the place of a diversified routine. For best results, do a variety of ab-training moves, advises Michele Olson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Auburn University in Alabama and the study’s lead author.
4) Drop the weight. One way that avid ab exercisers make a crunch harder is by holding a weighted plate to their chest as they curl up. However, when researchers tested women, ages 18 to 23, as they crunched without resistance or while holding a four- or eight-pound weight, they found that the weights made no significant difference.
Other ideas for challenging yourself during crunches: slow down your movement (e.g., curl up for four counts and down for four counts), do crunches on stability equipment like an air-filled balance disc or stability ball or toss a medicine ball to a partner as you curl up.