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5 Best Ab Exercises For Beginners: A Workout With Videos

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Young woman doing bicycle crunches as an ab exercise

Looking to start working on your abs? Good for you.

This workout article with instructional videos focuses on several ab exercises sports science has found to be more effective at strengthening & toning your ab muscles than the traditional crunch.

And note that research studies have shown the traditional crunch is equally or more effective than all of the ab equipment you see for sale on TV too.

So don’t fall for those phony ab infomercials with their oiled-up fitness models & empty “six-pack” promises; let’s get real instead.

Save your money and just put in the effort doing a couple of the following exercises on a consistent basis.

They’re ideal for beginners because they’re easy to learn and you can do them at home.


The best ab exercises for beginners

Bicycle Maneuver

Swiss Ball Crunch

Vertical Leg Crunch

Long Arm Crunch

Reverse Crunch

Research studies have demonstrated that when performed correctly, these variations of the ab crunch activate your “six-pack” muscles better than all of the ab products marketed on TV & online.


What’s next

Up ahead I’ll provide an instructional guide on how to do each of these exercises to get the most out of them, and I include tutorial videos as well.

Next I want to briefly share a bit about the sports research that tested various ab exercises as well as a number of the heavily marketed “guaranteed six-pack abs” products for their effectiveness.

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Science resources included

As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.


The ab crunch vs. other ab exercises

While researching this article I came across a number of clinical studies that tested for the amount of muscle activation that occurred while doing various ab exercises, such as the:

  • traditional crunch
  • Swiss ball crunch & several other crunch variations
  • hover & plank variations
  • yoga boat pose
  • Captain’s Chair (knee raise equipment you see at gyms)


The ab crunch vs. infomercial ab equipment

And a few of the more notable studies – such as those that were commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) – also tested how effective a bunch of the infomercial ab products were too (1):

      • Ab Rocker
      • Ab Lounge
      • Ab Wheel
      • Ab Rocket
      • Ab Circle Pro
      • Ab Coaster


Ab muscles & electromyography (EMG)

The amount a muscle is activated during any particular exercise can be measured using a process called electromyography, known as EMG for short.

Using sensors inserted under the skin, an EMG records how much a particular muscle is engaged during any specific movement. (2)

This is the process that was used to compare all of the different ab exercises and ab products in those studies I mentioned.

The participants would get their rectus abdominis muscles (what we’d call a six-pack, if they had one) hooked up to the EMG machine, then they’d perform a particular type of ab exercise.

Electromyography makes it very easy to see which exercises work your abs the most, and which ones aren’t as effective.

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RESULTS: Other ab exercises vs. the crunch

The amount of muscle activation in the traditional crunch was used as the standard against which the other exercises were measured.

Here’s a summary of the results from the first study the American Council on Exercise commissioned (3):


Bicycle Maneuver (the Bicycle Crunch) 248%
Swiss Ball Crunches 139%
Vertical Leg Crunch 129%
Long Arm Crunch 119%
Reverse Crunch 109%
Traditional Crunch 100%


So you see, for example, that the bicycle maneuver (also called the bicycle crunch) activated the ab muscles almost 150% more than the traditional crunch.

And the Swiss Ball Crunch was 39% more effective than the regular crunch, and so on.


The crunch vs. the ab products

In another study, the American Council on Exercise partnered up with the University of Wisconsin’s Physiology Dept. (4)

They tested how effective those ab products I mentioned earlier were compared to the basic crunch.

Researchers concluded

“One of the main findings of this study was that none of the exercises elicited greater muscle activation…than the traditional crunch.” (5)


They went on to state that

“This finding was similar to the results of several other published studies.”


The American Council on Exercise says save your money

ACE states that in their opinion, you’re wasting your money buying any of those ab exercisers being marketed at you. (6)

They say that if you want to get a piece of equipment for your abs, spend 30 bucks on “a high-quality exercise ball” (also known as a Swiss ball or stability ball), like this one.

Best Ab Exercises For Beginners

Man doing a bicycle crunch on the beach - one of the best ab exercises for beginners - heydayDo image

OK, below this are five easy-to-learn ab exercises that are great for beginners.

When you’re first starting out, and particularly if you’re not in shape, you won’t be able to do very many reps before having to stop.

No worries.

Just rest for 30-60 seconds and then bang out another set.

Shoot for 5 minutes or so dedicated to these ab exercises at first.

You’ll be able to increase that as you get stronger over time.


A couple of ab exercise tips

Try them all out

*Feel free to do as many of the exercises as you want, see which ones you connect with.

*Doing two or three of them in a workout or switching around the exercises from workout to workout is cool too – it’ll help keep any boredom at bay.


Rep quality is important

*Good form is really critical here. Doing ab exercises slowly & correctly is the best way to get the most out of them.

*Don’t get hung up on the number of reps you’re doing. Just focus on maintaining the quality of every rep that you do perform.


Take recovery days between ab workouts

*Treat your abs like the muscle group that they are, and don’t work them every day. You don’t train your other muscle groups on consecutive days; do the same thing with your abs.

*So if you’re working your abs hard enough to feel the burn, you need at least a day of recovery time before hitting them again.


Bicycle Maneuver (aka Bicycle Crunch)

Key how-to points

*Beginners can use just their legs to start if the full bicycle crunch is too difficult at first

*The bicycle crunch is what she calls “Level 2”; this is your goal

*Follow her tip about hand placement & keeping the hands from straining the neck

*Elbows wide

*The more parallel to the floor you are, the more challenging it becomes. If need be, use the easier positions she suggests until you get stronger.

Swiss Ball Crunch

AKA The Stability Ball Crunch

Key how-to points

*Sports science research has shown that the Swiss ball crunch becomes much more effective when you position the ball under your lower back vs. higher up in the middle of it (7)

*Note how she easily gets into position

*Thighs are parallel to the floor, hips & knees parallel to each other as well


Vertical Leg Crunch

Key how-to points

*The vertical legs increases the core muscles activity while stabilizing you

*They also increase the difficulty vs. the traditional crunch since your feet aren’t available for you to push down through them

*Follow the same hand & elbow position advice as described in the bicycle crunch video above


Long Arm Crunch

Key how-to points

*Make sure jaw & neck are relaxed, keep chin off of your chest

* Note her pause at the top of the range of motion

*Exhale on the way up


The advanced version of this exercise puts a dumbbell in your hands, and looks like this:

*Use a light pair of dumbbells; only a little extra resistance is needed to increase the difficulty of this exercise


Reverse Crunch

Key how-to points

*According to the American Council on Exercise study I referenced earlier in the article, the reverse crunch was only slightly more effective than the traditional crunch.


It’s very important to note that the way the people performed the reverse crunch in that study was much easier than the way you see Jeff Cavaliere of Athlean X do it in this video.

Make no mistake: you’ll feel how effective his method is.

*All of his points are worth paying attention to, especially the ones about “cheating” to make the exercise easier by using gravity &/or momentum to do the work for you.


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Ab Exercises FAQ

Here are answers to a few of the commonly asked questions regarding ab exercises.


What is a good ab workout for beginners?

Aim for 5-10 minutes of work on your abs per workout, and that includes the 30-45 seconds of rest between your sets.

Doing at least a couple of different ab exercises every workout is a good idea too.

Go for 3-4 times per week on non-consecutive days.


What exercise burns the most belly fat?

It’s not an ab exercise, that’s for sure.

It is not possible to “spot reduce” or “target” belly fat, despite what you’re told by all of the companies trying to sell you something.

Science research has demonstrated this several times – including studies here and also here, among others.


Here are a few ideas to consider:

Activities with the highest calorie burn rate

Harvard has a list that shows how many calories are burned in thirty minutes for dozens of different activities.

Pick something you like doing and get busy.

You can check it out here: Harvard Medical Calories Burned Chart


Strength training boosts your calorie burning

I’d like to humbly suggest getting into a regular strength training routine, since strength training has been shown to boost your metabolism, which in turn increases your calorie burn. (10)


HIIT workouts burn calories for hours

Another idea to consider is HIIT, high intensity interval training.

It doesn’t take up much of your time, and it has been proven to deliver results.

For example, a HIIT workout can continue to burn calories at a higher than normal rate for hours following your workout (11).

I’ve written a few articles on high intensity interval training here on heydayDo, including a HIIT guide for older people that you can read here.


Can I get 6 pack in 4 weeks?

Highly unlikely, unless your body fat percentage is already low enough so that you can at least see your ab muscles.

And even then, 4 weeks of serious ab training may not be enough time to develop your rectus abdominis area to the point of where your six-pack is clearly defined.

For a detailed explanation on how you can (approximately) figure out how long it’ll take you to get a six-pack, I answer that question here on heydayDo in my article Does Everyone Have Abs?


How can I tone my abs fast?

The ab workout program I suggested earlier is a good starting point if you’re a beginner.

As you get stronger you can increase your workout intensity & training volume – meaning more sets & reps.


Just remember they’re a muscle group, and your hard work there demands that you give them a recovery day off (or two) between workouts.


Also, you can help your cause greatly by keeping a real close eye on your diet.

Besides a consistent ab workout schedule, the other half of the toned abs equation is a diet that reduces your body fat percentage.

This allows the muscles you’ve been building there to be seen, since they won’t be hidden any longer by a layer of fat.

Here’s a picture chart of what particular body fat ranges look like when it comes to our abs: Body Fat Percentages of Men & Women

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Wrapping Up

I hope that my article on beginner ab exercises is useful to you, and that the sports science research on the relative effectiveness of various ab exercises is helpful too.

I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.

– greg

About The Author

heydayDo author Greg Simon

Hi! I’m Gregory Simon.

Fitness training & nutrition researching since 1982. ISSN (International Society of Sports Nutrition) Pro Member. Surfer. Organic food grower. Congenital heart disease survivor (so far). is my wellness blog that’s about encouraging a healthy lifestyle as we age.

I share my fitness training experience as well as the sports science research I’ve done on the many benefits strength building, exercise, & good eating habits offer us.

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