Crunching, churning, rotating, and splitting your way to better abs might not be the best path. According to research out of the University of South Florida and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, it’s free-weight exercises that stand king and develop the kind of abs you want.
“Numerous exercises, devices, and training approaches claim to activate the core muscles,” says study author Jason Martuscello, “but in reality our research contradicts much of this marketing.”
The researchers classified 97 exercises into core exercise classification: traditional core, core stability, ball/device, free-weight, noncore free-weight. They found that free-weight exercises produced the greatest activation for the core muscles. “Ball/device exercises did not increase muscle activity when compared to other exercise types without ball or device,” says Martuscello. “Core-specific, floor-based exercises—traditional core like situps, core stability like planks—utilizing bodyweight do not activate the core muscles.”
For the researchers, the biggest activators of the core muscles were the big-lift exercises. Martuscello, also a training advisor and contributor to HUMANFITPROJECT, recommends squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses. Don’t get all gung-ho, though. Safety is key.
“The complexity of free-weight exercises exceeds floor-based situps and core-stabilization exercises, which raises concern for injury,” says Martuscello. “Although the level of risk is elevated, this should not discourage free-weight use. Like anything else in life: big risk, big reward. However, that doesn't mean we bet our life savings. The beauty of free-weight exercises is that they can be progressively loaded to accommodate proper technique.”
You heard it here: Quit the constant situps and start getting heavy.