Who wouldn’t enjoy having flatter, more defined abs? Well, they’re not always easy to get. It takes work, consistency, the right types of exercise, and a laser-like focus on nutrition. Still, that doesn’t mean that better-looking abs are out of your reach. It just takes a bit of work, but the results will be well worth it. So, let’s see what you can do to get them and the best way to do abdominal crunches and other ab exercises.
The Muscles That Make Up Your Abs
Your abdominal musculature is composed of three main muscle groups. The one that most ab exercises target is the rectus abdominis, a superficial pair of muscles that run vertically from the sternum to the pubic bone. These are the muscles that, when they’re hypertrophied, give you a six-pack. Deep under to the rectus abdominis lies the transverse abdominis muscles. These muscles are less effectively targeted with traditional ab exercises, like crunches. The fibers of the transverse abdominis, also known as the TVA, run horizontally and it’s the deepest abdominal muscle. It’s sometimes called the girdle muscle as it helps to pull your tummy in. We like those kinds of muscles, right?
Finally, there are the external obliques and internal obliques. The external oblique is the most superficial muscle on the side of the abdominal region and the internal oblique lies beneath it. These muscle fibers run diagonally and allow you to rotate your trunk. The internal oblique also helps stabilize the spine.
Balance is Important
For balanced abdominal development, you don’t want to neglect any of these muscles. For most people, the go-to exercise they do for a six-pack is crunches and they frequently do this old standby in a flat position on a yoga mat. But, there’s another approach, why not do them while you’re lying on a stability ball? Stability balls are a popular and relatively inexpensive piece of exercise equipment and they’re versatile. In fact, some people use them as an alternative to a chair at the office so that they work their stabilizer muscles while they sit.
However, it’s also become popular to do abdominal exercises, like crunches, while lying on a stability ball. The idea is that being an uneven surface, a stability ball forces the stabilizer muscles in your core to activate to help you stay stable on the ball. Are your abs really getting more of a workout when you do crunches on a stability ball?
Are Abdominal Crunches on an Unstable Surface More Effective?
Because of the unstable surface, a stability ball offers, you might think crunching on a ball activates the ab muscles to a greater degree. One study found that doing this exercise on a stability ball boosted activation of the abdominal muscles by between 24 to 38% based on EMG readings. EMG is a method that uses electrodes placed on the muscle to record muscle activation. All of the major ab muscles were activated, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and the obliques. But, crunching on a stability ball also brings smaller muscles that stabilize the spine into action. So, it’s a more diverse workout for the core.
In another study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and LaCrosse asked 16 healthy, young men and women to perform a variety of abdominal exercises while they measured muscle activation using EMG. The exercises the participants performed included decline bench curl-ups, captain’s chair crunch, bicycle crunch, yoga boat pose, front plank, and side plank. They also included exercises that used specialized equipment including stability ball crunches, ab circle pro, ab lounge, ab roller, ab rocket, ab coaster, ab wheel, ab straps, and perfect sit-up. The goal was to see if these exercises stimulate the abdominal muscles better than traditional crunches.
What they found was doing a traditional crunch using good form is about as effective as any of the exercises they tested. Some of the exercises using ab devices such as the ab wheel and ab circle pro activated the rectus abdominis muscle to a lesser degree than a traditional crunch. Another example, front, and side planks didn’t activate the rectus abdominis as much as a traditional crunch. Crunches on a stability ball were as effective as traditional crunches but not significantly better at targeting the rectus abdominis. For the external obliques, crunches on a stability ball DID activate these muscles more. It makes sense since you have to twist a bit more when you’re lying on an unstable surface relative to when you’re lying flat.
What about the deep, transverse abdominus, the so-called girdle muscle? The ACE study didn’t look at activation of the transverse abdominis but another 2016 study did. It found that athletes who performed abdominal crunches on a stability ball, as opposed to a mat, activated their transverse abs more and developed greater core stability relative to the mat group. So, doing crunches on a stability ball may give your abs a more balanced workout by hitting more muscles that make up the core.
If you have a stability ball, look beyond abdominal crunches. A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that the abdominal roll-out and abdominal pike exercise on a ball were most effective of the exercises they tested for activating the muscles in the core. These are two to consider adding to your ab routine if you use a stability ball. Another variation is the knee tuck using a ball. Adding these exercises is a good way to diversify your ab workout.
The Bottom Line
You’ll hit your transverse abdominis and external obliques a little harder if you do abdominal crunches on a stability ball. You’ll also recruit more stabilizing muscles. No need to give up traditional abdominal crunches, but adding stability ball crunches works the muscles in your abs and core a slightly different way. If you have a stability ball, put it to work, and don’t just do crunches, try other ab-oriented exercises like knee tucks, pikes, and roll-outs. Your abs will thank you.
Gaiam.com. “How to Do Ab Crunches on a Balance Ball for 40% Better Results”
Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 2010 Volume:40 Issue:5 Pages:265–276.
American Council on Exercise. “Abs! Abs! Abs!”
J Clin Diagn Res. 2016 Dec; 10(12): YC01–YC03.
Related Articles by Cathe:
Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs: