The Best Ab & Leg Workouts

Research backs the efficiency of the stability ball crunch.

Research backs the efficiency of the stability ball crunch.

While leg and abdominal exercise classes claim prime positions on group exercise schedules, competition with other popular exercise modalities often relegates them to 30-minute time slots. This time-crunch requires the instructor to rely on the ab and leg exercises proven by science to be most effective. When planning your own routines, avoid the fads and stick with workouts that research says are the best.

Reliable Research

The American Council on Exercise sponsors peer-reviewed studies on exercise trends. Their 2001 abdominal exercise study put manufacturers of infomercial ab gadgets to shame, while identifying the best abdominal workouts. ACE performed a similar study for butt workouts. Some of the most effective gluteal exercises also provide superior leg workouts. Physical therapy websites also feature valuable information about ab and leg workouts. Since they deal with medical information, they usually have a favorable signal to noise ratio.

The Captain's Chair

The captain's chair won top honors in the ACE study as a workout tool for the abs. This freestanding piece of equipment features an upright backrest, two padded arm rests and a step on each side. Rest your spine against the backrest and place your forearms on each pad. Draw your belly in, bend your knees and raise them to waist level. Variations include angling your knees toward each shoulder, keeping your legs straight as you lift your legs, or creating a kicking or scissoring movement by raising one leg as you lower the other. Researchers at the Center for Sexual Health at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University listed the captain's chair exercise as one of the deep core workouts that stimulated what the researchers called "exercise-induced orgasm." Whether that makes it one of the best ab exercises is up to you to decide!

The Stability Ball Crunch

The stability ball crunch also scored highly on the ACE study. Another study, published in 2007 in the “Journal for Strength and Conditioning Research,” supports ACE by indicating that the ball crunch “significantly increases” abdominal muscle activity when compared with the traditional crunch. Sit on the ball and walk your feet forward, until your spine rests against the ball's surface. Support your neck by resting your fingers behind your head, then flex your upper torso by bringing your ribcage toward your pelvis. Vary the workout by rotating your torso toward your outer hip as you perform the curl.

The Bicycle Maneuver

The Bicycle Maneuver is an old-school exercise and another ACE superstar. Assume a supine position with your legs extended and your hands behind your head. Lift your head and shoulders from the floor. Bend your right knee and rotate your upper torso toward it, the switch directions. Your lower back, as well as your opposite hip, must remain in contact with the floor. Keep your legs in a higher position if your back arches.

Single Leg Squat

The ACE butt study listed the single leg squat as one of the best glute exercises, but this humble exercise boasts many other virtues. The movement involves flexion and extension of your knee, which means that your hamstrings and quads are playing along. Somebody, however, has to help you keep your balance and stabilize your knee. Your deep core muscles and your adductor or inner thigh muscles rush to the rescue. Stand on an elevated box or bench with your weight on your right leg and your left leg hanging off the edge. Bend your right knee and lower your hips, pushing them back into a sitting position. Push through your heel to return to an upright position. Perform 12 reps on each leg, and add a weight in each hand when it gets too easy.

Swiss Ball Hamstrings

Quad dominance, a muscular imbalance between the hamstrings and quadriceps, plagues many active females. This type of imbalance makes you vulnerable to serious knee injuries. Physical therapists and athletic coaches swear by the Swiss ball leg curl as a means of correcting imbalances and preventing injuries. Lie supine with your knees bent and your feet on the ball. Lift each vertebra into a bridge position. Flex and extend your legs while remaining in the bridge. Perform three sets of 12 repetitions.

The Clamshell

Your gluteus medius occupies prime real on the outside of your buttocks and upper thigh. It assumes responsibility for hip rotation and pelvic stability. Weak glute medius muscles trigger overcompensation from other muscles, thereby putting you on the fast track to injury. A 2011 study featured in the “International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy” identified the clamshell exercise as one of the best gluteus medius strengtheners. Assume a side-lying position with your knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Keep your heels together and your hips stacked as you raise your top knee toward the ceiling. Perform 15 reps on each side.

 

About the Author

In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.

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