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This exercise is better than sit-ups and crunches when it comes to sculpting your abs

a photo of a woman showing her abdominal muscles
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

When it comes to building your core, not all abdominal exercises are created equal. One exercise hailed as the best ab exercise for building your core is bicycle crunches, as unlike the traditional crunch, the rotating motion involved in a bicycle crunch targets the lower abs and the oblique muscles as well. 

In fact, according to a study published in the American Council on Exercise, traditional crunches are one of the least effective abdominal exercises you can do. When you crunch, you’re only targeting a very small section of the abdominal wall, plus you’re putting a lot of stress on your neck and spine while doing so. Take a look at four other exercises you shouldn't be doing, and what to do instead. 

The key thing to remember with bicycle crunches is to keep your lower back pressed into the floor and to avoid arching your back during the move. Think about keeping your core engaged, think about sucking your belly button into your spine, and perform the entire exercise slowly, with control. 

Looking for more workout inspiration? Take a look at the best ab workouts that are completely free and can be done from just about anywhere. We’ve also found this exercise which is better than squats at building your glutes, and this exercise which is better than sit-ups at targeting your inner core muscles

How to do a bicycle crunch 

To do a bicycle crunch, start on your back with your feet pressed into the floor, hip-width apart. Think about sucking in your belly button, place your hands lightly behind your head with your elbows wide, and raise your head and neck up off the mat. 

Raise your legs to a tabletop position, and engage your abdominal muscles, straighten the left leg slowly, out, and away from your body with your toe pointed. As you do this, bend your right knee in towards your torso, and twist your left elbow to touch your right knee (it doesn’t matter too much if it doesn’t actually touch). 

Then swap sides, rotating and touching your left knee in towards your chest, touching your right elbow to your knee. Keep alternating sides slowly, and in control. 

If you find your neck is straining during the bicycle crunch, make sure you’re not pulling your head up during the exercise — the rotation should come from your torso, not your from your elbows. 

To make the bicycle crunch harder, pause the movement at the top of the crunch — when your elbow and knee are touching. Hold the move for a couple of seconds before alternating sides. 

Another modification for those who find it difficult to get down onto an exercise mat (if you're looking to invest in a mat, we've found the best yoga mats that double as exercise mats here), is the standing bicycle crunch. 

To do this, stand with your feet hip-width apart, engage your core and bring one knee up towards your chest, at the same time, touch the opposite elbow to the knee, twisting your torso. 

a photo of two women doing the ab bicycle exercise

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What muscles are worked during a bicycle crunch? 

Bicycle crunches work all of the major abdominal muscles — the rectus abdominis, which are the abdominal muscles that run down the front of the stomach. The twisting motion activates the oblique muscles, which run along the side of the stomach. The raising and moving of the legs also engage the transverse abdominis, which are the deepest abdominal muscles. 

As the exercises’ name suggests, as you’re bicycling your legs, you’re also working your thighs, hamstrings, and quads. 

What are the benefits of bicycle crunches? 

One of the benefits of bicycle crunches is that they are a low-impact ab exercise, so they should be suitable for most people. That said, if you’re pregnant, it’s probably one exercise to avoid, or to modify to avoid the rotations. Check with your doctor if you have any questions about exercising during pregnancy. 

As well as being an aesthetic goal, a strong core will help you run faster, lift heavier, and enhance your flexibility. It’s also important when it comes to maintaining a good posture, stabilizing your lower back, and improving your balance. 

Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.