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The Best Exercises to Stimulate Abs, Glutes, Chest, and Triceps

man doing one handed pushupsIf you’ve ever been exercising and wondered how much it’s actually working – or what it’s working – you’ll be happy to know that researchers are interested in this subject as well. Using electromyography (EMG) equipment, scientists can measure muscle activity in subjects as they exercise. Results show which muscles are being stimulated the most, which is useful and interesting for you and me when we decide which exercises to spend our time on.

Following are four studies sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) that examined the most effective exercises for core, glutes, chest, and triceps. You might be surprised at the results!

Be aware that if you do any exercise enough, it will become easy. Integrate these into your routine as you would any other exercise, with an eye towards emphasizing these regularly.

Best Core Exercises

A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and led by Peter Francis, Ph.D. and Jennifer David, M.A. at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University set out to determine exactly which core exercises stimulate the most muscle activity [1].

They gathered extensive data from 30 healthy men and women, ages 20 to 45, who ranged from occasional to daily exercisers and compared 13 of the most common abdominal exercises with and without equipment. In addition to measuring muscle activity in the rectus abdominus and obliques, scientists measured hip flexor activity. This is key because many abs exercises actually recruit the hip flexors more than the abs.

Here are the top 10 for the rectus abdominus muscle (for the entire list plus exercise descriptions, see the article). Interestingly, many of these same exercises work best for the obliques as well. However, remember that many non-core exercises hit your abs effectively as well, particularly compound and functional movements.

  1. Bicycle maneuver
  2. Captain’s chair
  3. Exercise ball crunch (use caution if you have back problems)
  4. Vertical leg crunch
  5. Torso Track
  6. Long-arm crunch
  7. Reverse crunch (try both bent and straight legs)
  8. Crunch with heel push
  9. Ab roller
  10. Hover

Best Glute Exercises

A study funded by ACE and conducted by John Porcari, Ph.D., and Blake Ristvedt, M.A., at the La Crosse Exercise and Health Program of the University of Wisconsin used EMG data to compare the muscle recruitment patterns of eight common gluteal exercises. Twelve participants with weightlifting experience were given tests while they exercised.

The surprise? While squats elicited more gluteal activation than horizontal and vertical leg presses, there were no significant differences between squats and the other exercises tested [2]. Squats are certainly beneficial, but this study shows that if you can’t do squats, there are other exercises that are equally as effective at stimulating your glutes.

The results, in order of most gluteal activation:

  1. Quadrupled hip extensions
  2. Step ups
  3. Lunges
  4. Single-leg squats
  5. Squats

For more on this study and exercise descriptions, see the article.

Best Chest Exercises

Guys wanting to build big pecs aren’t the only ones who should be interested in chest strength; having a strong chest improves performance in many activities and sports. In an ACE-sponsored study at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, researchers tested 14 male subjects ages 19 to 30 who had previous strength training experience.

While the barbell bench press elicited by far the most pectoral activity, the bent-forward cable crossover and the pec deck elicited nearly equivalent muscle activation [3].  So if you can’t do barbell bench presses due to shoulder issues or other reasons, you can replace it with those. Pushups had the least activation, researchers concluded, because no weight was added.

Here are the results in order of effectiveness:

  1. Barbell bench press
  2. Pec dec machine
  3. Bent-forward cable crossover
  4. Chest press machine
  5. Incline dumbbell fly
  6. Dips
  7. Suspended pushups
  8. Stability ball pushups
  9. Standard pushups

For more details and how to do the top three exercises, see this article.

Best Triceps Exercises

Although toned triceps have much to do with low body fat, strength training will give you definition once any fat is reduced. In an ACE-sponsored study at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, a team of researchers recruited five female subjects ages 20 to 24 and tested their EMG activity while performing triceps exercises.

The break out winner was triangle pushups, with triceps kickbacks and dips not far behind [4]. The other exercises enable more “cheating” as you use momentum to complete reps, according to researchers. Here’s the list:

  1. Triangle push up
  2. Kickbacks
  3. Dips
  4. Overhead triceps extension
  5. Rope pushdowns
  6. Bar pushdowns
  7. Lying barbell triceps extension
  8. Close-grip bench press

For more on this study including descriptions of the top exercises, see this article.

Are you surprised by any of these findings? Leave your comment below and let’s chat.

  • Lisa Ponak

    Was there any study done with women for the chest exercises? I am surprised that standard push-ups are last on the list, but wondering if it would be different for women?

    • Suzanne Digre

      Hi Lisa – no females in this particular study. The reason push ups activated muscles less is because no resistance is used other than body weight, unlike the other exercises. That’s not to say push ups aren’t beneficial; they are. As you progress you can get more out of the push up by elevating your feet, stacking your feet, putting your hands on an exercise ball, etc.

  • Jody – Fit at 54

    LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AND I am good doing many of the ones described!!!!! I have read a couple of these studies before so I had already made changes in the past! The one that really surprise me was the kickbacks for triceps. I had read back when how they were nor doing any good as an isolation move so I had stopped for a while. I think it was on ACE that I read they were great & added them back in over a year or more ago – I lose track of time at my age! ;)

    GREAT POST Suzanne!!!!!

    • Suzanne Digre

      Jody, you are a smart lady! And I too thought the studies were surprising. Thanks so much for letting me know you liked the post – hugs!!

  • Matthew Hampton

    Did they include hip thrusts in the study for glute activation? I am a HUGE fan of the barbell hip thrust not only as a glute exercise but also as a staple leg exercise. Proper glute activation is undervalued and typically underdeveloped in most recreational lifters. Gotta work the butt!

    • Suzanne

      Nice!! I love hip thrusters too. That exercise wasn’t tested, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean hip thrusters aren’t highly effective :D

  • Rebecca

    I wish the exercises would have links attached to them.

    • Coach Calorie

      They are in the link to the study.

  • debby

    i didn’t see the PLANK anywhere??

    • Coach Calorie

      Not sure it was part of the study. Isometric exercises may not have been included.

  • Ana J. Romero

    Love this…i have been doing some of the moves listed in my routine, but glad to see others I can try to get an even more effective workout

  • Tony Schober

    They didn’t test it. Have you considered benching with your elbows tucked? This takes stress off the rotator cuffs.

  • Tony Schober

    Heavy pulling movements will hit them well – pullups, rows, deadlifts, etc.