Bicycle crunches can help you build washboard abs.
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If you've been stocking up on expensive infomercial exercise equipment that promises to get you a six-pack in no time, brace yourself for a shock: According to a study co-sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, the very best exercise for your rectus abdominus (the "six-pack" muscle) and the second-best for your obliques is the humble bicycle maneuver, AKA bicycle crunches, which you can do for free. There are absolutely zero easy payments of $19.95 and no shipping or handling required, assuming you have a comfortable place to lie down for this exercise.
No Equipment Needed
If you're comfortable without any padding under you, you can lie down on the floor and get right to your bicycle crunches. But if you want a little more cushioning under your hips or spine, a yoga mat works wonders at home. No yoga mat? Try putting a couple of thick towels beneath you, or folding a comforter over several times as an improvised ground pad. In a pinch you can even do crunches on the bed, although the extra squishiness of a mattress might make it more challenging.
If you're in the gym, you should already have access to yoga mats or the type of generic padded workout mat that's sometimes sequestered in a designated ab room or bodyweight workout room.
Practice Leg Technique
If you've never done bicycle crunches before, consider breaking it apart into two component movements: your trunk and your legs.
Practice the leg portion by lying face up on the ground or your mat, knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Lift your feet, keeping your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Extend one left straight, driving it up and out with the foot at about knee level, while bringing the knee of the other leg closer to your chest. Reverse this process, bending the straight leg and drawing its knee in toward your chest as you extend the other leg straight.
Master the Trunk
Practice the trunk portion of the bicycle maneuver by returning to your face-up position, but this time leave your feet on the floor. Tuck both hands behind your head, allowing your elbows to wing out to the sides. Exhale as you contract your abs, lifting your right elbow toward your left hip. It may help to imagine a diagonal line running from your right hip to your left shoulder; picture yourself folding along that line as you bring your right elbow toward your left hip. Obviously the two won't make contact, and in fact your shoulder will only move a few inches; it's the direction and control of your movement that matters.
Lower your right shoulder to the floor and repeat the maneuver on the other side, lifting your left elbow toward your right hip.
Combine the Movements
If you're just starting out, you might find either component of the bicycle maneuver to be a workout in its own right. Once you've mastered both components, it's time to combine them.
Initiate the leg movement by extending your right leg and bringing your left knee in toward your chest. At the same time, engage your abs and exhale as you crunch up at a diagonal, bringing your right elbow toward your left knee. Inhale as you relax back to the start position, then switch legs and bring your left elbow toward your right knee. Make it your goal to maintain constant tension in your abdominals as you work out. The only time you lie back flat on the mat should be during any rest period between sets.