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Bicycle crunch

This Is One of the Most Effective Core Exercises, According to Science

This old-school ab exercise is a worthwhile staple—but only if you do it right.

By Michele RossJanuary 3, 2024

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Despite all the gadgets and gear that promise a sculpted midsection in no time, you’re bound to find that it’s best to go back to basics to strengthen your core. With that in mind, the humble bicycle crunch—which you’ll find in many full-body and core-focused classes, as well as some yoga flows and Pilates and barre routines—is an oldie but certainly a goodie. Bicycle crunches retain the upward bend of traditional crunches, but amplify the intensity and benefits by incorporating twists and leg work, thus requiring greater core stabilization and muscle activation.

Ahead, Peloton instructor Olivia Amato outlines how to do bicycle crunches safely and effectively. Plus: the key benefits of bicycle crunches, insider tips on how to avoid common mistakes, and why this old-school ab exercise ultimately deserves a spot in your fitness routine.

How to Do a Bicycle Crunch

How to Do a Bicycle Crunch

To do bicycle crunches with the right form and for major results, heed Olivia’s how-to below:

  1. Lay down on your back with your legs long on the mat. Make sure to keep your lower back rooted into the mat by tucking your pelvis down.

  2. Bring your legs to tabletop position. Interlace your hands behind your head or cradle your neck.

  3. Lift your head, neck, and shoulders up as you twist your body, bringing your right knee to your left elbow. Come through the middle, rolling across your shoulder blades, to switch to the other side and repeat.

You can switch up your rep count as desired and based on your goals, but aiming for 12 to 20 bicycle crunches per set, for 3 sets, is a good place to start. Although challenging, try to stick to it. “Whenever you need a break, relax your head down on the mat,” Olivia advises.

Benefits of the Bicycle Crunch

Bicycle crunches are a classic ab workout that stands the test of time. They don’t only work, but work well at that—so long as you do them correctly. Here are some of their biggest benefits:

They Work Different Abdominal Muscles

No offense to the traditional crunch, but bicycle crunches have the former beat in terms of muscles worked. When you do bicycle crunches properly, you not only engage your rectus abdominis (the pair of long, flat muscles comprising the top, central layer of your ab muscles) but also your transverse abdominis (deep abs) and obliques (side abs).

“Unlike a regular crunch, bicycle crunches require leg movement,” Olivia notes, which not only engages your deep abs but also works your hip flexors. But that’s not all. “It not only helps you build a strong core, it adds a cardio element as well,” she continues. Moreover, the twisting movement works the obliques for a well-rounded core workout with just one simple exercise.

They’re Among the Most Effective Ab Workouts

In 2001, researchers at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University investigated the efficacy of 13 popular ab exercises performed by 30 healthy adult men and women, with casual exercisers and fitness buffs among them. The researchers used electromyography (EMG) equipment to assess each participant’s muscle activity during each exercise.

The results: Bicycle crunches impressively ranked first for mean muscle activity of the rectus abdominis and second for mean muscle activity in the obliques (trailing only slightly behind the Captain’s Chair, which requires specific equipment). Perhaps surprisingly, the traditional crunch trailed behind at 11th place on both lists, which goes to show that not all variations of crunches offer equal benefits.

The bicycle crunch performed so well since it requires constant abdominal stabilization given all the moving parts across the upper to mid to lower body. In addition, the rotation aspect ensures that the obliques are fully engaged from one rep to the next.

They Improve How You Feel and Move in Your Body

Since bicycle crunches strengthen your core, they help facilitate benefits for your entire body. “They help with improving your coordination, stability, and flexibility,” Olivia shares.

Some of the many additional benefits attributed to core strength and stability, courtesy of core exercises like the bicycle crunch, include:

Other Variations of the Bicycle Crunch

1. Bicycle Crunch with Feet Down

In case you need to dial down the intensity of your bicycle crunch, Olivia offers a modification that will be easier on your body without skimping on the sculpting benefits. Follow the instructions for the bicycle crunch outlined above, yet “ keep your feet on the mat with your knees bent, bringing your right knee to your left elbow, then putting your foot back down on the mat and switching to the other side,” she recommends.

2. Standing Twisted Crunch

If a standard, supine bicycle crunch is too intense on your neck, back, or hips despite of maintaining proper form, you can opt to do a variation with this standing core exercise:

  1. Stand up tall sideways on your mat with your feet hips’ width apart. Interlace your hands behind your head with your elbows open wide.

  2. Raise your right knee as you twist your left elbow down towards it, keeping your core engaged and rooting your weight on your standing leg.

  3. Return to a tall standing position before switching sides.

  4. Aim for 12 to 20 reps across 3 sets.

3. Advanced Bicycle Crunch

In the mood to try out advanced variations of the bicycle crunch? Simply follow the instructions above—but this time around, challenge yourself by:

  • Holding each crunch for an extra breath or two

  • Keeping your straight leg slightly elevated above the mat

  • Strapping weighted bands on your arms or ankles

Mistakes to Avoid with the Bicycle Crunch

Even if you’ve been doing bicycle crunches for years or if the core exercise seems easy enough, mistakes are all too common. After all, there are a lot of moving parts, which can complicate your ability to maintain proper form. Plus, many people tend to feel tension where they shouldn’t—namely in the neck, lower back, and hips.

While you’re deep in your ab routine, you may not notice that you’re making the following mistakes. However, it’s worth taking a closer look to see where there’s need for improvement, not only for the sake of sculpting but also safety.

Pulling Your Neck

This mistake is a biggie for many core workouts done on your back, but it’ll pay to correct it before it becomes a bigger concern. “One mistake people make when doing any kind of crunch is pulling on their neck instead of cradling their neck for support,” Olivia notes. Doing so can cause neck pain or injury, and may make you want to opt out of some core workouts entirely due to discomfort. Remember that your neck should be supported, not strained, and be sure to lead and proceed with power from your core instead.

Lifting the Lower Back

“Another mistake is allowing your lower back to lift off the mat while doing the exercises, as this can cause back pain,” Olivia warns. The potential for pain and injury, she says, underscores the importance of using proper form when doing any type of exercise. While doing your bicycle crunches, remember to keep your lower back rooted by tucking your pelvis down.

Sacrificing Form for Speed

If you tend to “cheat” by rushing through bicycle crunches, your form will likely be thrown off at some point. However, it’s crucial to move mindfully so your form is correct from the first to the last rep to avoid discomfort and injury. Your best bet is to move through your bicycle crunches with a slow and steady approach. Doing so can also help you work your abs more deeply, providing a satisfying slow burn with visible improvements in ab definition.

Yet as Olivia mentioned earlier, bicycle crunches can also function as a cardio workout. To intensify this approach, make sure your foundations are on point before speeding up your reps (and your heart rate). “Bicycle crunches are tough but effective when done with the proper form,” says Olivia. “Learn how to do the modified exercise [as needed] and then progress the moves as you get stronger and more comfortable.”

Tips to Add Bicycle Crunches to Your Workout

If you’ve been avoiding bicycle crunches—perhaps because you were under the impression that they don’t actually work, or if you’ve experienced discomfort when doing them—hopefully you now see just how effective and worthwhile they truly are when done the right way.

Fortunately, you don’t need to dedicate too much time to reap their rewards, either. A few sets per day, performed 2 or 3 times per week, should be more than enough to gain a stronger core within a few weeks. Better yet, you can seamlessly integrate them into countless workout regimens—whether that’s your existing ab circuit, full-body day, or other mat-based modalities like yoga and mat Pilates.

For inspo as well as to mix things up, log onto the Peloton App where you’ll find no shortage of classes incorporating this powerful ab-strengthening move.

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