There is a never ending supply of new exercise machines that are supposed to build miracle abs. The truth, however, is that they’re virtually all gimmicks and completely unnecessary.
You don’t need any machines to work your abs. None. So turn off the Shopping Channel and get on the floor and work those abs. In the time you’ve made the call and ordered one of those miracle ab machines you could have pumped out 2-3 sets of cross body mountain climbers. You could have done a 3 sets of 30s of RKC planks*.
Part of the problem behind these ab machines and marketing in general is that they create a false need. You’re made to think that normal exercise is hard and ineffective. Marketing serves to muddy the waters and distract you from finding out what truly works.
The typical ab machine advertisement depicts traditional training as arduous and sometimes dangerous. They’ll show some poor guy or girl straining through crunches and situps and holding their back as if they’ve slipped a disc. Trouble is, the way the abs and core work means you don’t ever have to do crunches (many trainers warn against it — for good reasons) and situps are virtually outlawed in many gyms (there are much safer and effective exercises).
Beyond crunches, back pain and poor posture
Crunches involve pulling the neck forward to isolate the abs. In doing so you’re reinforcing poor posture as well as pushing the lumbar spine into the floor. It’s therefore unsurprising that crunches are used as fodder by marketers to show much easier their ab machine is.
What the core and abs actually do and how to work ’em
Biomechanically, the abs and core generally, have two major functions: core stability and rotational power. It is becoming more apparent that the core’s primary function may in fact be to prevent movement rather than produce it.
For that reason, stability planks are great starter exercises for core development as they can be progressed a number of ways. The logical step from planks on the floor is to move them to a stability ball. Providing an unstable platform for the hands and elbows while in a plank posture will help challenge the core to prevent movement through the hips and thoracic spine.
RKC planks mentioned earlier involve a less stable arm arrangement while pushing the arms forward more to provide a greater challenge to the core. Squeezing the glutes forces the core to activate even further. Here is a demonstration.
Ab rollouts are also great exercises particularly for the anterior core. This can be done with a small roller, stability ball or simulated by walking the hands out while in a kneeling or plank position.
Complement these exercises with side planks and you have a great all round routine that will target the entire midsection.Side planks can also be progressed by raising one or both feet on a couch, bed, chair or stability ball.
To this point I’ve ignored some of the best challenges to your core — leg raises. Hanging leg raises being the challenging version and lying variations being a great starting point. Start with bent knees and then move to straight legs for more challenge. Try performing a figure 8 with your feet while lying flat on your back, legs extended. This great variation will hit the core muscles from many different directions providing for more muscle activation.
Mountain climbers are simply plank positions with the legs thrust forward (or diagonally) as if climbing. This article is the best I’ve found on how to perform mountain climbers and how to throw in variations for maximum impact on the core. These can also form the theme of a great conditioning workout.
If you think a stability ball or small hand roller count as machines, consider that (a) they’re optional but incredibly worth it, and (b) you can pick them up cheaply. Whereas ab machines are designed purely to cost you as much as possible and only for single use, a stability ball will open up an entire range of workout opportunities, from leg work (hamstring curls) to hyper extensions for the lower back. You can use the ball to challenge your push up.
Whatever you do, don’t fall for an ab machine that is promoted as being the most awesome, ultimate machine ever. It is only the ultimate machine ever until the next piece of junk replaces it.
*RKC — Russian Kettlebell Certification.