Beyond the ideas that the first step to getting “six pack abs” is to lose fat and that heavy duty lifts such as squats and deadlifts are enough to build a strong core, what are the best exercise machines to develop the abdominals? Let’s see what’s out there.
Getting our priorities straight, the primary muscle that most of us care about is the rectus abdominals. The rectus starts at the top of the rib cage and finishes at the pubic bone. Of course, there are also the obliques, muscles than run diagonally to the spine and are involved in rotating the torso, but this article will focus on what exercise machines can do for the rectus.
Traditional abdominal training tools (such as Roman chair benches, adjustable sit-up boards, and vertical leg raise stands) enable you to anchor the upper or lower body to not only perform ab exercises properly but also to vary the angle of the exercises to make them more difficult. Swiss balls are unique in that they enable you to perform ab exercises through a greater range of motion in an unstable environment.
With some exercises, such as sit-ups, using an adjustable abdominal board enables you to anchor your feet and hold weights across your chest to increase resistance. For those exercises in which the upper body is anchored, such as a vertical leg raise stand, resistance would usually be added by holding a medicine ball or dumbbell between your feet. In contrast, most ab machines you find in commercial gyms enable you to easily and precisely control the resistance with either a selectorized weight stack or a plate-loading attachment.
To determine which ab machine is best for you, it’s important to distinguish between external and internal range exercises. As an analogy, the first half of the movement of a barbell biceps curl (up to 90 degrees) would be considered the external range, and the second half (from 90 degrees to peak contraction) would be considered the internal range. For complete development, both the external and internal ranges of motions of a muscle group should be worked.
To work the external range of motion of the abdominals, a machine that resembles a “crunch” would do the job; these machines flex the upper torso. An abdominal crunch machine that anchors the feet would be considered an external range exercise. A lumbar support on these machines increases the range of motion of the exercise (just as a Swiss ball could), but it’s still considered an external-range exercise.
To work the internal range of motion of the abdominals, a machine that stabilizes the upper torso and has you pulling your knees towards the upper torso is needed; these machines create a pelvic tilt. The “ab coaster” machines available at many of the larger gym chains enable you to focus on the internal range of the abdominals. Because of the popularity of crunch and sit-up exercises, most individuals tend to be stronger in the external range and thus should focus more on internal range exercises.
Among the top equipment manufacturers that produce abdominal machines that you will find in commercial gyms are Atlantis, Body Masters, Cybex, Hammer Strength, Hoist, Magnum, Nautilus, Paramount, and Watson. Unfortunately, when it comes to comfort there is not a “one size fits all” with abdominal machines, and a machine that feels natural to one person may feel awkward to another. This is why the larger gym chains will often carry a variety of ab machines from different manufacturers.
Regardless of the machines you use, when designing your ab workout consider that the abdominals are 50/50 fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fibers. Thus, for complete development, you need to perform both high reps and low reps in your workouts.
Whether your goal is to develop "slabs of abs" or just a strong core, there are many commercial abdominal training machines that you may find useful as an alternative to conventional abdominal training exercises. Follow the advice in this article and see which ones are right for you.