Walk into most any health club or big box gym in your town and you’ll find the ab machines are one of the most frequently used pieces of equipment. They’re not popular because they work so well at producing a flat stomach, as these machines are massively ineffective for that objective. The machines are popular because a lot of people assume they will work for that objective. I mean after all; most have a picture of the abdominal muscles being targeted right on the equipment instruction placard.
In today’s post I want to discuss with you why I’ve never had a stationary ab machine in any of my personal training gyms, and why I never will. Also, why I won’t ever program these exercises for my middle age and older clients who are on remote personal training programs at the larger health clubs.
Now this isn’t to say these machines won’t apply resistance to the abdominal muscles and they're completely ineffective. I’m simply saying, if you’re over forty years of age, the cons of using most of these machines I believe far outweigh the pros.
To answer this question, I want you to look at pictures of a couple of the more popular types of ab machines you’ll find in health clubs.
The majority of these machines work either through trunk flexion or trunk rotation. You can see that in the pictures of them being used.
Can you spot the one thing that’s similar with both exercises?
That’s right they’re both done while sitting down.
Now, let’s just use some common sense for a minute. What real world activity can you think of that you might do in everyday life where you would either flex or rotate your trunk while sitting down? That is assuming you’ve got functioning legs. Not many work, sports, or recreation activities that I can think of.
It’s just not a good idea to flex and rotate the trunk (especially the spine) from a seated position under load. The reason for this is straight forward. The PRIMARY role of your core muscles is to stabilize the pelvis and lumbar spine. That’s objective numero uno. To stabilize and counter excessive flexion, extension, or rotation from the hips.
In other words, to be able to apply the brakes and slow these human movement patterns down in real world activities so you don’t wreck the vertebrae in your spinal column.
When you’re sitting down, the pelvis is placed in more of an anterior tilt by default. At the same time, your core muscles don’t need to undergo contraction for stabilization as you’re already stable (you’re sitting). Basically, your core is turned off and your hips are tilted forward.
From this position, go ahead and eat, talk to a friend, study, drive a car, watch tv, whatever, but please let’s NOT attempt to repeatedly shorten the abdominal muscles. Not a good idea.
The reason this is a big no-no for middle age and older adults is because the majority of folks who simply have gone around the sun that many times will likely exhibit some degree of lower crossed syndrome. This is a technical term that just means tightness in the anterior hips and low back, coupled with weakness in the glutes and deep core muscles (think transverse abdominus).
Now individuals who haven’t worked out regularly and/or sit a lot during the day will typically show more signs of limited mobility and functional movement. In plain English…they’re more likely to be stiffer in the hips and not move as well.
Whenever a prospective client comes into my gym, we always start with a comprehensive movement assessment before ever programming any exercises or providing workouts. The reason for this is for one, to ensure the individual’s safety, and secondly to make sure we’re programming the most effective exercises for them.
I’ve done literally hundreds of these assessments over the past twenty years and it’s very common to see hip tightness and mobility issues with individuals over forty. Especially so if they’ve been sedentary or sit a lot for work.
The core musculature in these individuals certainly needs to be strengthened, but the correct way to go about it will make all the difference. The prescription is typically isometric, dynamic, and integrated stabilization exercises for the core.
Think along the lines of exercises like:
These types of movements are done while we simultaneously work on strengthening the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, back muscles) and improving mobility in the hips.
What do we leave out?
You guessed it, exercises that focus on trunk flexion and trunk rotation like would be done with the above shown ab machines.
Think along the lines also of frequently used exercises like:
Not that these are all necessarily “bad” exercises. They’re just not appropriate at that time due to the muscular imbalances and mobility limitations.
The last thing we want to do is overly recruit the hip flexors by doing things like sit-up’s and leg raises when we haven’t stabilized the deeper core musculature. Basically, what we’re doing there is making what’s already tight, even tighter. That’s a problem.
This is a recipe for a low back issue or injury. All while doing exercises we think should be helping.
And oh yeah, about ANY of these exercises helping to slim your waistline. They don’t. Full stop.
Ab and core exercises are for strengthening, NOT for burning fat. You’ll want to do compound resistance training on the big muscle groups for that along with some work in the kitchen cleaning up your diet.
Also, I want to say this before closing.
Please understand that health clubs and big box gyms are NOT in the wellness industry.
They appear to be, but the business model is one of subscription (renting equipment and space for exercising) not instruction and guidance on improving quality of life. The model can be lucrative because the majority of people won’t continue using the facility on a regular basis.
It’s like those old mail-order cassette and CD of the month music services of the 80’s and 90’s you’d see in the magazines. I’m dating myself here, but if you’ve got some gray hair, you remember these. The money is in the people NOT using the service.
I say that, to say that while people go into health clubs thinking they’ll find solutions to their fitness, wellness, and weight loss objectives, the reality is they’re mostly getting easy to use equipment and space. Don’t assume that everything in the gym will work to produce the results you’re looking for. In the case with ab machines, they can do more harm than good in some instances.
There are much, much better exercises for adults to use in order to strengthen their core.
Bottom line is this. If you want to make sure you’re doing the best exercises for your individual wants and needs, consult with a fitness professional. Not just a “personal trainer” mind you, as that can just be someone who provides workouts.
When I speak of a fitness professional, I mean someone who is knowledgeable and trained in exercise science, physiology, kinesiology, and anatomy. Someone who understands how the human body works and can prescribe exercise appropriately for everyone.
If we can help yourself or someone you care for we’d be honored and grateful to serve. At Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios, we provide an introductory three session program for only $79 where you’ll receive a customized fitness and exercise prescription based on your individual needs. Even if you go to a health club or big box gym, this can be invaluable with providing direction on the most effective exercises to do there for your needs.
As always, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have any questions. Be blessed. - S
Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He has over 24 years' experience with fitness coaching and consulting and specializes in training programs for middle age and mature adults. If you live in the Charleston, SC area you can schedule a no-obligations consultation.
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