Crunches, situps, and planks probably consistently make appearances in your core workouts. But sometimes you need a fresh twist to your routine (or a starting point if you’re new to the sweat scene) to keep your muscles challenged and your midsection working hard. Enter: abs machines.
“If you're new to exercise, it can be tough to know when you're actually engaging your core, which can sometimes lead to lower back pain,” says Angela Gargano, CPT, a personal trainer at Performix House in New York City. “Doing basic exercises with a machine can help beginners become strong enough to do bodyweight exercises correctly on their own.”
As for those already working on sculpting a six-pack, machine assistance can make your core-focused workout a little more challenging and a lot more fun. “A machine is also helpful in amplifying the workout, so you can continue to strengthen that core effectively,” Gargano adds.
Just keep in mind that you should never feel these exercises in your back. “If you do, make sure you adjust your weight and check your form,” says Gargano. “Always make sure to inhale and then do a big exhale while you engage your core to get the most out of each exercise.”
To start building every muscle of your midsection, try the five abs machine exercises below the next time you’re at the gym.
1. Cable Machine Crunches
How to: Start kneeling facing a cable machine. Grasp the handles with both hands and anchor behind head. Press hips up off heels, then engage core to crunch torso straight down towards floor, keeping hip and lower body still. With control, lift torso back up to starting position. That's one rep.
Targets: rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis
What to know: “There are so many exercises you can do [with a cable machine] that help work those core muscles,” says Gargano. For this move, it’s not necessarily better to increase the weight of the machine a ton; you want it to be challenging, but not so difficult that you can’t maintain control, she says.
2. Rowing Machine Knee Tuck
How to: Begin at the back of the machine, facing away from the console. Place hands on floor, then carefully place both feet on top of seat to get into a plank position. Keeping shoulders over wrists and a flat back, engage core to drive knees in towards chest. Then, extend legs back out straight to return to plank position. That's one rep.
Targets: rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques
What to know: The rower doesn’t only do wonders for a kicked-up cardio workout—it strengthens your core, too, Gargano says.
3. Pullup Bar Knee Raise
How to: Step or jump up to grasp pullup handles on a cable machine, the high bar of a power rack, or the bar of a pullup machine. Start hanging with arms long and upper back engaged. From here, engage core and exhale to lift both knees up towards chest. Then, inhale and extend legs back down with control. That's one rep.
Targets: rectus abdominis and external obliques
What to know: Make sure you’re not arching your back to lift your legs, and avoid using momentum to raise them. Instead, move nice and slow. “Maintain control and feel the burn,” Gargano says.
4. Incline Bench Situp
How to: Place feet between the round foot holders on the top of the bench, and lie down on back so head is near bottom of bench. From here, on an exhale, engage core to lift chest up towards knees. Slowly lower back down. That's one rep.
Targets: rectus abdominis
What to know: Start with a 30- to 45- degree angle on the bench until you’re strong and comfortable enough to take it up another level. “Remember the higher the angle, the harder the situps will be,” Gargano says. “The biggest thing to know with this machine is that form is everything, so don’t make the incline more challenging until you have confidently conquered a lower incline first.”
5. Glute Hamstring Developer Situp
How to: Place feet between the rounded footpads and begin sitting tall on top of the big rounded cushion. With hands across chest and a neutral spine, engage core to slowly lower back until entire body forms one long horizontal line. Maintaining control, use abs to sit back up to starting position. That's one rep.
Targets: rectus abdominis
What to know: Gym-goers typically use this machine for building their lower back, butt, and hamstrings, but you can also get a great abs workout when you do situps on it, says Noam Tamir, CSCS, founder of TS Fitness. This one differs from the incline bench in that you need to engage your core to stop yourself at the bottom, rather than resting on the bench. So, consider it one for advanced exercisers only. “You need to be careful not to go into too much extension in the lower back, though, and be controlled when you do it,” Tamir says. “Keep a neutral spine as much as possible.”
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