Of all exercise equipment sold to the public, ab exercise machines are without a doubt the most widely bought, yet the most blatantly misleading.
According to recent statistics, $518 million dollars is made each year from the sale of home exercise equipment through infomercials in the United States. A whole 40% of that market – $207 million, is from ab exercise machines. That’s over $1 billion dollars of sales every 5 years!
The reason this market is so lucrative is that stomach fat is such a widespread problem for overweight people, and yet it’s an area of the body that people particularly want to look good. So naturally, it’s a major point of attention.
It’s understandable then that so many ab exercise machines are sold each year. Everyone’s looking for the quickest, most direct solution to their biggest problems. And ab exercisers seem to fit that bill – according to the marketing.
The only problem is, they actually don’t!
What Are Ab Exercise Machines Claimed to Do?
If you were to believe the marketing, ab exercise machines basically do it all. Some of the typical claims made about these devices include:
- They get rid of your belly and love handles.
- They burn fat from your stomach.
- They flatten and tone your stomach and abs.
- They give you a tight, firm waistline.
- They get your abs looking just like the ones on the buff model in the ad, all in just 15-20 minutes a day.
I’m sure there are even more, but you get the idea. These would be the major ones, anyhow.
So then, are all these claims actually untrue? Well, no, not exactly. All of these things could happen, and some in fact most likely will.
So technically speaking, you couldn’t really say that any of these statements are definitely false. If they were, they wouldn’t be allowed to continue to advertise. But they’re still very misleading, nevertheless.
The implication made by marketers of ab exercise machines is this:
“You have a large belly and/or waistline, so by using this ab exerciser you target the area of your problem directly – by very effectively working out your abs. This burns the fat from the problem area (your belly), flattens it, and tones and sculpts great looking abs – all at the same time. And of course this all happens with minimal effort on your part.
Everything about these implied features and benefits of ab exercise machines is actually incorrect:
- That to burn fat from your stomach you need to, or even should, work out your abdominal muscles.
- That exercising on an ab exerciser is an effective way to burn fat from your stomach.
- That exercising on an ab exerciser is an effective way to tone and sculpt your abs.
- That the average person can expect such amazing results with so little effort.
The fact is, ab exercise machines actually aren’t very effective at all at doing any of the things they’re supposed to specialize in.
Confused? If you are, please don’t worry. Once you understand a few simple facts about fat loss and muscle development, the whole picture will become a lot clearer to you.
What Do Ab Exercise Machines Actually Do?
First of all, let me peel back some of the fancy terms and jargon used to promote ab exercise machines, so that we’re all clear on what exactly what’s being said here.
Getting rid of your belly and love handles – This basically refers to burning fat from your stomach and from the sides of your waist.
Burning fat from your stomach – That’s self-explanatory.
Flattening and toning your stomach and abs – Now, these are two very different things. Flattening has nothing to do with musculature. The only way you can flatten your stomach is by removing fat from it. Once you’ve removed enough fat, your stomach will be flat. Toning your abs means to build your abdominal muscles in size, to give them definition. Taking this far enough will result in your having a six pack, which you’re no doubt familiar with.
A tight, firm waistline – I’m not quite sure what they mean when they say this, but it sounds good! Needless to say, fat is very soft and loose so once you remove enough fat from your stomach and waist in general, the area will be firmer and tighter.
All in just 15-20 minutes a day – This is also pretty self-explanatory, but the point not to miss here is that the ab exerciser in question is supposed to be so effective at doing its job, that you only need to use it for a short period of time to get great results.
In summary then, what all this boils down to is that ab exercise machines are supposed to do just two simple things:
- Burn fat from your stomach and waistline.
- Develop (tone) your abdominal muscles.
So let’s take a close look then at how effective they really are at achieving these two main goals.
A common misconception that’s related to ab exercise machines – mainly because this is what their marketing constantly implies and what many women assume, is that they burn fat from your abdominal area because they work your abdominal muscles. This, however, simply isn’t true.
It’s a proven fact that it’s impossible for any form of exercise to isolate fat burning to a specific area of your body.
This is sometimes referred to as spot fat reduction, and it’s purely a myth.
What this means is that when you perform abdominal exercise, whether it’s body weight exercise, or done with an abdominal exercise machine, or with any other piece of exercise equipment, you’re not burning fat specifically from your abdominal area.
This myth is often difficult to dispel with some women because it’s kind of intuitive that if there’s an area of your body that’s too fat, you exercise that area, and the fat will go away. It sounds like it makes perfect sense. But it’s actually very much incorrect.
Think about someone who’s overweight and takes up jogging to lose weight. Do they suddenly develop skinny legs but remain fat in their upper body? Of course not. They lose fat from all over their body. That’s the case for all exercise – including abdominal exercise.
By performing exercise you burn calories and therefore shed body fat. You can control how much fat you lose – by the type and the amount of exercise you do, and by the intensity of the exercise.
But you have no way of controlling where the fat is shed from your body – only your body and your genetics determine that.
OK then, so if you want to lose fat from your stomach and waist, there’s absolutely no reason to specifically exercise that area of your body. But does it hurt to exercise just that area?
Yes it does, in fact. And here’s why . . .
Burning calories is the name of the game in weight loss – the more calories you burn, the more weight you lose.
Now, even though all forms of physical activity and exercise (including working out on ab exercise machines) burn calories, the quickest and most effective way to burn lots of calories is through cardio exercise.
A lot of ab exerciser ads talk about burning fat, but the truth is that almost none of these machines give you a cardio workout of any kind. That means you won’t burn many calories by using them. Some ab exercise machines are promoted as giving you a cardio workout. And even though they might do so at some level, it will never be as effective as a proper cardio workout.
So by restricting yourself to abdominal exercise only for burning calories, you’re excluding yourself from getting the benefit of some far more effective forms of cardio. For example:
- Exercise Bike
- Elliptical Cycle/Crosstrainer
- Rowing Machine
- Punching Bag
With these exercises you would lose your abdominal fat far quicker than you would with an ab exerciser.
The other important point to note is that unlike workouts on ab exercise machines, all the exercises I’ve just listed also lend themselves to be done at high intensity levels. That makes them good candidates for use in High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. HIIT has been proven to be the most effective calorie burning exercise there is.
Of course it’s far more glamorous and marketable to promote a shiny piece of specialized equipment for burning stomach fat, rather than a program of running or cycling. That’s very unfortunate for the women who don’t know any better and end up wasting their time and money (like I did years ago).
The simple fact is however, that marketability and effectiveness are two very different things.
Toning Abdominal Muscles
Muscle toning and development is achieved through resistance training, rather than cardio exercise.
As the name suggests, resistance training is any type of exercise that gets your muscles to push against some form of resistance, such as a weight, for example. It allows you to strengthen your muscles, increase their endurance, speed, and size – depending on how you do the exercise.
The word “toning” is actually a very confusing term however, because it seems to mean many different things to different people. It’s generally only used in the context of women’s fitness, rather than men’s. Men generally tend to prefer terms like “ripped”, “chiseled”, “sculpted” and so on when talking about muscles.
My definition of toning is the light development of a muscle in its size, to give it a nice definition. Of course, for a muscle to be well defined you also need to have sufficiently low body fat covering it as well, otherwise it will just be shrouded from view.
Just about all the ab exercise machines I’ve come across are basically resistance trainers of some description.
Some offer more resistance than others – in fact, some create almost none at all, but just rely on your constant movement. Needless to say, these are very ineffective machines both in terms of toning and burning calories. They’re not too different to sitting on the edge of a table and swinging your legs!
So as resistance trainers, some ab exercisers can indeed tone your abdominal muscles. The problem is, they suffer from two major drawbacks compared to other types of resistance training.
Firstly, they’re usually very fixed in their movements, which means they can only target certain areas of your abdominal muscles, and rarely all of them. Your abs are actually made up of 4 muscles groups (more about this in a while), and unless they’re all trained in a balanced way, you won’t get the desirable, toned appearance that you’re after. It can also potentially cause postural problems and leave you more prone to injury.
Secondly, ab exercise machines usually don’t allow for variations in the resistance of the exercise. This means that at some point, your body will adapt and get used to the workout, and therefore stop improving.
With any exercise routine it’s important to vary your workouts regularly, both in terms of the exercises you use, and the levels of intensity – as your body develops and improves. This will ensure it gets a great, balanced workout and doesn’t adapt to the exercise, so that it can continue to develop effectively. Ab exercisers are very limited in this regard.
There are a wide variety of body weight, free weight, and resistance band exercises available that will allow you to target all areas of your abdominal muscles very effectively to tone and strengthen them.
Ab exercise machines just aren’t able to offer this level of flexibility in what they can do.
To get a better idea of exactly what it is that you’re trying to tone, let’s take a closer look at the makeup of your abdominal muscles.
The Anatomy of Your Abs
Well, as I’m sure you’re already aware, the word “abs” refers to abdominal muscles.
There are 4 main abdominal muscle groups that combine to completely cover the internal organs of your abdomen. These are:
Transverse Abdominis – This is the deepest muscle layer. Its main roles are to stabilize your trunk and to maintain internal abdominal pressure.
Rectus Abdominis – This runs between your ribs and your pubic bone at the front of your pelvis. When it contracts, it has the characteristic bumps, or bulges, that are commonly known as the six pack. The main function of the Rectus Abdominis is to move your body between your ribcage and pelvis.
External Obliques ? These muscles are located on each side of the Rectus Abdominis, and allow your trunk to twist. When your right External Oblique contracts your body turns to the left, and when your left External Oblique contracts your body turns to the right.
Internal Obliques ? These muscles sit alongside your Rectus Abdominis and are located just inside your hipbones. They work opposite to your External Obliques. So when you twist your body to the left, you’re contracting your left Internal Oblique and your right External Oblique. And when you twist your body to the right, you’re contracting your right Internal Oblique and your left External Oblique.
The diagram below shows each of these 4 abdominal muscles groups:
And What About the Core?
It’s very common to hear talk about the core, but what exactly is the core? Many people use the term interchangeably with abs, but that’s not quite right.
You can think of your core as the strong column that links your upper body and lower body together. It actually comprises your abs, lower back and mid back, together as one unit.
Your core creates the foundation and power for all physical movement and activities your body performs.
Your abdominals and back work together to support your spine when you sit, stand, bend over, pick things up, exercise and much more.
The core is basically made up of all 4 major abdominal muscle groups that I described above, as well as the following 3:
Multifidus ? This is a thin but stiff back muscle that’s located deep down and runs along your spine. It stabilizes each joint of your spine and works together with the Transverse Abdominis to increase spine stability. It also allows you to extend your spine, bend it sideways, and rotate it.
Erector Spinae ? This is a collection of 3 pairs of muscles that run vertically in the groove to the sides of your vertebral column (your spine), from your neck to your lower back. The main role of this muscle group is to extend your spine, to bend your spine sideways, and to maintain correct curvature and posture of your spine.
Pelvic Floor Muscles – The pelvic floor is a sling of muscle fibers that run from your pubic bone at the front, to your tail bone at the back. They form the “floor”, or base, of your pelvic outlet. These muscles have several roles – to help stabilize your pelvis and spine, to support your bladder, uterus and rectum, to assist in bladder control, and they also form part of your sexual function.
Now, one final but very important consideration that many women aren’t aware of is that it’s a very bad idea to train your abs without training your mid to lower back muscles as well, because this creates a serious imbalance in your core.
Your abs only make up part of your core, and building strength in your abs alone can lead to several possible problems, such as:
- Problems with your posture, especially slouching.
- The development of back pains.
- An increased risk of back strain and other injuries.
Ab Exercise Machines in a Nutshell
Hopefully you can see then, that although ab exercise machines are promoted as being the perfect, specialized solution to your abdominal fat problems, they’re in fact far from what they appear to be.
Both aspects of getting your waistline looking terrific – losing abdominal fat and toning your abs – can be achieved much more quickly and effectively through other means. It’s very ironic then that oftentimes the promoters of ab exercise machines claim they’ll produce the results you desire in just minutes each day. This implies that they’re actually more effective than other forms of exercise.
That’s simply not true.
Will ab exercise machines burn abdominal fat? Yes, but so will walking.
Will they tone your abs? Potentially, but a lot more slowly, less effectively and less completely than other means.
Will they give you fitness model-like abs in just 15-20 minutes a day? It’s possible – if you’re genetically predisposed to easily putting on muscle, and you work at it for several years!