Despite the unproven effectiveness of made-for-TV stomach-flattening devices, health clubs, home gyms and exercise enthusiasts everywhere continue to try everything from ab rollers to crunch machines to chase the elusive six-pack.
But do any of these contraptions actually work? Let's find out.
In an article called "How to Get a Flat Stomach," I explain that the best way to get results is to include exercises that target every muscle of your midsection, including your rectus abdominis (front of your abs), the external and internal obliques (sides of your abs), the transverses abdominis (bottom of your abs) and to balance things out, also the important postural muscles of your lower back.
If you can include all of these muscle groups into a single workout, then you can quickly, safely and successfully get a flat stomach or a set of six-pack abs.
But here's the problem: most of these popular ab machines you see in infomercials only target one or a few of these muscle groups, and only produce a very light muscle contraction that isn's strong enough to actually burn significant fat calories off your waistline or tone those important stomach muscles.
A recent study called Systematic Review of Core Muscle Activity During Physical Fitness Exercises actually looked at just about every abdominal contraption that has ever existed, and compared them all. The study used electromyographic measurements of the muscles around the stomach. This allowed researchers to determine the actual electrical activity. The idea is that the higher the electrical activity, the higher the capability of an exercise to give you a flat stomach.
The findings are fascinating. For example:
Crunches only work the front of your abs and don’t create a very strong contraction, since it's just your own body weight you’re working against.
The ab crunch machine that you sit in at the gym mostly just makes your hip flexor (or your sitting muscles) work hard and not your stomach. Do your sitting muscles actually need more exercise?
The ab roller machines that are supposed to help you do better sit-ups and crunches without cheating actually do their job, but like the crunch, they only work the front of your abs and create very low resistance.
Bosu balls and big exercise balls make you work a little harder, but they hyperextend your spine, which increases the risk of low back injury, and really only target the front of your abs.
So (drumroll please), what were the two exercises that make the most muscles in your midsection fire with as much strength as possible? Crunches? Sit ups? A $197 device from an infomercial?
It actually turns out that the two best exercises for a flat stomach can be done anytime, anywhere, with little more than a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell or anything else that is remotely heavy. The exercises are:
The squat simply involves holding a weight to your chest, placing a weight on your back or using your own body weight and sitting down in an imaginary chair without allowing your spine to collapse. The act of all those big and small muscles in your legs contracting, combined with your big and small core muscles firing gives you maximum abdominal activation, not to mention a good calorie burn, too.
The deadlift is relatively similar, but involves picking a weight off the ground while using good form that relies on your hips and legs, and not your lower back.
The nice thing about the results of this research is that you don’t need to go out of your way to do some fancy ab exercises or an ab-only routine. You simply need to include squats and deadlifts in your workouts a few times a week.
Of course, even the very best flat-stomach workout isn't going to do much for you if those nice muscles you build are covered with a layer of nature's comfortable camouflage -- a.k.a. fat. So check out Which Workout Burns the Most Fat and Spot Reduce Fat to jump-start your understanding of how to mobilize your fat tissue.
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. Check out his latest book: Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body: A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape.
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