If a genie granted me a few wishes, one would probably be to have a set of rock-hard abs that I could achieve by eating pizza and doing nothing else. But since pizza-induced abs will never, ever happen, I'm forced to (begrudgingly) go to the gym and do my usual rotation of ab exercises. Along with some Pilates and planks on an exercise ball ($20), I've also been using an ab machine figuring weighted crunches would help my cause, but Bicycling magazine says otherwise.
"[Using an ab machine is] just generally not a normal range of motion, and you may be working against a weight that isn’t right for you," says Mike Durner, a certified strength and conditioning coach for Carmichael Training Systems.
Durner also advises against one of the most popular ab exercises: crunches. "Not only are these dangerous, as both crunches and abs have been linked with spinal micro-fractures, but they increase strength in a non-athletic way," he explains.
Instead, Durner recommends doing core-strengthening exercises using your own body weight (with some additional help from medicine balls, etc.), as well as a balancing element (like a ball—hey, at least I was doing something right) since doing so will actually engage your muscles more than a machine. Here are a few of his favorite ab exercises.
This plank variation is called a three-point plank. Position yourself into a forearm plank, keeping your back straight. When your core is stable, lift one leg at a time, toes pointing down, and hold. Alternate to the other side and hold, keeping your hips parallel with the ground.
Side planks are great for both your core and your obliques. Elevate yourself onto one side, keeping your arm straight, and raise the opposite arm into the air. Stack your feet on top of each other being careful not to let your hips dip down—your body should be in a straight line, like the above example. If you're looking for more of a challenge, try raising the top leg straight into the air and hold. Repeat on the opposite side.
Excellent for your lower and side abs, windshield wipers are an easy move for major results. While lying on your back, squeeze your hips together and bring your legs straight up into the air at a 90-degree angle, arms out to the side, palms facing down. bring both legs down to one side (without fully touching the floor), hips stacked, hold, and return to center. Repeat on the opposite side.
While this is more of an advanced move, it'll get your abs burning like crazy once you've mastered it. Grab an exercise ball and place your shins on top of it, bringing the rest of your body into a standard plank position, arms straight. Slowly bring the ball in closer toward your body so that your tiptoes end up on top of the ball. As you bring the ball in slightly, lift your hips up in the air and bring your head in-between your arms so that you're looking at your hips. If you don't quite have the stability for this move yet, just start with the plank on the ball—eventually, you'll build your way up toward the pike.