One of the most effective yet often misused and abused pieces of fitness gear in the gym is the ab bench. A lot of gym goers REALLY don’t know how to use an ab bench correctly and so don’t get the best results or, even worse, end up injured. If you feel like you should be getting better results from your ab workouts, then this guide might just be for you. Follow these basic steps and pro tips for a better ab bench workout.
What is an Ab Bench?
An ab bench, sometimes called a sit up bench or a decline sit up bench, is a simple but effective piece of fitness equipment for working your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis and obliques (fancy names for basically all the muscles that make up a solid six pack). They are mainly used for doing sit ups and various types of crunches, though with time and practise there are a range of other exercises you can do too. Because of this, most gyms will have a commercial ab bench or two, and there are many models available for home gyms.
Ab benches look like a smaller, declined version of a bench press bench with round pads at the high end to lock your legs in place. The height of the top end can be adjusted to make the angle of decline steeper or shallower, to either increase or decrease the intensity of your workout. Ab benches give a much wider range of motion and workout intensity than simply doing sit ups and crunches on the floor.
How to Use an Ab Bench Properly - The Basics
Using an ab bench can be deceptively tricky, but if you follow the basic advice below, you will be crunching like a pro in no time.
Remember to warm up
Before you even think about climbing up on the bench, you need to make sure your body is properly warmed up, especially your lower back. If you are doing your ab sets at the end of your gym session, then you should be fine. However, if the ab bench is one of the first things you will use, do some light stretches, like knee to chests or lying knee twists.
Setting the correct angle of decline
Somewhere around the leg pads, where the longest leg meets the body of the bench, you should see a handle or pin (typically red or yellow) that you can pull out. This allows you to adjust the height and decline of the bench. Hold the bench securely from below with one hand and pull out the pin with the other. You can then raise or lower the bench to suit your fitness level. At the beginning, lower is better. Don’t try to be a superhero, or you will hurt yourself. Even a shallow decline at the start will add a ton of extra effectiveness to your workout.
Getting on the bench
Getting into position can be quite tricky and I have seen people fall off ab benches before. And been seen falling off one too. To get on safely, straddle the bench near the low end and shuffle-walk up until the bench is securely between your legs. Now hold onto the the left leg pad with your left hand, and swing your right leg up over the right leg pad and lock it in place. Lower your bottom onto the bench and swing your left leg up into place. Don’t worry, your right leg will hold you so you don’t fall. You can now safely lower your head down until you are lay flat on the bench. Your legs should be bent at the knees, at about 90 degrees, and securely locked into the leg pads.
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Performing the Exercises
When doing sit ups, don’t sit up all the way. You should be sitting up to about 90 degrees from the bench at your highest point. Any higher than this and your abs are not engaged and you run the risk of overextending and hurting your lower back. If you are doing crunches, you should be raising yourself even less than this. Just raise your head and shoulders from the bench in a crunch, and stop when you see your knees. Hold for one to two seconds before lowering yourself back down.
During whichever exercise you are doing, go slowly to make your muscles work harder and try not to pull yourself up with your legs. Instead, concentrate on making your abs contract to do the lifting work. Likewise, if your hands are behind your head, try not to push with your hands, arms, or shoulders. This will ruin your form and render the exercise pointless.
Finally, on the subject of hands, when you are just starting out, keep them crossed over your chest. This will make the exercise easier. Once you have built up a decent core strength, you can place them up by your ears or behind your head for a tougher workout.
Getting off the bench
Once done, it can be tempting just to flop to the side and roll off the bench. Don’t do this. You can still get very injured at this point. Finish your last rep so that you are sitting up, not laying flat. Hold onto the leg pads with your hands and swing each leg down, one at a time, until you are standing straddling the bench. You can then shuffle-walk backwards a little until it is safe for you to lift your leg over and dismount the bench. And don’t forget to wipe off the sweat.
Keeping your routine fresh
You will get bored if you are always sticking to the same exercises at the gym, and ab benches are no exception. Try mixing up two or three different exercises and doing them in circuit. After you have mastered simple sit ups and crunches, you can try some more advanced moves. Routines using decline Russian twists, leg raises or knee pull ins can be real ab blasters.
Ab Bench Pro Tips and Tricks
Besides the basics, there are a few pro-tricks you can use to increase the effectiveness of your ab bench exercises.
Pro Tip #1
Don’t clasp your hands behind your head when doing sit ups and crunches. If you do this you are more likely to yank on your neck as you perform the exercises, which can lead to injuries. Instead, place your hands by your ears.
Pro Tip #2
Progression is the key to building bigger and stronger abs. A lot of people think this means doing more and more reps. This is wrong. 4 sets of 20 reps is the most you will ever need. Instead of increasing reps, try decreasing your rest time between sets, and increasing the resistance by holding progressively heavier weights.
Pro Tip #3
Do exercises that work your upper abs first, such as front crunches.Work the lower abs with something like reverse crunches only after your upper abs are exhausted. This will stop your upper abs assisting your lower abs, and give them a much more effective workout.
Pro Tip #4
This is a general tip. It doesn’t matter what you do on the ab bench if you are carrying too much flab. The fight for great abs starts in the kitchen. You need to get down to about 12% body fat if you are a man and around 16% if you are a woman. Only then will everyone be able to see those rock hard abs you’ve been working on in the gym.
Alternatives to Ab Benches
If after reading this guide you are still not comfortable using an ab bench, there are other options available to you. You can check out a few of your options here in our roundup of the best ab machines available in 2018.
Thanks for reading. I hope you have found these tips informative and useful. Please feel free to leave any comments, questions or further advice in the comments section below.