That is the question. The abdominals are probably the most talked about muscles, most likely due to the fact they are often the first muscles noticed when someone has their shirt off. Great abs are a quick sign of a fit body and hard work. Everyone wants a six pack. An eight pack should really be the goal, because the obliques on the side of the abs are just as important.

So how do you get this shredded look we all desire? The first step is eating the right foods. Your abs will never penetrate deep layers of fat or become visible until that fat is gone. Portion control and a calorie-burning fitness routine will knock that fat off your midsection. The next step is beginning to build muscle to burn more fat and speed up your metabolism.

Herein lies the question, “Ab machines… to use or not to use?” There is no perfect or right answer for this question, but after a little guidance and suggestion, you will be able to form your own opinion.

Ab machines present no problems. They don’t train your abs the wrong way or cause bad form. The main problem is that there are so many to choose from. Your gym may not have ten different options for ab machines, but it could. Sporting goods stores, especially ones with an “As Seen on TV” section will have more than enough options for training your abs. Having a lot of options isn’t the worst problem to have, but training your abs in a way that ignores key areas of the abdominals is a problem. For instance, if you train on a resisted crunch ab machine each time you workout, you are definitely working your abs, but you are focusing mainly on the top muscles. Your lower abs and obliques are ignored, and it will be tough to see the coveted six-pack. This is why there is no wrong answer to the question. You can use ab machines, but you have to make sure you find different machines that work the lower abs, upper abs, and obliques.

A torso rotation machine will work the obliques, as well as any machine that allows for side-to-side motion. Any machine that brings the lower body up toward the upper body will target the lower abdominals. As you can see, ab machines can be utilized to really work your abs. Some of the positive effects of these machines include the variety of options and the opportunity for resistance being added to the workout, which can speed up results.

Ab machines do, however, ignore one key aspect to training the abs – stabilization. A lot of the machines will aid in mobilization, but they can’t help your deep stabilizing muscles. Swiss balls are huge for stabilization. Instead of doing crunches on the floor, get up and onto a Swiss ball and do some crunches. Your feet stay on the ground, and your abs and entire core are forced to stabilize and balance your body on the ball as you crunch up. Be sure to keep your neck straight and do not curl it or bring your head toward your chest. This puts too much strain on the neck. Planks and side planks also tighten up the abs because of the huge use of your deep stabilizers. Planks get deep into the abs near the spine. Abs are multilayered, and unless you’re training the deeper muscles, they will never become as strong as they should, or could, be. Side planks work the obliques and help get rid of the “love handles”.

The best workout for the abs is going to be one that works all angles and areas in a balanced and fatiguing way. The best motions for the abs are ones that bring the lower body up toward the upper body (see “Olympic gymnast”) and stabilization exercises. Any combination of these will produce the desired results. Mix it up, and get off the floor. Crunches and sit-ups alone are a thing of the past. Use the machines at the gym ad throw in some stabilization exercises, and you will be on your way to the best-looking midsection you’re ever had.