My job requires me to stay up late at night. And in the wee hours of the morning, I occasionally—OK, habitually—procrastinate and flip on the television. Unless I'm watching HBO, I'm inevitably greeted by a bunch of hard-bodies in Lycra outfits cheerfully and effortlessly using some device to give themselves tight tummies.
They always have perfect abs.
As somebody whose belt bears a few now-abandoned notches, I wondered whether these things could help me—especially those now-ubiquitous electric belts, which one commercial extolled as "like 1,000 sit-ups in 3 minutes."
It wasn't so much the promise of potential improvement that caught my eye; it was the assurance that I could do it without breaking a sweat. (Plus, I have a tender back, and nasty things like sit-ups tend to aggravate it.)
Sure, I knew these things were shticky—and that the ads' claims were dubious, perhaps even illegal. But what did I have to lose? These things promised me I wouldn't have to do much work.
Methodology. My plan was to try three kinds of devices: those ab belts and two other ab tools that have been heavily promoted. I used each for about three weeks, with a week off in-between to return to my original zaftig shape. The tricky part was figuring out a way to rate my progress. To help with that, I drafted the most knowledgeable gym-rat I know: my girlfriend. (Let's call her Anna.) After a Sunday morning brainstorming meeting, we had a plan: the Pinch 'n' Poke.
For the pinching part, I'd use calipers to judge whether I had lost any fat. (I bought a digital version, the AccuMeasure FatTrack, for $41.95.) I also needed a non-back-threatening way to test the strength of my soon-to-be-rippling stomach muscles. For that, Anna, and her poking fingers, would be the arbiter. She'd rate firmness on an increasing scale, from one-pack to six-pack.
My starting numbers: The calipers told me I had a 28- to 30-millimeter roll of stomach fat. By also taking measurements of my chest and thighs, the caliper judged that I had about a 19 percent body-fat rating. According to the instructions, that put me, barely, in the "good" category (a caveat about the calipers).
Meanwhile, I started out with a one-pack strength rating.
Electric Ab Belts
C ost: AbTronic: $89.85; AbSonic: $21.95. What is it? The beltlike devices first came to the public's attention during the 1970s when rumor spread that they were the secret weapons of Soviet Olympians. Today, there are bags full of these things, though perhaps not for long. In order to see if there were any differences, I bought two belts: the Ferrari of the genre, the AbTronic (a telesalesman at AsSeenOnTV.com called them the "gold standard"); and the Yugo of the bunch, the AbSonic. ("Two for just $20!")
The belts looked suspiciously similar; both had the same chintzy padding and similar cheap-looking switches. In fact, the biggest difference I could see was that the more expensive AbTronic didn't come with instructions.
The warning labels on the two belts were also nearly identical. Both, for example, admonished users to "apply a generous amount of a waterbased gel or lotion." (Underline in both originals.) Presumably, this is meant to keep the electricity flowing between the device and your body. I scrounged through both shipping boxes. No gel. So I tried the AbSonic without any liquid, but only felt a slight uncomfortable buzzing. Finally, I rummaged around my medicine cabinet and pulled out what I figured was the most appropriate lotion: Astroglide.
I got back on the couch, slathered on the Glide, strapped on the AbSonic, and set the mode to "Karate Chop." (Other settings offered: "Fat Blaster," "Crunch Craze," "Iron Man," etc.) Immediately a jolt of electricity shot through my stomach. It hurt—a lot. Remember the buzzing you got when you were a kid and put a 9-volt battery on your tongue? Triple that. It felt like a localized epileptic seizure.
I smacked the "off" button, ripped off the belt, and set it aside. For a month.
Then my editor called to check on my progress.
Hesitantly, I strapped myself back in. I figured getting the maximum potential out of the belts would require dedication on my part. The instructions suggest using the belts daily for a maximum of 30 minutes at a time. So I committed to being gently electrocuted for one full episode of TheSimpsons per day.
After I lowered the setting from "high" to "medium," it was easy going. About the only trouble I had is that the belts automatically turn off after about 10 minutes. Wanting to give myself a little cross-training, I'd use this as an opportunity to change the belt's setting.
Besides their vaunted "no-sweat" factor, the ab-belt shillers also shout that the things can "go anywhere!" I chose the subway. I hopped into the most crowded train I could see and began to repeatedly lift my shirt and change my settings. I was, of course, completely ignored. The only problem I had was that when I arrived at my destination, my shirt was sullied with Astroglide.
Did they do any good? No. They were painful, humiliating, and useless.
Pinch 'n' Poke results. The fat caliper reading didn't budge: I still had about a 28-millimeter spare tire. Anna wasn't impressed either. She gave me a one-pack.
What do the experts say? An ab-belt study by the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, concluded that test subjects using the belts "experienced no significant changes in weight, boy-fat percentage, strength or overall experience." The researchers added, "Not only was electric muscle stimulation ineffective, but it was also painful."
Still, these types of devices (though presumably ones of higher quality) have been used successfully for rehabilitation. How is it that they can work for that, but not give me taut abs?
Jim Brown, editor of the Georgia Tech Sports Medicine and Performance Newsletter and a health education Ph.D., explains that electric stimulation can "help you make the kind of tiny improvements that matter when your muscle, because of some injury, is so weak that you'd have to start out with baby steps." But, he says, "If there's nothing wrong with you—other than that you're lazy—in order get a real benefit, you'd have to put so much current through your body that you'd get fried."
What is it? First of all, I admit it, I bought this thing solely based on its name. The Ab Mouse looks like a Big Wheel without the steering part. It's a wing-shaped piece of plastic with little office-chair wheels on the bottom. The idea is that you kneel on the ground (resting your knees on an oversized, well, mouse pad that's included) and put your hands in front of you holding onto the Ab Mouse and roll it back and forth.
As I took the Ab Mouse out of the box, I noticed an impressively thick instruction booklet. Alas, it consists mostly of a 43-page "Suggested Menu Guide." ("Lunch: 1 oz. turkey breast. Fat-free mayonnaise. 2 slices whole-wheat bread. 1 apple.") That night, my girlfriend and I cooked rib-eye steak and horseradish mashed potatoes. Delicious.
Did it do any good? No. Besides suggesting that in order to get rock-hard abs I'd have to give up sausage, the Ab Mouse had another drawback: I couldn't use it on my hardwood floors. The wheels just slid around. I constantly felt like the thing was about to fly out from under me.
In an attempt to give it a fairer shot, I brought the Ab Mouse out into the carpeted hallway of my apartment building. It worked just fine there. But this wasn't a long-term proposition. After about a week of furtively working out in the hallways, I decided that I enjoyed my dignity and took the Ab Mouse out of the running.
Pinch 'n' Poke results. The calipers still read about 30 millimeters. And I still got a one-pack rating.
What do the experts say? "This is what I would call a borderline product," says Conrad Earnest, an exercise physiologist at the Cooper Institute, a health research foundation. "If you do it correctly, you may get some benefit. But if you don't, you won't get any benefit at all."
What is it? Advertised as giving you "a perfect six-pack in just three minutes a day without straining your back," the Abflex II looks like a cheap plastic crossbow.
The thing requires assembly, but instead of paper instructions it has a video. The narrator, a very enthusiastic and buff woman, had a much easier time of this than I did. Once I'd snapped all the parts into place, I watched as the video woman explained how to do an Abflex workout: You pull down on the attached side handles, which stretch a rubber cord that in turn pushes the base of the Abflex, known as the Six Pack, into your stomach. (Click here to see a picture of it in action.) The "exercise" forces you to tense your stomach muscles to keep the Six Pack from socking you in the gut.
In contrast to the ab belts, the exercises on the Abflex video—as promised—lasted for only three minutes, presumably a benefit of the fact that you actually have to gently exert yourself. I thought that was absurdly short, so I started putting in a few extra minutes, eventually settling on a comfortable time frame: one couple's matchup on the show Blind Date from introductions until the good-night kiss (about eight minutes).
Did it do any good? Sorta. The Abflex isn't the most classy-looking thing, but it did have some key advantages. In order of importance: 1) I could do it on the couch; and 2) it worked—just not on my stomach.
A few weeks after I started using the Abflex, I felt like my abs had become marginally tighter. The fat caliper reading, though, didn't budge. Still, I felt kind of ripped. If it wasn't my stomach, maybe it was my arms. All that pulling on a thick rubber cord could have made them a bit stronger.
Quickly, I brought the potential development to Anna's attention. I flexed, making various Mr. Universe poses. Tentatively, she felt around my biceps, pushing and prodding. Finally, she exclaimed, "Huh. They are a bit better."
Pinch 'n' Poke results. No changes, except for the arms.
What do the experts say? "I just don't buy it," says Earnest, the exercise physiologist. "It might work in a limited way, but it doesn't sound like you're doing enough work to make a difference."
Conclusion. The ab belts don't work. And the while the other ab-improvement products can help you a bit, they certainly don't deliver you to the six-pack holy land.
"If you really want to have developed abdominal muscles," Earnest explains, "you'll need weight training, stability exercises, and a good eating plan. If you don't lose the fat, all you have is toned muscles under a flabby exterior. Same old song and dance, I'm afraid."
Then he thinks for a moment. "There is one thing that really works," he says. "It's called the Physioball. They're just big rubber balls. While you exercise on them, you also have to keep balance. So, you have to contract your muscles that help you keep stability. Anybody who uses one of those in a training routine will have a greater strength and stability in their abs and back muscles." Mine is already on its way.