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Absolutely Fabulous?

4 minute read
Amanda Bower

We’ve all seen them: perfectly toned celebrities on late-night television telling us that we too can develop rock-hard abdominal muscles. It’s easy! Just slap down $149.99 for the Torso Track or $149.75 for the Ab-Doer and watch those unwanted inches melt from your waist. Americans shelled out tens of millions of dollars last year on various devices to firm up their flabby midriffs.

And did they work? Not necessarily. Independent studies have concluded that most of these products–no matter who endorses them or how expensive they are–shape your midsection no better than old-fashioned stomach crunches. Some can even cause injury–like the $518.99 Body Shapers, which left electrical burns on some researchers at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Others, like the popular Ab-Doer, typically burn fewer calories than a gentle walk, according to a study to be published in September by the American Council on Exercise.

The fact is that many Americans don’t have the genetic makeup to develop a visible six-pack. They are either unable to attain the requisite muscle mass or they can’t lose enough fat to make a difference. Even if the underlying musculature is well developed, all it takes to obscure it is a layer of fat one-sixteenth of an inch thick. That’s enough to exclude most healthy women as well as plenty of guys who do crunches every day.

What about “spot training” to build muscle or lose fat in just that part of the body? Forget it, says Allan Goldfarb, professor in the exercise and sports science department at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Developing a toned stomach requires not just abdominal exercises but also a low-fat diet and lots of whole-body aerobic activity. “Typical stuff,” he says, “that you’ve heard a thousand times before.”

That doesn’t mean you should give up on your stomach muscles. Strong abdominals are good for you. They pull the pelvis up, which helps prevent pain by reducing the sway of the lower back. “Lower-back injury is one of the top problems in the country, and abdominal weakness is a huge contributing factor,” says Miriam Nelson, an exercise physiologist at Tufts University in Boston. “We sit all day, and then if we go to the gym, most people focus on the biceps instead of the core muscles.”

So what works best? In its new study, the exercise council evaluates the popular Ab-Doer. A lengthy TV infomercial promises that just 10 minutes a day performing such maneuvers as “Body Boogies” and “Good Mornings” will “trim those abs the fun and easy way without diets.” Steven Loy, professor of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, tested those claims by measuring the electrical activity produced by the abdominals during three Ab-Doer maneuvers. He and his colleagues then compared the results with those generated during traditional exercises. They determined that the muscles were no more active, and in some cases less so, when exercisers were using the Ab-Doer.

Taking a broader approach, researchers at San Diego State University compared 13 abdominal exercises for their ability to develop the rectus abdominis, or central muscle of the abdomen, and the external obliques on either side of the body. They concluded, in a report published in May, that the most effective exercises rotated the body and worked the abs the entire time. Among the winners: the bicycle maneuver–so called because it looks as if you are pedaling while lying flat on the floor–and exercises performed on the “Captain’s Chair,” a device typically found in gyms that helps hold the torso in the air while you raise your legs up toward your chest. Researchers suggested that a varied routine of the different exercises could deliver the best results.

Still want to crunch like the stars? The San Diego team found that the best of three infomercial products it studied was the Torso Track, endorsed by Suzanne Somers, which requires users to kneel on a pad and slide a handlebar forward and back, working both the abdominals and the obliques.

If the gadgets get you off the couch and on the floor, that’s progress. But don’t expect a few minutes’ exercise to transform your midriff. Alicia Calaway, 33, the personal trainer from Manhattan whose textbook anatomy wowed millions of viewers of Survivor: The Australian Outback, tries to work out 1 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, to maintain her physique. Strangers still ask her to lift her shirt for an ab peep show, she says. “My abs are so popular at this point, I’m thinking about putting out a video to teach people what I know.” But then who would pay $14.95 to find out just how much hard work is involved?

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