Muscle-Stimulating Gadgets Won't
Provide Six-Pack Abs
March 7, 2002 -- They're everywhere.
You can hardly turn on a TV lately without stumbling across infomercials
offering a belt-like device that promise rock-hard, six-pack abs without
exercise or dieting.
"It would be nice if you could get
the kind of muscle development you see in these ads with a simple,
electrical device, but you can't," says Kiku Trentylon, a fitness trainer
in New York City. "They're selling a fantasy."
But it's an enticing fantasy, and
one that is attracting many eager buyers, as sales of these electrical
muscle stimulators (EMS) are reported to be brisk.
"The electrical muscle stimulators
advertised on television are another attempt to mislead the public into
thinking that a simple device can create the perfect stomach," says Robyn
M. Stuhr, MA, of the Women's Sports Medicine Center Hospital for Special
Surgery in New York. "They may improve muscle endurance, but only in one
position. And regardless of the type of abdominal exercise performed, if
an individual has a thick pad of fat, they won't see 'six-pack' abs no
matter how many repetitions or minutes they spend on their abs."
Despite numerous skeptics, EMS
devices have supporters in the medical community. Michael J. Skyhar, MD, a
sports orthopaedic surgeon and a staff member of Damluji Research of San
Diego, is a spokesperson for Electronic Products Distribution, maker of
the Ab Energizer.
"Electrical muscle stimulation is
well established in the medical literature as having therapeutic
benefits," says Skyhar. "It's a comfortable, safe, and simple way for my
patients to strengthen lower back and abdominal muscles."
But the high visibility these
products get on TV and the sweeping claims made about their effectiveness
are bringing them under greater scrutiny.
Now, the FDA is reportedly looking
closely at the claims made by the makers and sellers of these devices to
determine whether rules about making unsubstantiated medical claims are
Let the Buyer Beware
"When someone tells you they will
sell you something that will turn you into a he-man overnight, you should
be very, very skeptical," says Stephen Rice, MD, PhD, who specializes in
sports medicine at the Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, N.J., and
is a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.
But even if the devices sold on TV
can't do what the sellers promise, EMS itself isn't at all hokum, says
Rice. EMS devices are an important part of physical therapy for people
recovering from certain types of surgery or injury. Among other legitimate
medical uses, physical therapists can use EMS to prevent a patient's
muscles from shrinking during a long recovery after an accident, for
"For the average couch potato who
may be getting no exercise at all, these devices may provide some muscle
tightening and improved muscle tone," says Rice. "But that will not
transfer to the kind of strength for real-world results needed in sports
or in some occupations. And it will have no effect on reducing body fat."
To lose fat around the stomach, diet
and exercise are still the only useful options, says Carl W. Nissen, MD,
associate professor in the departments of orthopedic surgery and sports
medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
"You'd be better off spending your money on good nutrition and a health
Abs Are 'Core Strength'
Strong abdominal muscles are more
than just pretty to look at, say these experts. Developing ab strength
leads to better "core strength," meaning that many other muscle groups
depend on the support and strength of the abs to do their work without
"You're only as strong as your
weakest link," says Rice. "If you don't develop strength along a range of
movement in the abdominals, then you aren't really functionally developing
the muscle. You may end up with one developed area in the muscle next to
many weak areas, and that can lead to injury or strain."
Exercise machines and even "ab
rollers" -- curved bars that can help focus the muscle groups used in
traditional ab exercises -- can help more than EMS devices. But ab rollers
are real exercise, not just stimulation.
"Ab rollers present a difficult
challenge and may not be appropriate for beginners with weak abdominals,"
says Stuhr. "If an individual doesn't have the ability to stabilize their
core as their arms stretch forward, there is significant risk of shoulder
or back injury. These devices may be a part of a more advanced program."
So, how can you get a flatter, more
toned abdomen? Here's Robyn Stuhr's recipe:
- Reduce overall calories and fat intake.
- Get regular cardiovascular and strength
exercise, under your doctor's supervision, gradually increasing exercise
calorie expenditure from 150 to 400 kcal/day..
- Perform ab exercises with a trainer for a
while to make sure you're using the right muscles.
- During a partial sit-up or abdominal crunch,
feel yourself pulling in your stomach. Imagine your belly button pulling
in toward your spine.
- Work your lower abdominals, which contribute
to core stability, by learning to maintain a neutral spine during a
variety of leg and arm exercises.
So in the end, as usual, there is no
magic belt to melt away flab and make muscles bigger and stronger.
It's an old story, says Trentylon,
who trains people at gyms in Manhattan, but nothing can replace the time
and effort you put into real exercise.
"If electric impulses could replace
exercise," she says, "I wouldn't have any clients."