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 being violated.
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
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 example.
"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 club membership."
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 suffering injury.
"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
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."