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Those Gadgets Aren't Really Necessary If You Want to Have Fab Abs

Exercise: Study shows basic crunches work just as well as those machines. And neither are effective for weight loss if you don't include aerobics.

September 29, 1997|CAROL KRUCOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a nation obsessed with flat stomachs rippled by well-defined muscles known as "washboard abs," abdominal exercise machines have become the most popular piece of home fitness equipment. Nearly 6 million of these gizmos--going by names like Ab Blaster, ABSculptor, Ab Trainer and AbWorks--practically flew off the shelves last year.

Promoters say abdominal machines can transform you from flabbiness to fabulous almost overnight. But exercise scientists call them ab-solutely unnecessary.

"These devices provide no apparent benefit or detriment when compared to a properly performed crunch," said exercise physiologist Richard Cotton of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that certifies fitness professionals and promotes physical activity.

An ACE-commissioned study of four top-selling machines found "no significant differences in muscle activity for the basic crunch, oblique crunch and reverse curl with the devices when compared to the same exercises performed without them."

The single redeeming feature of these gadgets is their motivational value. People who have shelled out $30 to $300 for a giant, unbent paper clip may be more likely to exercise their abdominals regularly.

"An ab machine may encourage you to do an extra five- to 10-minute workout in your home," said Carol Hamilton, an orthopedic physical therapist in Frederick, Md. "The machine may be just the thing to get you started on crunches and other abdominal work and lead you to a more complete exercise program."

But don't believe claims that working your abs will melt pounds or inches from your waist. "To lose a pound of fat you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume," Hamilton said. "That would take more than 4,500 repetitions for about 7.5 hours on an ab machine."

Despite their advertising, devices that promise to reduce fat from a specific body part (so-called "spot reducers") cannot do that. In fact, some carry small-print disclaimers acknowledging that their product only works when used along with healthy eating habits and regular exercise. "Unless you push yourself away from the table and engage in aerobic, calorie-burning activities," Hamilton said, "abdominal exercise will do little to trim your waistline."

But strengthening the abdominal muscles may help you look slimmer, since some "belly bulges" come from poor posture and weak abs. Exercising these muscles can help improve your posture. Plus, strong abdominals help maintain a healthy back.

Most fitness professionals recommend the crunch as the single best exercise for working the abdominal muscles. Unlike the old-fashioned "sit-up," which involved keeping the legs straight and lifting the upper body all the way up, the newer crunch is a smaller, more precise movement that does not strain the back. Hamilton offers these guidelines for proper crunch technique:

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.

2. If you're a beginner, leave your arms at your sides. (The farther away your arms are from your belly, the more difficult the exercise will be. As you get stronger, you may want to cross your arms over your chest or place your fingertips behind your ears.)

3. Contract your abdominal muscles, squeeze your buttocks together and tilt your pelvis up.

4. Slowly curl your head up, just until your shoulder blades lift off the floor.

5. Ease back down. Repeat 10 times, being sure to exhale as you curl up and inhale as you release. Be sure not to swing your elbows forward and yank on your head, since this can place harmful stress on your neck. Concentrate on the muscles you're working, and make sure to keep your lower back pressed into the floor.

To work different parts of the abdominals, ACE experts offer these crunch variations:

* Alternating angles. To work the obliques, the muscles on the sides of the stomach, perform the crunch at alternating angles, reaching with the shoulder (not the elbow) across the body toward the opposite knee. Repeat on the other side.

* Knees up. To work the lower abdominals, bring the knees up toward the chest, forming a 90-degree angle with the body. Using only the lower abdominals, bring the knees slightly toward the chest as you exhale. Return to the starting position. Remember, this is a very small movement. Don't try to bring the knees up to the face.

These exercises should be done two to three times daily for optimum results, said Hamilton, who advises her patients to crunch in bed.

"People are lying in their beds twice a day anyway, in the morning and at night," she said. "If they take time to do 10 repetitions each of crunches forward, then to the right, then to the left, they'll see a remarkable improvement."

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Resources

The ACE Consumer Fitness Hotline offers a free "fit facts" sheet on abdominal exercise. To get one, call (800) 825-3636 or visit their Web site: http://www.acefitness.org.

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