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Working out old school: Is it time to pull out the ThighMaster?

Jane Fonda and Billy Blanks, the Ab Roller and the Step. Ah, memories. And some should stay that way.

January 05, 2009|Whitney Friedlander

So you've canceled your gym membership. Could it be time to resurrect some old fitness gadget you bought years ago -- one of those hot, miracle products from infomercials or drugstore checkout lines promising great abs, buns and thighs? We looked at a few of the more popular workout products from yesteryear and asked experts whether it's worth digging them out or if they should stay buried in the back of the garage.

Ab Wheel

What is it? A rubber-enforced wheel with handles that promises to tone and strengthen abdominal muscles when you grip the knobs and roll into a plank position on the ground from your knees, then roll back again.

Does it work? It can target the abs if done properly, but you'll also be risking injury, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness education and certifying organization. He warns against using the wheel for that reason. "You're transferring a lot of stress from the shoulders and lower back into a single wheel with two hands," he says. "As it lacks a brake mechanism, the risk for injury is greater. And mentally, we feel that if some is good, more is better -- so you roll too far out. . . . It causes stress in the lower back."

Verdict: Toss it.

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Ab Roller

What is it? Shaped roughly like a letter C when viewed from the side, the ab roller includes a headrest to support the head and neck during crunches. The user lies on his or her back, grabs hold of the top device and then rolls into a crunch.

Does it work? A 2001 study of abdominal workout equipment found little to no difference in crunches done with or without the Ab Roller. Comana does appreciate that the Ab Roller -- unlike the Ab Wheel -- puts you in the correct position for a sit-up, but he still feels it's easy to overdo it on this machine. Muscle fatigue, he says, will mean you end up using lats, pecs and triceps instead of the abs to curl the upper body toward the hips.

Ron Eustis, a Westside personal trainer, had another problem with the Ab Roller: storage. He tossed his because he couldn't figure out where to stash it.

Justin Price, a personal trainer with IDEA Health and Fitness Assn., a leading membership organization for health and fitness professionals, says that this device carries its own injury risk. "It's an upper back roll-up, so your torso rounds," he says. "That wouldn't be a good idea, considering most people sit at a computer and round their shoulders forward [there already]." You could set yourself up for a rounded spine and injury in the long run.

Verdict: Toss it.

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ThighMaster

What is it? Made popular by sitcom star Suzanne Somers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the first version of this brand's leg press promised to help you "squeeze, squeeze your way to shapely hips and thighs." A spring-loaded hinge connected the two pieces of metal tubing, forming a V shape. Users would place the device between their legs and press together until their knees touched. The ThighMaster could be used while lying on one side, legs parallel or sitting up.

Does it work? It will help give the appearance of muscles, but not add strength, Price says. "[With the ThighMaster], you'll build muscle, but it's not going to be functional in any way. That's because it works the muscles of the inner thigh in a concentric fashion, meaning it shortens the muscles. . . . A side step and squat would work those inner thigh muscles much more effectively."

As with the ab devices, Price adds, "you can't target one thing in the body, because the body works as a whole. It's like you gave all the work to one employee. That employee has a nervous breakdown and the others get lazy."

Verdict: Toss it.

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Stability Ball

What is it? Often called a Swiss ball, this firm, inflatable sphere is usually used for abdominal exercises, requiring the user to balance on the ball face up while contracting into forward or side crunches. Similar exercises can target other muscle groups. The ball is also used in connection with balance and weight training.

Does it work? Eustis says the stability ball can be used for everything from glutes to push-ups.

It's great to pair the ball with weights for a core workout, adds Kathy Stevens, educational director for the Aerobics and Fitness Assn. of America, a certifying agency of fitness professionals. Though a 5- or 10-pound weight wouldn't feel like much on a bench, she says, lifting that amount with your back on the ball "really works your core."

Eustis says he also uses the stability ball for push-ups, leg, low back and glute exercises.

The cons? Comana, who likes this device, warns to watch for wear and tear of the material that eventually may cause the ball to burst -- not the best thing when you're on your back and holding weights.

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