The largest category of fitness equipment sold on TV infomercials is probably the abdominal machine. According to industry sources, a record $600 million worth of abdominal machines were sold in 1996. The "tummy", after all, is the body part people are most unsatisfied with, according to some surveys.
There are several types of abdominal machines being sold over TV. Liz Neporent, exercise physiologist and author of the book "Fitness for Dummies", categorizes them as the ab roller, ab pusher, and ab strap.
In terms of design, the AbTrainer, the original roller-type abdominal machine is probably the closest to being biomechanically correct in that closely mimics the natural movement of the abdominal muscles. It has been cloned into at least 25 different varieties.
Yet, studies using electromyography (the use of electrodes to determine which muscle is actually contracting) like the one conducted by the American Council on Exercise, report that there is no difference between a properly executed abdominal crunch done on a mat and a crunch done using an abdominal roller machine.
However, the machines are useful for beginners who have extremely weak abdominal and neck muscles or those who have not mastered the proper crunch technique. It probably also works for those exercisers who need to be "motivated" to do their abdominal exercises.
If you are short, you may have a problem reaching the bar in front. This can cause neck problems and improper exercise execution.
A very important factor is a neck piece that swivels so the machine conforms to your particular neck curvature and not the other way around. The machine was designed to roll forward for front abdominal crunches wherein your rib cage moves to meet your hipbones.
To do diagonal crunches (your shoulder moves towards your opposite knee) you need to reposition your body. If you are not properly positioned, you can hurt your back doing these diagonal crunches.
Be aware that each "copy-cat" version of the AbTrainer has changed the basic design somewhat to avoid patent infringement. This can have a negative effect on the way the machine performs and the way your body responds. Listen to this tale of woe: "Last year, I bought the ABRoller Plus based on the infomercial and also because a friend purchased it. It is presently gathering dust in my room because I don't use it.
"Here's why. The infomercial shows the ABRoller rocking up and down and it seems comfortable for the neck because of the tilted pad which supports the back of the head. Problem is, the infomercial shows the bottom portion of the ABRoller as being curve-shaped and lying directly on the floor. The real product has some sort of "support" which look like black wedges that hold the entire gadget.
"This "anomaly" does not appear on the infomercial but when the package arrived at home, the "support" was present in the packaging as well as in the "purportedly free" video (Why do they say the video is free when it is, in fact, part of the package? Added value?). It is difficult and very uncomfortable to the neck to use the ABRoller because the "support" slips and slides on the surface. You need a rug or a mat for the whole gadget to stay in place (additional expense). Or you can nail the machine to a wooden floor in which case the machine stays in place forever."
The concept behind the AbFlex, a typical "ab pusher", actually sound. Pushing the abdominal muscles against resistance creates muscular tension and trains the muscles to act as a stabilizing force for the spine.
The disadvantage of the AbFlex seems to be in its design. You have to use your arms to create enough resistance to feel the machine pushing into your abs. Many people complain that they feel the exercise in their biceps, muscles in the front of the arm, instead of their abs. The pushing pad can also cause bruises in those with sensitive skin. Neporent says you can also hurt your back using the machine.
Other types of ab pushers are the Easy Crunch and the Stomach Trimmer. To use these machines, an individual pushes his abdominal muscles by bending against a handle connected to rubberbands which are supposed to create the resistance. Exercisers may find the pressure of the handle on the abs plus the pressure of the bars that wrap around the thighs in half-circles uncomfortable. Used in a seated position, the lower back can start to hurt.
An example of this gadget is the Ab Isolator. It was designed to keep your feet and knees steady so you can perform a perfect abdominal crunch. In the olden days, people would do the same thing by tucking their feet under a cabinet or bed. Unfortunately, electromyography studies have shown that whenever the feet or legs are held steady, the abs don't do as much work as another group of deep muscles called hip flexors. Many exercise experts, including Liz Neporent, frown on holding down the legs with the use of anything external including an instructor at the gym.
While these blue neoprene wraps are not technically an abdominal machine, they deserve special mention because of their immense popularity among exercisers from Baguio to Davao. The ads promise to make you "sweat away unwanted inches" in the waist. They also have wraps for the arms and thighs.
Neporent says, "Shame on Bollinger (the company that launched the Solar Belt, an example of an ab wrap) and fitness professional Denise Austin for peddling this potentially unsafe and ineffective contraption." Neporent says that the product invites dehydration, is downright dangerous to use in hot weather, and it makes you think you have lost fat when all you have lost is water which will be regained as soon as you rehydrate yourself with liquid.
Almost all advertisements for abdominal machines (even the effective ones) use the deception that it is easy to whittle your waist and flatten your abs in a short period of time by using their product. Nothing could be further than the truth.
Abdominal exercises done with or without an abdominal exerciser are great for hardening, toning, and firming the muscles but don't do much for removing the layer of fat that is bulging out. You could do a thousand crunches a day and still have a big "tummy" if you don't watch your daily caloric intake and burn additional calories through some form of aerobic exercise.
And, sometimes, in spite of doing all that religiously, you may find yourself still stuck with a stubborn spare tire courtesy of less-than-perfect genes.
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