Sculpted shoulders, toned biceps, buns of steel and killer abs. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, they’re accessories that we all desire. The idea of putting in the effort required to achieve these seemingly unattainable goals, however, is something else entirely. Hours of gym work, sit ups and pounding the streets on early morning runs, in the driving rain, isn’t exactly most people’s idea of an enjoyable way to spend their free time.
It is this feeling that the companies that produce Ab Belts prey on.
Ab Belt companies spend millions of dollars every year pushing the myth to consumers that using their latest piece of fad equipment is the easy route to the six-pack abs that you desire. And their campaigns can be very persuasive. No matter how much you know about exercise, the chances are that, even if you know better, you have considered purchasing such a device, right?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We’re all guilty of it.
Ab Belt companies such as Slendertone, Ab energizer, Fast abs, and Abtronic all sing from the same hymn sheet. They recite their mantra with an almost hypnotic and soothing drone: Ab Belts will give you the rock hard abs that you desire in record time; it requires no effort to get a six pack, simply use our machine while watching TV, while at work or while going about your daily routine. Without exception, such companies’ core marketing messages are focused on the ease of attaining a six pack and the convenience of their device.
Despite the vast swath of reports which have proven the ineffectiveness of Ab Belts, we all still find ourselves drawn in, in pursuit of an easier way to climb our Everest and attain the six-pack we all desire.
How do Ab Belts work? (EMS)
The science behind Ab Belts is fairly simple. Electrodes in the belts are attached to the skin, sending intermittent electrical pulses to the ab muscles to which they are attached. This form of Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) forces the abdominal muscles to contract, which replicates a workout without actually having to perform any exercise. While on a lower setting, one can only feel a small tingling sensation, but at a higher setting, one can actually feel the ab muscles forcibly contracting.
EMS has traditionally been used as a rehabilitation and preventive tool for partially, or totally, immobilised patients as it has been proven to preserve muscle mass and prevent muscle wasting during prolonged periods of enforced inactivity. EMS has, furthermore, also been used by athletes as a supplementary part of their training because intense usage may create the same neuromuscular adaptations that we usually associate with strength training.
Does EMS improve muscular strength?
EMS has been the subject of much debate and study over the last decade, with a vast array of studies on the matter being published in numerous peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The most comprehensive study to date is that by Filipovic et al, entitled “Electromyostimulation: A systematic review of the effects of different electromyostimulation methods on selected strength parameters in trained and elite athletes”. It was published in the peer reviewed Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in September 2012. This study compiles all data from 89 previous studies and makes a critical assessment of the effects of EMS on strength enhancement. Filiipovic concludes that EMS is effective in the development of physical performance. Participants in the study, after a stimulation period of 3-6 weeks, demonstrated significant gains in maximal strength, speed strength, rate of force development and power. These gains, furthermore, translated into increases in vertical jump and improved sprint times in trained and elite athletes, despite their already high levels of fitness, concluding that EMS is effective for both untrained and elite athletes alike in terms of making strength gains. The authors of the study articulate that EMS “offers a promising alternative to traditional strength training.”
An important clarification to make regarding the study, however, is that a significant relationship between EMS and effective strength gains only existed when a stimulation intensity of ≥50% of the maximum voluntary contraction is used. That means, EMS is not capable of inducing muscular increase unless it forces the muscle to contract at a really high intensity level.
What does the FDA say about Ab Belts?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), understandably, have grave concerns regarding Ab Belts. Any device that delivers an electric current to the body carries with it a certain degree of risk and the FDA are keen to specify that only one of the Ab Belts currently available on the market is FDA approved, the Slendertone. Furthermore, this belt has only been given approval based on its safety; the approval rating has absolutely nothing to do with describing how effective the Ab Belt is.
Over the last decade, the FDA has received countless numbers of reports regarding burns, bruising and skin irritation caused by unapproved Ab Belts. While these complaints are painful in the short term, the electrical current has also been known to interfere with pacemakers and defibrillators, with possibly fatal consequences. Companies may warn users with heart conditions, and associated devices, not to use Ab Belts, but their advice is far from always heeded.
The war between Ab Belt companies and the FDA rages on; a war that is littered with expensive marketing efforts and false claims, which have resulted in the Federal Trade Commission filing administrative complaints alleging false advertising against four companies, resulting in some $12 million in settlements, to date.
While we are bombarded with images of fit, healthy, good looking men and women with six-packs, through television advertising, implying that it all came easily just through using a certain company’s Ab Belt, there is a little secret that every Ab Belt company is not that keen to emphasize...
A healthy diet and regular exercise are a prerequisite to achieving a six-pack; an Ab Belt alone is not going to get you there.
Purchasing an Ab Belt and using it for a few weeks in isolation WILL NOT see you achieve six-pack abs. The fitness models you see in commercials use Ab Belts in addition to intense exercise regimes and clean diets, not instead of.
So, if you’re serious about getting a six-pack, the only way to do it is to put in the hard work. There are no shortcuts.
Do Ab Belts improve muscular strength?
The claims by Ab Belt companies that Ab Belts will give you rock hard abs are at best exaggerated and, at worst, deceitful.
While physical therapists do extol the virtues of electrical stimulation of the muscles, in improving muscle strength, it is an unrealistic extrapolation of this claim that should concern us most. While tests show that electrical stimulation is helpful in rehabilitating muscles that have been weakened due to injury or surgery, and studies show that electric pulses can even be used as a strength training tool for healthy subjects and athletes, the vast majority of commercial Ab Belts do not produce a sufficient stimulus of the muscle to attain anything like the results that Ab Belt companies claim. For an Ab Belt to help build the kind of muscle required for a rock hard six-pack, one would have to increase the strength of the electric pulse to a level which is likely to be too uncomfortable and painful to bear.
It’s simply not feasible with most Ab Belts out there.
The truth about Ab Belts and weight loss
While Ab Belts may work for strength gains, they are totally ineffective for fat loss for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most pertinent is that their entire premise is based on the myth of spot fat reduction. It is not possible to lose fat from one specific part of the body. If a six-pack is what you desire, you must work to reduce your overall body fat levels, before sit-ups and core work will even have any noticeable impact. The same is true with Ab Belts; you cannot hope to reduce fat around your abdominal area through its use without first reducing your entire body’s fat composition.
In theory, Ab Belts can help to build muscle. If the contraction is strong enough, EMS could stimulate muscle growth in much the same way as traditional abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups or crunches. If your abdominal muscles are covered by a thick layer of fat, however, they will never show through, in much the same way as doing 1,000 sit ups per day will have no visible impact whatsoever if your abs are covered in a thick layer of fat.
The only way to achieve six-pack abs is through a healthy diet and a commitment to a rigorous aerobic exercise program. A cardio-oriented workout program, completed around 4-6 times per week, in combination with a balanced low-carb, low-fat, high protein eating plan, is the only way to achieve the six-pack abs that you desire.
In short, Ab Belts do not work for fat loss or 6-pack abs! And neither does a commitment to doing 1,000 sit-ups every day.
Trimming your waistline is a prerequisite to achieving a six-pack. There are no shortcuts and no quick fixes. Lowering your body fat is the only way to truly attain the abs you desire.
There is no denying the science behind Ab Belts. Electric stimulation can result in strength gains when the pulse is sufficiently strong. Belts do indeed make your ab muscles contract, and if you apply the right intensity then muscle growth can result. If you ever buy one, you will even enjoy playing the game of seeing who can take the strongest setting the longest. Belts that deliver a strong pulse do hurt on the top setting.
However, no Ab Belt on market, even when placed on its highest setting all day long, will ever burn fat. Ab Belts may help to tone your muscles, but they alone will make no discernible difference to your appearance, especially given that the average person’s ab muscles are hidden under a large layer of fat. Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise, a San Diego non-profit that certifies personal trainers and funds research on fitness and exercise, emphasizes that, "You are not going to see any fat loss, and you are not going to see a six pack. You have to get off your butt for that."
While Ab Belts may appeal to the lazy side in all of us, relying on them to achieve your goal of attaining a six-pack is merely a delusion, much like relying on crunches to eliminate abdominal fat is a fallacy. Certainly, an Ab Belt designed to deliver a strong muscular stimulus may work your abs, but when it comes to building a 6-pack core you cannot exclude cardio training, resistance exercise and, most importantly, a healthy diet.
The role of the Ab Belt, or any traditional abdominal exercise (sit-ups, crunches, leg raises, etc), is to train and develop your abdominal muscles. The role of your diet and aerobic training is to make these muscles visible.