Field of Science


The Shambulance: Ab Toning Belts (or, Muscle Tone Is All in Your Head)

(The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to convince you not to spend your money on bogus health products. Helping me steer the Shambulance is Steven Swoap, a biology professor and physiology expert at Williams College.)

Did you ever wish you could torture your midsection with electricity until it broke down and produced a six-pack, like a prisoner of war giving up state secrets? You might want a battery-powered toning ab belt. If you don't have time for crunches, it will crunch your abdominal muscles for you: on your couch, at the grocery store, in PTA meetings, or anyplace you can wear it under your shirt and aren't worried about people noticing the flinching.

The makers of one toning belt line claim that their "Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) toning to mimic the body's natural muscle movements." Electrical signals travel between gel pads inside the belt, "switching on the nerves that control your muscles and causing them to contract naturally." 

It's recommended that you use the belt 4 to 5 times a week, in 30-minute segments, cranking up the intensity level each time to the highest you're comfortable with. After 4 to 8 weeks, you'll notice stronger and more toned abs. Not bad for $100 or $150 and zero bicycle sit-ups. If you've been wearing the belt to work, you may also have been let go thanks to your constant grimacing. Use your newfound free time to take that body to the beach! 

After your abdominal success, you may be interested in refining your other problem areas too. If so, you can buy toning straps for your arms, shorts for your butt, or a creepy headset for your face muscles. (Available in the UK for 250 pounds. Anti-aging results in just 12 weeks!)

"There are two major problems with devices like these," says physiologist Steven Swoap. Or three, if you believe customer reviews about how difficult the padded shorts are to put on.

The first problem is that stimulation like this probably cannot make your muscles any stronger. "These devices tend to only activate the surface of the muscle," Swoap says. The electricity causes tingly-feeling contractions around your middle, but it doesn't reach deep. To entirely activate the abdominal muscles, "You would either need to have a massive voltage from the surface (burning skin, anyone?) or surgically implanted electrodes."

The second catch is that even if this device did make your muscles stronger, you wouldn't be able to see the results. 

A "toned" muscle, Swoap says, is really a muscle that you're flexing all the time without trying. "By doing a zillion sit-ups a day, you train your nervous system to activate your abs, even when you are not thinking about it." Once you've trained your brain well enough, it will start contracting those muscles into a washboard shape automatically. 

To make muscles grow larger, and not just more toned, takes resistance exercise such as heavy weight lifting. But even big, strong muscles will look flabby and droopy unless your brain is sending the signal to activate them. The toning belt, though, goes straight to the target muscle without talking to your head. "Muscle zappers like this don't train your brain at all," Swoap says.

Not to mention that if you're relying on the belt to trim your waist, rather than exercising and watching your diet, you'll still be saddled with whatever fat was there before. You might have abs of steel, but they'll be hidden under a cozy layer of cushioning. Maybe you can prove it to your beach buddies with a plank contest.

If you really want to make your muscles more defined, the answer—sadly enough—is that you've got to do it yourself. Whether it's your abs, arms, butt, or something else, "The only way to be 'toned' is to repeat the exercise over and over and train your brain," Swoap says. 

Facial crunches, though, might be a whole different kind of torture.

Images: Slendertone USSlendertone UK

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