If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This phrase applies to free cruise vacations (there's a catch), zero-calorie ice cream (yep, it's just ice) and ab belts.
There are endless ab sculpting, toning and shredding products on the market from lotions to supplements to devices. But unfortunately, most products on the market are all hype and no help. Instead, save your hard-earned money and prioritize healthy eating and exercise routines to strengthen your core and trim your midsection.
How Do Ab Belts Work?
Most ab-stimulator belts function through electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), a common treatment in many physical therapy practices, according to the American Council on Exercise. With an EMS device, you're able to stimulate certain muscles by sending an electrical pulse to the area.
Since they're used in medical settings, these devices are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the FDA has yet to clear an EMS device for weight loss, body fat reduction or "obtaining 'rock hard' abs," according to the administration's website.
Where's all the hype coming from (besides a good marketing team)? There's research that shows EMS can be effective in very specific applications. An August 2018 study published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle found that EMS can help slow muscle atrophy (deterioration) when you're hurt and unable to perform an exercise that challenges the injured muscle. However, it won't help you build much muscle if you're healthy.
And one small January 2018 study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science suggests a specific daily regimen of high-intensity neuromuscular electrical stimulation program over four to six weeks improved core muscle endurance_._ But researchers saw no change in abdominal girth or appearance.
How to Actually Sculpt Your Abs
Forget toning devices and detox teas, the path to a more sculpted abdomen lies in overall fat loss. First, take a look at your eating habits. There's no one food you need to cut out of your diet to lose fat, but you do need to create a calorie deficit, which occurs when you burn more calories than you consume, according to the Mayo Clinic.
One of the easiest ways to create this deficit is by cutting back on calorie-dense, highly processed foods, according to the Mayo Clinic. Chips, cookies, cereals and refined breads are high in calories and low in overall nutrient value. In other words, they don't give you a lot of bang for your calorie buck. Juices and sodas also fall into this category.
Instead, fill your plate with plenty of nutritious vegetables, which are low in calories but filled with a variety of vitamins and minerals. Also, incorporate starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains to make sure you're getting enough healthy carbohydrates.
Building muscle and strength also requires protein. But if you're looking to lose body fat, too, prioritize lean protein over more fatty red meat varieties. Chicken, low-fat dairy, turkey and fish are all great options.
Alongside with cleaning up your diet, exercise is the second component to building a strong abdomen. When most people hear ab exercises, they think crunches. But actually, crunches are one of the least effective exercises for strengthening your core, according to a June 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Instead, prioritize more effective core strengthening and stabilizing exercises, recommends the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Try one of these exercises.
Move 1: Plank
- Lie face down on the floor, with your forearms on the ground, elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
- Extend your legs straight behind you, toes tucked.
- With your core braced, press into your toes and forearms and raise your body up off the ground.
- Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line from head to hips to heels.
Move 2: Stability Ball Back Extension
- Face the stability ball, plant your feet on the floor and rest your hips and stomach on the ball.
- Bring your hands behind your head and engage the muscles up and down your back to raise your upper body off the ball.
- Slowly lower back down to the start. Be careful not to strain your neck or lower back as you do this exercise.
Move 3: Side Plank
- Begin lying on your left side with your feet, legs and hips stacked.
- Place your left palm on the ground directly in line with your shoulder. Rest your right arm along your right side.
- On an exhale, press into your left palm and raise your body off the ground, keeping only your left palm and left foot on the ground. Raise your hips up toward the ceiling and hold this position.
- Once you complete your time on the left side, repeat on your right.
The Bottom Line on Ab Belts
While ab belts seem like a good idea when you're watching the infomercial, they probably won't do much to help strengthen or slim your abdominals. Instead, pay closer attention to your daily eating and exercise habits to strengthen your core.
- NASM: "Core Objectives: Making A Case For Progressive Core Training"
- ACE: "American Council on Exercise (ACE)-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to the Weight Loss Basics"
- International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science: "The Effects of High Intensity Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation on Abdominal Strength and Endurance, Core Strength, Abdominal Girth, and Perceived Body Shape and Satisfaction"
- Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle: "Electromyostimulation to Fight Atrophy and to Build Muscle: Facts and Numbers"
- FDA: "Electronic Muscle Stimulators"
- ACE: "Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) Claims Exposed by American Council on Exercise Study"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Systematic Review of Core Muscle Activity During Physical Fitness Exercises