How Do AB Belts Work?

Fitness female woman with muscular body, do her workout, abs
Woman's midsection with flat abs (Image: Max5799/iStock/Getty Images)

EMS

Manufacturers of Electronic Muscle Stimulation (EMS) abdominal belts often mislead consumers with claims that these devices strengthen and flatten the tummy without much effort. The way an ab belt is supposed to work is by transmitting electrical pulses through your stomach that will cause your abdominal muscles to contract involuntarily, thereby providing an easier way to burn fat. A low electrical current stimulates muscles to contract and relax, a process that is designed to mimic normal muscle contraction during exercise. However, the muscle contractions produced by these units are so minimal that very few calories are burned. As with any other weight loss program, the manufacturers of ab belts suggest that these devices be used as one component of an overall fitness program that includes eating a healthy diet in addition to regular strengthening and aerobic exercise. In reality, this is the only way to get positive results.

TENS

Electronic muscle stimulation devices are not anything new. Doctors and physical therapists both have used them for years to treat patients suffering from arthritis and other acute or chronic pain. Transcutaneous electrical neural stimulation (TENS) devices are used to stimulate sensory nerves and endorphin production. More powerful than EMS devices, TENS units provide deeper penetration to the muscle and are commonly prescribed to relieve muscle spasms and pain in the lower back and joints. Signals that penetrate deeper produce more effective results. This type of electrical stimulation can benefit muscles, which are weakened by injury or disease. But in order for this same technology to work on healthy individuals, an ab belt would have to deliver strong electrical impulses for a long period of time and that would mean pain.

Effectiveness

Whether or not ab belts provide truly effective results, no scientific evidence to date proves that these devices actually tighten stomach muscles or help people to slim down by burning fat. Research conducted at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse found that ab belts cause no significant changes in weight, body fat, muscle strength or tone. Participants in the study underwent electrical stimulation three times each week for a duration of eight consecutive weeks. The findings were published in a 2002 issue of the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.” Another point to consider is that except for EMS abdominal belts that require a prescription and are used for medical rehabilitation, the FDA has not approved most ab belts currently on the market. Despite manufacturer claims, consumers need to be alert and not confuse the safety of an ab belt with its advertised effectiveness. For some people regular physical exercise might be easier and involve no more time than using electronic muscle stimulators.

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