Fab Abs: What Works, What Doesn't?

Gizmos and supplements promise a "six-pack" with very little effort. Can they really give you the washboard abs you've always dreamed of? WebMD asked the experts.

From the WebMD Archives

We've seen them advertised on TV -- gadgets and potions that let you slide, swing, roll, and energize your abs into a "six-pack." Do any of them work? Will any deliver washboard abs?

For answers, WebMD talked with two pros: Alan DeGennaro, a certified athletic trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, and director of the sports performance program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Jolie Bookspan, PhD, an exercise physiologist based in Philadelphia and author of The Ab Revolution.

Dietary supplements that contain ephedra control appetite and help you burn more calories while you're working out, so you do lose weight. However, ephedra also increases heart rate, which can cause heart rhythm problems. Research has also linked ephedra to strokes.

"Also, if you quit taking ephedra, guess what happens -- you get your appetite back, you stop burning as many calories, and the weight comes back," DeGennaro tells WebMD. "I definitely do not recommend taking ephedra."

Electronic stimulation has its origins in rehabilitation programs, and helps revive a patient's shrunken muscles after a hospital stay. A lot of high-performance athletes use it to get better muscle performance, says DeGennaro.

Are Your Killer Abs Buried Under Fat?

"But to trim abs, electronic stimulation is not the way to go," he tells WebMD. "You have to burn calories in order to lose fat; the stimulation is only going to activate the muscle. If you're 25% body fat, what's that going to do?"

Much of your physique is dictated by genetics, says DeGennaro. While some are born lean, "other people have to do exercises every day, have to watch their diet."

It's what he calls "the whole-body approach," and it's the only way to flatten your belly, he says. "We look at 'calories in, calories out.' We teach clients about eating and exercising.

One pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, which means you need a 500-calorie a day deficit in order to lose a pound of fat a week. "It means exercise plus cutting back on little things, like crackers in the afternoon, ordering a 6-inch sub vs. a 12-inch sub -- that's probably 300-400 calories right there," DeGennaro tells WebMD.

Changes in diet and exercise lead to "true weight loss that's going to stick," he says.

The Best Exercises

Ab exercises often involve Swiss balls -- oversized balls commonly found in gyms and workout centers. "You can lie on the ball, do your exercises. It's more functional, requires balance, so you're using more muscles to stabilize and balance while you're doing your exercises. You're working muscles through the full range of motion, getting stronger muscles."

Spot training -- just doing crunches -- just doesn't work, DeGennaro tells WebMD. "If you have a little bit of a pot belly, just doing crunches isn't going to make that go away. You have to burn calories. You can do 500 crunches a day, but if you have a pot belly and drink beer every night, you're not going to get washboard abs."

Diet is 85% of weight loss, so 15% of your effort should involve fitness and strengthening, he explains "You've got to have your diet under control, then add in all your cardio and abdominal work."

"I'm not a big 'machine person,'" says DeGennaro. "When you're doing a machine, the same muscle fibers are working in the same sequence every single time. You can develop 'pattern overload' -- your body becomes accustomed to that pattern, and after awhile you're not accomplishing anything. Your body plateaus, gets more efficient at burning the calories. Pretty soon, you're not burning any calories."

"You've got to add variety, do a different routine, so your body doesn't plateau," he says.

Like DeGennaro, Bookspan doesn't believe that machines, ephedra drugs, or simple crunches are the answer to flatter abs.

A Simpler Approach

She believes in an isometric approach -- teaching people exercises that can subtly be integrated into your normal, daily routine. All are aimed at attaining better posture and less back pain -- along with more attractive abs, she tells WebMD.

"Most people can't imagine using their abs while standing," she writes. "Yet this is what will keep your back supported and prevent pain and injury during daily activities. Use this whenever you reach overhead -- from pulling shirts off to reaching cabinets, to washing your hair, to lifting weights."

"Using abs correctly will firm your abs and help you burn calories," she says. "It's a free workout you can give yourself every day."