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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Does Heavily Advertised Exercise Equipment Really Provide Advantages?

Advertisements on TV and elsewhere make it appear that, if you buy the latest innovative exercise device you will make faster and greater gains than you could using more conventional exercise equipment. Unfortunately, such claims, however seductive, do not usually stand up to scrutiny. The following articles in the December 2010 issue (vol. 24, no. 12) of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research highlight instances in which such equipment fails to provide any training advantage over standard exercises.

An article by Youdas et al. (pp. 3552-3562) compared the electrical activity of 4 chest, arm, and shoulder muscles of 20 subjects doing pushups using the Perfect-Pushup device and the same subjects doing standard pushups. The Perfect-Pushup device allows free horizontal rotation of the hands during the pushup movement while, during the standard pushup, the hands maintain their position throughout the movement. Pushups both with and without the device were done 3 different ways - using wide, shoulder-width, and narrow hand placements. While the results showed some small advantages of either the Perfect-Pushup or standard pushup as to the intensity of involvement of specific muscles when using particular hand positions, neither the Perfect-Pushup nor standard pushup showed any overall superiority to the other form of exercise. Hand position had a much more striking effect on muscle involvement, indicating that pushups should be done at various hand placements in order to stimulate a wide range of chest, shoulder, and arm musculature.

Another article by Youdas et al. (pp. 3404-3414) compared exercise using the Perfect-Pullup device to standard pull-ups (overhand grip) and chin-ups (underhand grip) using an overhead straight bar. The Perfect-Pullup device allows free horizontal rotation of the hands during the pull-up movement while, during the standard pull-up and chin-up, the hands maintain their position throughout the movement. Muscle electrical activity sensors were used to monitor the effort of 7 different muscle groups for 21 men and 4 women during the exercises. The results showed that, while there were some significant differences in muscle activation between the chin-up and pull-up, there were no significant differences between the Perfect-Pullup device and either the chin-up or pull-up. The authors concluded that the Perfect-Pullup device did not provide any advantage over standard pull-ups or chin-ups.

An article by Willardson et al. (pp. 3415-3421) compared the electrical activity of 3 abdominal muscles and 1 set of back muscles during 3 traditional trunk exercises and abdominal exercise using a device called the Ab Circle. Results showed no statistically significant differences in muscle activity between the Ab Circle and standard exercises. Yet the mean activity of the rectus abdominis muscles (6-pack) and lower abdominal stabilizer muscles was highest during the standard crunch, and the erector spinae (low back) muscles and external obliques (lateral waist) were most active during the side bridge. Thus the Ab Circle provided no advantage over standard calisthenic exercises for working the abdominal and low back musculature.

An article by Schoffstall, Titcomb, and Kilbourne (pp. 3422-3426) compared the electrical activity of 5 muscles involved in abdominal and hip flexion (upper rectus abdominis, lower rectus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and rectus femoris) during the following isometric exercises:
- Crunch
- Supine V-up (while facing upward, back and legs rise off the ground to make a V-shape)
- Prone V-up (while facing down, butt rises up while hands and feet approach each other, making inverted V-shape) done as follows:
  • Feet on ground (no equipment)
  • Feet on FB large exercise ball
  • Feet on Power Slide
  • Feet supported by TRX suspension straps
  • Feet on Power Wheel
The results showed that:
  • All exercises stimulated the external obliques, upper rectus abdominis, and lower rectus abdominis similarly
  • The supine V-up without equipment showed greater internal oblique activity than the V-up done on the slide board.
  • The rectus femoris was less active during the crunch than during any of the other exercises. This is not surprising since the knees are specifically bent during a crunch to take the hip-flexors out of play and focus only on the abdominal muscles.
  • Overall, the prone and supine V-up exercises done without equipment provided as much training stimulus to the muscles tested as did the prone V-up using any of the commercial equipment.
Bottom Line
These studies indicate that much of the exercise equipment heavily marketed to the public provides no advantage in training stimulus over standard exercises. The only advantage of such equipment is that it provides variety, which may be important to maintain the motivation to exercise. Some exercise enthusiasts, even when informed that such equipment usually provides no shortcuts to the results they desire, may still wish to purchase them in order to keep their workout fresh, and that is fine. However, for those who would rather use their money for different purposes, there are other ways to add variety to a workout. Using standard gym equipment, a wide variety of exercises can be performed, especially using free-weight barbells and dumbbells and an overhead bar for hanging exercises.

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