Monday, May 24, 2004

Infomercials promise the impossible

By Bryant Stamford
Gannett News Service

Recently, I watched an infomercial about resistance exercise equipment that taxes your muscles by pitting them against rubber cables.

The nature of the equipment is not important because virtually every exercise infomercial I have seen says the same misleading things.

The miraculous turnaround stories are first.

Here's a picture of Fred, a full-length right profile taken six weeks ago in an ill-fitting swimsuit. Fred's skin is pale and unhealthy looking. He slouches, his belly pooches forward and his right arm dangles totally relaxed at his side. He is frowning.

The next picture is Fred six weeks later. We see Fred in a sleek swimsuit with a killer tan, standing tall, sucking in his belly and flexing the muscles in his right arm. Fred is smiling this time.

"I lost 20 pounds in only six weeks with the robo-turbo-exercise machine," Fred says. "Twenty minutes a day, three days a week is all it takes."

I did some quick calculations in my head. A 20-minute workout on this machine would burn, at best, 200 calories (kcals). That's 600 calories a week, a total of 3,600 calories over six weeks.

One pound of fat contains 3,500 calories. So how do you account for the other 19 pounds of fat lost? You can't. Didn't happen. Is the infomercial telling a fib? You be the judge.

The guy demonstrating the exercises in the infomercial was a muscular marvel. A trim waistline, bulging biceps, broad shoulders and huge thighs. It is assumed he got this way from using the robo-turbo-exercise machine.

Don't count on it.

Resistance machines that don't require you to move real weights are not effective in building muscle mass. Sure, they exercise your muscles and you can get somewhat stronger from the exercises, but if it's muscle growth you want, you will be disappointed.

I have been in the exercise game a long time, and I have never encountered one person, male or female, who built a physique anywhere near the proportions of this male TV model except by using good old-fashioned barbells, dumbbells, and machines with weight stacks.

Why the need for iron resistance? Experts debate this, but I suspect it has to do with how the exercise feels to the working muscles.

Muscles are smart, and they will never do more than they absolutely have to. And if you don't make them do a lot more than they want to - overload them in other words - they won't change and grow.

Pushing and pulling against iron barbells and dumbbells is real resistance that challenges the muscles to perform at their best, both while completing the movement (the concentric phase) and when returning the weight to the starting position (the eccentric phase). Bending a rubber cable, pushing against a vacuum pump, pulling against springs, just doesn't measure up.

The bottom line: Buyer beware. As always, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

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