So you've canceled your gym membership. Could it be time to resurrect some old fitness gadget you bought years ago -- one of those hot, miracle products from infomercials or drugstore checkout lines promising great abs, buns and thighs? We looked at a few of the more popular workout products from yesteryear and asked experts whether it's worth digging them out or if they should stay buried in the back of the garage.
What is it? A rubber-enforced wheel with handles that promises to tone and strengthen abdominal muscles when you grip the knobs and roll into a plank position on the ground from your knees, then roll back again.
Does it work? It can target the abs if done properly, but you'll also be risking injury, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness education and certifying organization. He warns against using the wheel for that reason. "You're transferring a lot of stress from the shoulders and lower back into a single wheel with two hands," he says. "As it lacks a brake mechanism, the risk for injury is greater. And mentally, we feel that if some is good, more is better -- so you roll too far out. . . . It causes stress in the lower back."
Verdict: Toss it.
What is it? Shaped roughly like a letter C when viewed from the side, the ab roller includes a headrest to support the head and neck during crunches. The user lies on his or her back, grabs hold of the top device and then rolls into a crunch.
Does it work? A 2001 study of abdominal workout equipment found little to no difference in crunches done with or without the Ab Roller. Comana does appreciate that the Ab Roller -- unlike the Ab Wheel -- puts you in the correct position for a sit-up, but he still feels it's easy to overdo it on this machine. Muscle fatigue, he says, will mean you end up using lats, pecs and triceps instead of the abs to curl the upper body toward the hips.
Ron Eustis, a Westside personal trainer, had another problem with the Ab Roller: storage. He tossed his because he couldn't figure out where to stash it.
Justin Price, a personal trainer with IDEA Health and Fitness Assn., a leading membership organization for health and fitness professionals, says that this device carries its own injury risk. "It's an upper back roll-up, so your torso rounds," he says. "That wouldn't be a good idea, considering most people sit at a computer and round their shoulders forward [there already]." You could set yourself up for a rounded spine and injury in the long run.
Verdict: Toss it.
What is it? Made popular by sitcom star Suzanne Somers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the first version of this brand's leg press promised to help you "squeeze, squeeze your way to shapely hips and thighs." A spring-loaded hinge connected the two pieces of metal tubing, forming a V shape. Users would place the device between their legs and press together until their knees touched. The ThighMaster could be used while lying on one side, legs parallel or sitting up.
Does it work? It will help give the appearance of muscles, but not add strength, Price says. "[With the ThighMaster], you'll build muscle, but it's not going to be functional in any way. That's because it works the muscles of the inner thigh in a concentric fashion, meaning it shortens the muscles. . . . A side step and squat would work those inner thigh muscles much more effectively."
As with the ab devices, Price adds, "you can't target one thing in the body, because the body works as a whole. It's like you gave all the work to one employee. That employee has a nervous breakdown and the others get lazy."
Verdict: Toss it.
What is it? Often called a Swiss ball, this firm, inflatable sphere is usually used for abdominal exercises, requiring the user to balance on the ball face up while contracting into forward or side crunches. Similar exercises can target other muscle groups. The ball is also used in connection with balance and weight training.
Does it work? Eustis says the stability ball can be used for everything from glutes to push-ups.
It's great to pair the ball with weights for a core workout, adds Kathy Stevens, educational director for the Aerobics and Fitness Assn. of America, a certifying agency of fitness professionals. Though a 5- or 10-pound weight wouldn't feel like much on a bench, she says, lifting that amount with your back on the ball "really works your core."
Eustis says he also uses the stability ball for push-ups, leg, low back and glute exercises.
The cons? Comana, who likes this device, warns to watch for wear and tear of the material that eventually may cause the ball to burst -- not the best thing when you're on your back and holding weights.
Don't look to this or any other toning device to burn fat from targeted areas, Stevens says. "There is no such thing as spot reduction. You can strengthen and tone specific muscles with these devices, but you also need to do something more cardiovascular in nature to lose the weight or the fat that might be on top of those muscles."
Verdict: Keep it, but be wary if yours has been shoved into a closet, bounced or kicked. See Gear column (below) for where to buy one.
What is it? Literally a riser, but so much more. The Step is a sturdy plastic board used in cardio routines (up, down, L-step, over the top) as well as with pulleys and dumbbells for strength training.
Does it work? For those who have the discipline to keep up the pace, the step can be a great way to get the heart rate up, says Eustis, who first used an egg crate when he began his business, Fearless Fitness Personal Training, more than 10 years ago. "[And with] a pair of dumbbells, you can do a full-body workout."
Because stepping up and down on a raised platform is bound to get boring when it's done without the aid of a class or a personal trainer, Stevens recommends checking out step aerobics videos or inviting a friend to join you in your routine.
Verdict: Keep it.
Jane Fonda and Billy Blanks workout videos
What are they? Lots of celebrities and celebrity trainers have made exercise videos; actress Jane Fonda and fitness guru/Tae Bo innovator Billy Blanks are two of the more famous. Fonda's original video, which was released in 1982, included beginner and advanced sections. Both had segments concentrating on arms, abs, buttocks, waists and legs. The franchise now has more than 23 workouts, including step and stretch programs and yoga. Blanks, whose first infomercial ran in 1998, is most famous for Tae Bo -- a high-cardio program with elements of martial arts, boxing and dance. His products now include the programs "Tae Bo Abs Workout" and "Billy Blanks' Tae Bo Fat Blasting Cardio."
Do they work? "For the basics [such as step and low-impact classes], Jane Fonda did some stuff we still do today," Comana says. (You might opt to skip the spandex.) But as a general rule, he adds, workout videos more than 10 years old should be discarded, because fitness research has come a long way since then. "A lot of the older videos are going to have some moves that have become antiquated" -- for example, traditional high-impact routines are no longer in fashion, he says, as they risk causing joint injuries.
Our experts caution against jumping into Blanks' Tae Bo tapes unsystematically. "I've done the Tae Bo tapes with mixed results," Eustis says. "I have martial arts experience, so I know what's going on. But you need to start from Point A and take it all the way through so you learn how to do the kicks properly."
Workout videos should never be an impulse buy, Comana says. "If something seems appealing, Google that person and see what they've done recently. Check to see if [the host or the choreographer] is affiliated with a university or certified organization. That tells me these people are worthwhile. If all that comes up is their DVD and nothing else, they're a one-hit wonder."
Price prefers the dance-based videos -- and says if you can't afford a DVD, tape "Dancing With the Stars" and copy those moves.
Verdict: If it's older than a fourth grader, toss it.