[Paleopsych] NYT: America Is Still Working on Its Abs

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Fashion & Style > America Is Still Working on Its Abs
March 27, 2005


    BY some measures the heyday of abdominal fitness was a decade ago.
    Men's Health magazine rode to publishing glory in the 1990's with a
    monthly cover model showing off his washboard stomach. The term
    six-pack entered the language of vanity. Driven by late-night
    television advertising, some 368,000 AbRollers, ABSculptors and other
    stomach-muscle strengtheners were sold in 1996, according to the
    National Sporting Goods Association.

    Yes, it all seems so very mid-90's. And since then the fitness
    industry, which depends on new fads to keep slothful Americans
    renewing health club memberships and buying workout videos, has
    introduced many novelties. There have been trampolines and spinning
    bikes, Soloflexes, Bowflexes and gravity boots.

    But as workouts go the obsession of Americans with their abdominal
    muscles is seemingly forever. For the latest trend at the gym, look to
    the past. Consider that the six fitness guides on the market four
    years ago with the word "abs" in their names have expanded to 28
    today, according to the Books in Print database.

    "Abs rule," said Kurt Brungardt, who wrote the best-selling "Complete
    Book of Abs" (1993) and just finished the manuscript for "The Complete
    Book of Core Training," whose title includes one of the latest fitness
    buzzwordsdescribing a routine that is focused on the stomach.

    Mr. Brungardt has tried for success with "The Complete Book of
    Shoulders and Arms" and "The Complete Book of Butt and Legs." But
    nothing could match selling Americans ways to a well-defined set of
    rectus abdominus muscles.

    "Hey, if we lived in a culture where people said, 'What a sexy lower
    back you have,' it might be different," Mr. Brungardt said.

    Besides core conditioning another new fitness craze focuses on the
    abdominal region: Pilates, whose practitioners have increased more
    than fivefold over the last five years, according to SGMA
    International, a sporting-goods trade group. These days "all roads
    lead to abs," confirmed Dawn-Marie Ickes, an owner of a Pilates studio
    in Studio City, Calif.

    A skeptic might wonder, why abs? Why not pectoral or gluteus muscles?

    David Zinczenko, the editor in chief of Men's Health, whose current
    best seller, "The Abs Diet: The Six-Week Plan to Flatten Your Stomach
    and Keep You Lean for Life" (Rodale, 2004), is in its 18th printing,
    explained: "Up until the 1960's or so, broad shoulders or biceps were
    features that made women swoon. Shoulders and biceps say, 'I can lift
    heavy things.' But society has changed. Men don't labor in the fields
    anymore, so those features are not as essential.

    "Abs are the new biceps. Abs say: 'I'm in control of life, I've got it
    all together. I can work, play, and still build these.' "

    Vicki Beck, an accountant who works in television in Los Angeles, is
    something of an abs measuring stick. Over the last decade, she has
    been through all the phases: clipping how-to diagrams for the latest
    crunches from Self magazine, buying an abs machine from a late-night
    infomercial. "It probably ended up in a garage sale, like everybody
    else's," she surmised.

    Now she has turned to the more holistic approach of Pilates.

    "Abs, especially the deep, core abs," explained Ms. Ickes, her
    instructor, "are the cornerstone, the building block of every Pilates
    exercise you do."

    Pilates, a workout regimen developed in the early 20th century by a
    German boxer and acrobat named Joseph H. Pilates, was adopted in the
    United States by dancers for George Balanchine and Martha Graham. The
    number of American practitioners jumped to 9.5 million from 1.7
    million between 2000 and 2003, according to SGMA International. The
    workout emphasizes flexibility, strength and balance exercises, even
    breathing, all in the ultimate service of building strength through
    the abdomen and spine.

    Pilates is not cheap. Ms. Beck pays up to $60 a session for the
    privilege of climbing at least twice a week onto the Wunda chair
    (basically, a spring-loaded stepladder) at Ms. Ickes's studio, which
    is also a physical therapy clinic called Core Conditioning.

    For Ms. Beck's birthday this year her boyfriend bought her a Reformer,
    a Pilates machine with springs, pulleys and sliding cushions. It looks
    like a cross between a beach chair and a crossbow.

    Reformers sell for as much as $500. Ms. Beck keeps hers in a spare
    bedroom at home, next to her big white rubber stability ball - balls
    being the last big thing in the abs world - her foam tube roller and
    her Pilates Magic Circle. (That would be her big rubber ring.)

    "The stomach is most important," she said. "We live in Southern
    California, we go to the beach. More skin does show."

    A broader focus than Pilates, core conditioning targets the abs you
    see, the deeper abs, as well as the lower back and even the pelvic
    muscles, the so-called girdle of strength. (Pilates techniques are
    often a component of core programs.)

    A term that emerged from physical therapists in the 90's, core has
    become perhaps the most marketable word in the fitness business,
    several trainers said. Reebok sells a core board for $149.99. It is a
    plastic disc, which teeters on an axis at its center. Standing on it
    roughly approximates the experience of trying to balance on a lurching
    subway train.

    "Core is where the value icon is now," Mr. Brungardt said coolly. "It
    breathes new life into the ab craze. It's the next generation."

    Then again, maybe the craze is already shifting.

    Karon Karter, a Dallas fitness instructor and the author of multiple
    abs books, said core has already given way to a new era of core
    fusion. That is seemingly core fused with anything, like yoga, belly
    dancing and martial arts.

    Ms. Karter would seem to deserve a lifetime achievement award in
    fitness marketing for managing to cram every last fitness buzzword
    into the title of her latest book, "The Core Strength Workout: Get
    Flat Abs and a Healthy Back; Pilates, Yoga, Exercise Ball" (Fair Winds
    Press, 2004).

    Perhaps it should not be surprising that the same old absa word
    scarcely known outside bodybuilding circles through the 70'skeep
    coming back in new forms. Exercise is about reinvention, so it is
    hardly surprising that the fitness business is trying to reimagine one
    of its marketing bonanzas.

    Remember how the hitchhiker in "There's Something About Mary" was
    talking about making a fortune by going eight-minute abs one better
    with seven-minute abs? Thanks to an arms-race mentality within the abs
    industrial complex, we have cycled past six-minute abs and
    three-minute abs to, yes, six-second abs, which is an "as seen on TV"
    contraption, which looks like a small vacuum cleaner that has sprouted

    The new approach seems more grown up. Fantasies of a Brad Pitt
    washboard (Kate Bosworth's in "Blue Crush" might be the female ideal)
    still inspire some younger absaholics, but particularly among baby
    boomers lurching through their 50's abs mania can mean another way of
    forestalling the creaks of an aging body.

    "It used to be this huge aesthetic push, how ripped can you be?" said
    Chris Imbo, a personal trainer in New York. "It was the classic
    six-pack everyone was chasing after. That was something that was a
    hard reach for most people."

    You don't have to travel far in fitness circles to hear the conclusion
    that the "hard body" days are over. One need only track the success of
    the Curves International chain of gyms, intended for full-size women,
    or the Bally Total Fitness chain ads that featured regular people,
    including some with a few extra pounds and a few extra years on them.

    Perhaps no one represents the shift to total-body health more than Mr.
    Zinczenko, the editor of Men's Health. His book, with its 120-decibel
    blaze-orange cover, has sold 350,000 copies, and that is before you
    get to "The Abs Diet Workout" DVD or the spinoff recipe guide, "The
    Abs Diet Eat Right Every Time Guide."

    Men's Health, which comes out 10 times a year, has published about 60
    articles on abs in the last two and a half years.

    Anyone would think the country was ripe for an abs overdose. But in
    one poll of more than 3,000 men conducted by Mr. Zinczenko's magazine,
    to be published in the June issue, respondents were asked which muscle
    group was their No. 1 priority for the beach season. Abdominals
    trounced the nearest challenger, pectorals, by 70 percent to 15

    "You look at magazines like US Weekly, how many weeks in a row did
    they have the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston breakup on the cover?" Mr.
    Zinczenko asked. "Abs are our Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston."

    It need hardly be said that both those stars have absolutely killer


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