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How the Switch from the Sit-Up to the Crunch Created the Ab-Scam Industry

In the 1990s, the prevailing wisdom around the sit-up changed and the crunch became en vogue, primarily for spinal health reasons. It also made the exercise easier — both to perform and for grifters to capitalize upon

From World War II onward, the sit-up reigned supreme as the preeminent midsection-training movement, bolstered by its position as an essential component of the U.S. military’s physical readiness test. It would take roughly 25 years after the fall of Nazi Germany for questions to be raised about the safety and sufficiency of sit-ups, and also for those in the know to proffer acceptable alternatives. 

In that respect, the progression from sit-ups to crunches was as healthfully necessary as it was technically essential. All of the requisite contracting of the abdominal muscles took place during the initial stages of the sit-up movement, while the bending of the waist and the elevation of the entire back placed the trainee’s spine in a compromising position, put its stability unnecessarily at risk and proved to be altogether superfluous. When the “half-sit-up” or “quarter-sit-up” — the name of which ultimately landed by consensus on “the crunch” — replaced the full sit-up, it greatly simplified the abdominal-training process. 

It also, however, made it far easier for fitness scammers to peddle their wares.

Laying the Foundation for an Ab-solute Fitness Grift

Concomitant to these subtle changes in ab training were the staggering shifts in American gym attendance and immersion in fitness culture that transpired in the late 20th century. Between 1981 and 1995, health-club membership increased by 13 million members to 24.1 million, on the way to an astonishing 33 million members by the end of the 1990s. In 1999, the Associated Press reported that Bally Total Fitness alone possessed 31 percent of all gym memberships, implying that the fitness giant had acquired 8 million membership for only 360 club locations.

And while I can say with confidence that the vast majority of people weren’t regularly frequenting the clubs they signed memberships to train in, these numbers prove without a doubt that there was certainly a gym/fitness craze taking place. 

Meanwhile, also underway at this time was the peaking of Americans’ collective obsession with visible abdominals as the most critical body part to improve and display. A 1996 U.S. survey conducted by NordicTrack revealed that 60 percent of respondents named their abdominals as the body part they were most interested in improving, with the legs finishing a distant second at 14 percent. 

All of which is to say, a growing familiarity with fitness amongst the general populace, a shift in relevance amongst ab-training tactics and an unprecedented fascination with slim, toned waistlines created a confluence of factors that rendered the home-fitness market rife with the potential for an easy scam.

The Scammers Emerge

Into this environment were dropped several workout devices that were all embarrassingly similar in design, and which preyed upon the alcohol-fueled, sleep-deprived belief in transformative exercise magic that many late-night infomercial viewers fell prey to during that mid-1990s period. 

The first such product to make its presence felt was the Ab Trainer, the brainchild of Don Brown and Bob Hanington. The Ab Trainer featured a rocker-style design, with padded support for the head, neck and arms. In an interview about the success of his product printed in The Courier News in April 1995, Brown stated that his invention “solved the most common problem associated with abdominal exercises.” Maybe, but the Ab Trainer also provided its trainees with ample opportunities to cheat the movement by pressing with their hands and arms, thereby creating the illusion of ab-enhancing productivity while merely substituting movement in its place.

In 1996, a number of Ab Trainer competitors entered the market, beginning with the near-identical Ab Sculptor from Tristar Products. The main difference was an adjustable handlebar and the ability to fold. Its infomercial went to absurd lengths to impress viewers with the practicality of the Ab Sculptor as a portable-when-folded device that could be taken anywhere, even though the frame of the folded unit remained larger and more unwieldy than all but a steamer trunk.

Arriving on the market at roughly the same time was the Ab Coach. It, too, functionally resembled the Ab Trainer, save for the fact that it possessed no arm pads, and it included a protruding bar for the addition of weight plates, purportedly for the provision of added resistance. Since crunches are — at their core (pun unavoidable) — a minimal-movement endurance exercise through which the user strives to achieve a peak contraction in every rep, this feature was fundamentally valueless. Speaking of valuelessness, customers of the Ab Coach could also purchase a calorie and rep counter. Since the average person burns one calorie with every six crunches, I’d be stunned if anyone’s calorie counter ever reached triple digits.

These three devices were quickly joined by the Ab Roller promoted by aerobics champ Brenda DyGraf, and Perfect Abs fronted by Buns of Steel spokesmodel Tamilee Webb. Both were functionally replicas of the Ab Trainer, but with adjustable bar lengths and “power stands” to further hold them in place. Apparently, no one considered that if you were performing device-assisted crunches with sufficient force to cause the curved, cushioned edges of the contraptions to slip and slide right out from beneath you, a form correction was desperately needed.

The most original of these implements was the Ab Works device from NordicTrack. Its infomercial featured all of the mid-1990s fitness tropes, including neon colors, sweaty, tanned abdominals and a misty atmosphere. All of this pageantry was for the sake of advertising a crunch device with slightly more functionality than the others, but at double the price. The infomercial even featured Tony Horton, a full decade before he’d redeem himself by lending his face to boost the sales of a fitness system of legitimate value

So What Exactly Was the Scam?

It’s lurking within the clever use of the term “fitness system,” and the products’ newspaper advertisements betray how essential the crafting of the wording was to sidestepping the shortcomings of the products’ inabilities to effectuate the promoted results. The ads appended their claims with small-print language suggesting that what was truly for sale was the “system” the abdominal-training devices were included in as opposed to the mere devices themselves. 

This was similar to the dissembling language used by Nintendo to include a robot toy with their video game system and market it as an “entertainment system” after U.S. retailers had been burned by the bursting of the Atari bubble and were rejecting video games outright.

Mathematically speaking, if it truly takes 30 crunches for an average person to burn five calories — and therefore six crunches to burn a single calorie — it would take a stomach-ravaging 900 crunches per day simply to burn off the caloric content of one can of most soft drinks. At two seconds per crunch, that’s 30 minutes of non-stop crunching per day. And with a single pound of fat clocking in at approximately 3,200 calories, it’s safe to say that no one was burning any appreciable fat on any of these ab-crunching implements. Unless the fat disappears, even the strongest abdominals in the world will remain permanently concealed from view.

However, thanks to their clever wording, the abdominal device companies could attribute the failures of their customers to acquire appreciable six-pack abs — or to lose any waistline inches whatsoever — to the lack of adherence to “the system,” including the diet and aerobic plan. Clearly, the overall intention was to delude potential customers into believing that a machine-assisted crunch could make pounds of fat evaporate with the same speed as the $40 to $120 that departed from those same customers’ wallets. 

Even as these devices reached the height of their popularity, researchers were calling out what discerning viewers had been aware of all along. When asked about the quality of the devices by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1997, California State University biomechanics researcher William Whiting had this to say: “I think these devices are worthwhile if they can motivate you to start exercising and continue exercising. They just aren’t better than sit-ups or crunches for the abdomen.”

The Aftermath

When the original spate of crunch-easing devices peaked and vanished, the market was quickly joined by several devices that were more elaborate, every bit as ineffective and every bit as shady. The entire ordeal speaks to the need for better fitness literacy, as millions of dollars were lost in the pursuit of physiques that a curved combination of alloy steel, foam rubber and plastic were wholly incapable of delivering. 

The transition from the sit-up to the crunch offered the rare instance where a correction was required for the sake of a trainee’s safety; it just happened to render the ab-development process easier. Even so, it always remained true that physical fitness was only achievable through discipline and hard work. In other words, if a fitness company is offering you a device that’s intended to take the simplest of training movements and make it easier, you’re likely to lose your money in that exchange, right along with any hope you had of maximizing your training results.