By Katrina Waugh
Between my huffs and puffs, I had time to consider the question.
I was doing Roman chair exercises -- basically leg lifts -- and a woman on a chest press machine opposite me asked, "Does that work?"
Apparently the answer wasn't clear from my physique.
But I said, "Yes," anyway.
I think they work because when I do them I feel a small fire in my lower belly, but the truth is I don't really know.
Every day at the gym I see people working on their abdominals, grunting, sweating, twisting and grinding. They use anything and everything from the weight machines to ab rollers to stability balls to weighted balls to plain old crunches.
About half of all late-night TV appears to be sponsored by devices, schemes and even pills that promise tight abs without breaking a sweat or without getting down on the floor or without giving up cheeseburgers. There are ab-loungers, ab-doers, hip hop abs, 6-minute abs and an earnest young lady who looks right into the camera and proclaims "it's not your fault."
Is it possible any of this stuff works?
Melissa Ranalli, fitness supervisor at the Botetourt Athletic Club, injected a dose of common sense into the debate. There are no quick fixes, Renalli said, "it's a constant process."
Building summer-ready abs takes three components: diet, strength training and cardiovascular training, Ranalli said.
The strength training is a matter of personal preference, she said, but added that there are three areas to work on: the upper and lower rectus abdominis and the obliques.
The upper abs, Ranalli said, are mainly worked by "most standard crunches" be they on the floor or on a stability ball or wherever.
The lower abs are worked by leg lift-type exercises like the Roman chair. The obliques are worked by cycles or any of the twisting-type exercises.
A common misconception, Ranalli said, is that training with weight resistance will actually make the abs bigger rather than trimmer.
"When you do anything with resistance or weights, it's more the repetitions than how much weight you lift," Ranalli said. "If you do 10, 12, 15 reps you develop more tone. If you lift very heavy weight that you can only do 3, 4, 5 times, that's when you develop the size.
"The key is repetitions."
No matter how many reps you do, no one will be able to appreciate all that hard work if you don't put down that bag of Cheetos and get moving. What good is a six-pack if it's buried under a layer of cookies and cream?
That's where the cardio workout comes in.
"Whether it's on the treadmill or the elliptical [machine] or taking a step class," Ranalli said. "The cardio will burn fat."
That's fat all over, not specifically in the abdominal region.
"However with good general conditioning, you see some of the trouble spots improve, you get more firmness and you can see the muscles," Ranalli said.
Especially if you can tear yourself away from the chips, french fries, cookies, ice cream, beer ...
Ranalli recommends watching fat intake and "especially for the core" lightening up on salt.
"Salt makes us retain water, and most of that water is retained right in the midsection," she said.
That I know for sure to be true.
When I was being fitted for my bridesmaid gown for my sister's wedding, the seamstress was the mother of Virginia Cha, a former Miss Maryland and currently an anchor for CNN news.
Mrs. Cha, a veteran of many pageants, fitted the dress perfectly to my body, then gave me a stern warning: "No salt or the dress won't close."
Beer, she said, was all right: "Beer is a diuretic."