Henry Copeland: "People from Southern California worry about their stomachs a lot more."

Easygoing and soft-spoken, Olmstead says that losing 35 pounds made a big difference in his midsection, but abdominal perfection is not his top priority. “I had to get all my clothes recut. It never gave me what you would call a six-pack, but it reduced the bulge. You really have to do a combination of strict diet as well as heavy exercise to get that lean-and-cut look. The effort to do that far exceeds the benefits. There’s a certain type of person here that does do that, and they’re usually in the weight room. It’s almost broken down into two camps: There’s the people who only come in to do the aerobics, and there’s the people who come in here to do weights. Primarily, it’s the men who come in here to do weights. I know somebody who’s a doctor, and he could almost be a professional bodybuilder. But that takes a great deal of time. I do aerobics and weights, but it’s more to maintain. I’m not trying to bulk up or anything like that.” As Olmstead lifts his tank top, I see that his size 34 waist is not sculpted like those of the other men in the weight room, but there is no visible fat either — just a flat layer of lean flesh. “The aerobics do more for your abs than any amount of crunches you can do. If you want to lose the weight, it’s not doing sit-ups or abs, because, like I tell everybody else, I’ve got abs of steel under this layer of flab!”

Kirsten Channing: “When I’m not pregnant, my waist size is probably a 27."

If anyone would know about perfect abs, surely it would be the Godfather of Fitness, Jack LaLanne. Speaking from his home in Morro Bay, LaLanne still has the sound of manic energy, even at 86. LaLanne has no problem with people who want to look better, but he grows furious when he talks about the focus on abs. “You know what’s taking a front seat to everything? With these AB Rollers and this ‘three-minute abs’ and all that? It’s all a bunch of lies. It’s people getting money on false pretenses, and they should be thrown in jail! It’s absolutely a fallacy! This is one of the worst things that’s ever happened in our profession! They should get those people and really do something with them! Five-minute abs! That’s a bunch of BS!” He quickly calms down. “Pardon me, that’s Barbra Streisand.”

Tara Irons regards the pursuit of the perfect washboard stomach as “a total waste of time."

LaLanne explains his philosophy about abs and fitness. “The only way you’ll ever, ever get yourself in condition is, number one, you’ve got to exercise your 640 muscles. If you just exercise the muscles in the abdomen, they’re going to get bigger. The fat is there, right? And when you exercise, the muscle is going to get thicker and bigger, isn’t it? So you build up the muscle and the fat’s still there, so the stomach gets bigger! The only way you’ll ever, ever get that physique is you’ve got to quit exceeding the feed limit. People overeat and they underexercise. They eat more than they expend. It’s that simple.

Brad Cooper: "I don’t really consider it a perfect six-pack. I know it’s decent, but I think it could be a lot better."

“Do you know how much exercise it takes to burn up a hundred calories? Or four or five hundred calories? My God, you’ve got to do so much exercise, and every person can’t do that much. You’ve got to cut the calories down, at least to 1500 a day for the average person if they want to get down to where they should be and have sculpted abs. I mean, look at these guys who have these sculpted abs, how they work out hours a day and how they watch their diet. It’s a full-time job, boy, I’ll tell ya. It just fouls me up! These people and their lies! When I see those ads, it just drives me nuts! You know, I’ve been in this profession since I was 15 years old. You’ve got biceps, triceps, you’ve got legs, you’ve got back. Your waist is not one-sided. It’s four-sided — front, sides, and back — and fat accumulates all over there and [his voice rises as he punctuates each word] YOU CAN’T GET FAT OFF by just working one group of muscles. You’ve got to work all those 640 muscles, as I said earlier, and you’ve got to count calories. If man makes it, don’t eat it, and if it tastes good, spit it out!”

Heidi Graham “I usually work on my stomach about five days a week. I usually spend 20 to 25 minutes on my abdominals."

Never tired of preaching the gospel of fitness, LaLanne continues without a pause for breath. “My whole life I’ve been telling the truth. Why do you think I lasted on television all those years? Because I told the truth! People love me because I have one thing in mind: Helping them. I work out two hours every day of my life, and I’ve never watched my diet closer than I do [now], and I have all these lectures — you know, life is wonderful, but you’ve got to work at it. You know, any stupid ass can die. That’s easy. Think about it. You’ve got to think right, you’ve got to exercise, you’ve got to eat the right food, take vitamins and minerals. You’ve got to keep yourself busy and motivated!” He then asks me about my workouts. Feeling like a fool in the presence of a sage, I quickly find a reason to end the call.

Michelle McKee: "I thought about piercing it, but I wouldn’t, because of the scars."

Big 5 Sporting Goods on Rosecrans Street does a brisk business in some of the very equipment LaLanne is so angry about. The front of the store is packed with abdominal devices in cartons, most of which read “As Seen On TV.” Many have pictures showing perfect-looking models (mostly females) grinning while they exercise. Every one of the models looks as if she rotates her time between a gym and a tanning salon, with no time to eat.

During his three years at Big 5, store manager Matt Graham has noticed a significant rise in the sales of abdominal exercise devices. “Most definitely. The influx of new products catches everyone’s eye, and they do buy them. We’ve been doing a lot of specific promotions for them, and they seem to sell at a higher volume than other equipment. Most of the stuff we sell is previously seen in infomercials, until the corporations that market them decide to let the retailers sell them. We’ll buy a massive quantity and usually offer them at a similar price. It’s more convenient, because if they need to return it, they can come to the store rather than send it back through the mail.”

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