Abs abs abs! The quest for the elusive flat belly

Visible Abs

Visible Abs

Nowadays, most fitness advice is confusing and conflicting. So why would it be any different when it comes to training your abdominal muscles?

Before going any further, this article really isn’t just going to be about your abdominal muscles. It’s going to deal with the whole core. There. Just so you have that straight from the get go!

Belly Fat

When I started my transformation journey a few years ago, I wanted to get the latest and greatest information the Internet could supply. I assumed that this new belly fat I was plagued with was my own unique issue. Googling how to get rid of belly fat led me down many a wild goose chase. It took me a good few years to realize that this issue is nearly universal. We all carry fat somewhere and the last little bit seems to have an unflattering habit of lingering mostly in once place, instead of tidily spread out in an even layer, so many of us struggle even as we approach our ideal level of leanness with lingering belly fat.

So my first bit of advice is to not fret or think you’re a freak. I, too, carry my fat more on my belly than anywhere else.

Another point I didn’t grasp before I started this journey is the process is never over. You don’t simply arrive at your desired level of fitness and leanness and go, “Well that’s a job well done!” then feet up and flip through the current Netflix documentary offerings. Sorry. It’s an ongoing process. So make it fun and sustainable.

On that, remember, we are not just doing this for the beach body look. It is absolutely for health, longevity and quality of life that we continue to strive for our best physical body. I joke about wanting to win the lottery but I would not exchange our health for all the money in the world. Vanity has its place, but quality of life rules Naomi and family!

Okay, so how do you get the elusive flat belly and get rid of stubborn belly fat? Is your first thought exercise? For me it sure was. Now check out what I said above. If your belly is not flat, there is a very good chance it’s carrying extra fat. There are actually a few other reasons which I’ll get to in a minute but 99% of you want to be thinking about fat reduction first.

Naomi Rules "Before"What causes a poochy belly?

  • Loose skin, especially if you’ve recently lost weight or have lost a lot of weight
  • Gut issues/Consipation
  • Postural issues/Poor muscle activation
  • Diastasis
  • Organs
  • Visceral fat
  • Belly fat
  • Stress/Hormones
  • Other scary health stuff
  • Um, it’s normal!

Loose Skin

Loose skin is not something necessarily change, and there is no quick fix. If you’ve recently lost weight, the skin may take time to catch up. If it’s been a few years, there may not be all that much you can do about it.  You can try lotions and potions and some swear by dermarolling and skin brushing. I also suggest you be certain to have a reasonable amount of healthy fat in your diet. Toxins get released when you utilize stored body fat and the skin is the largest organ. You want it healthy and resilient. Along those lines, proper hydration is also critical to keeping your skin looking its best. Proper nutrition, including adequate mineral intake is also key for healthy, resilient skin. Skin is the largest organ in the body and reflects our current state of health. I wish there was a magic non-surgical solution for lingering loose skin but as far as I know, there just isn’t.

Gut issues/Constipation

Bloat. Gas. Food sensitivities or allergies. Leaky gut syndrome. Inflammation. Hormonal imbalances. Contsipation. IBS. Candida. Intestinal parasites.

Whatever plagues you, it isn’t always pretty. Does undercooked broccoli leave you an unpopular houseguest? Perhaps you have food intolerances. Many people find wheat or sugar to be their personal demon. Perhaps the problem goes deeper than just what you ate. Perhaps you suffer from chronic constipation or leaky gut syndrome. The point is if you are having issues, learn what they are and begin your journey to heal yourself. This may mean adapting your diet and lifestyle temporarily or permanently. It’s not in your best interest to continue practices that leave you feeling uncomfortable!

If your issues are digestive, please, please begin to make changes. Colon health is no joke! There is lots of talk about a “gut brain” and gut, colon, digestive health affects your well-being. Parasites caused by undigested food and excess fecal matter fermenting is obviously not a healthy environment.

Do not for a minute think a detox or colon cleanse will get rid of belly fat! That doesn’t mean you should not consider gut health as part of your overall plan for health. Don’t fall for every plan as you’ll go bankrupt but do consider that it’s not normal nor healthy to suffer from these ailments.

Plus, these issues can affect your posture which affects your spine. Read on!

Postural Issues/Poor muscle activation

Like weight issues, postural issues are becoming the norm. We are sedentary, which literally means we spend a lot of time seated. We’re not supposed to do that! So here’s what all happens. In the core area, the legs are bent, the hip flexor gets short and tight, the abs get weak as do the glutes. The lower back, like the hip flexors gets tight and many wind up with back problems. The assumption seems to be that back problems are inevitable. Take control of your health! Put another way, take responsibility for your health.

Other common issues nowadays are head protruding forward, forward shoulder rotation/slumping, flat feet/feet rolled in, etc. If muscles are not activating, it is not easy to fix these postural issues. Addressing the core issue (pun intended) will help fix all of this. So we’re not just talking about the belly, we’re talking about the whole core, which, according to the New Rules of Lifting for Abs (NRoL for Abs) can be expanded to include not just abs and lower back but also your lats, and all the muscles that attach to your hips! Henceforth, we won’t be talking about the core for any purpose other than spinal and pelvis stabilization.

One of the big issues with all the sitting and super tight hip flexors is it can pull your spine out of alignment and your lower back into an arch. Get up! Get stretching! Get strong!

Diastasis

According to Lose Your Mummy Tummy author Julie Tupler:

your belly should not protrude, have an alien-like bulge, have an outie belly button, cause back problems, or cause gastrointestinal problems.

More information on diastasis from diastasisrehab.com:

Everyone is born with their muscles separated. Whether it closes depends on the amount of force or pressure on the connective tissue that joins the outermost muscles.  If the muscles close, they are always at risk for separating again when there is this continuous force on the connective tissue. Force can be caused by:

  1. Weight gain in the abdominal area
  2. Growing uterus during pregnancy
  3. Doing abdominal exercises incorrectly

Anyone can have a diastasis; it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, adult or child.

Organs

Perhaps your organs just all pile up in one place and don’t lie flat. If this is the case, as far as I can tell, it is what it is. Short of surgery or corseting, I’m at a loss as to how you can influence this issue.

Visceral fat

Visceral fat is also known as organ fat or intra-abdominal fat. It’s the deep stuff that would not show up on a caliper pinch test. In cases of obesity, the first step is to simply reduce overall body fat levels. But once into normal BMI ranges, a DEXA scan or similar can reveal unhealthy deep fat. It has been theorized that a tendency to store an excess of visceral fat is related to excess stress, so please consider dealing with your stress better. Read on for more information about stress!

Stress/Hormones

Our current lifestyles are said to put us into unhealthy constant states of stress. We are meant to have these reactions occasionally, as needed, not constantly. It is theorized that constant stress affects our hormonal balance and causes visceral fat (see above). Learn to get enough good quality sleep. Consider other ways you can improve your outlook and quality of life such as meditation or other relaxation techniques and other modalities such as compassionate communication (something I am currently studying) where you become aware of how violence insidiously creeps into all aspects of our communications, even, or perhaps especially in our self-talk.

They say if you store your fat on your belly, you are dealing with stress hormones (cortisol). Or maybe you drink too much beer. Or maybe your method of dealing with too much stress is to drink too much beer. Whatever it is, is it something you are ready and able to change? Perhaps an estrogen/progesterone imbalance is the culprit. (Yes, men have these hormones too!) Get your health in check by eating a healthy diet, getting your weight into the healthy BMI range and getting regular exercise.

Other scary health stuff

I once had a coworker I thought was pregnant. A year went by and nothing changed. I’m really glad I never asked her about her pregnancy! After a few years, she announced she was finally going to get that tumor removed. Yikes! She had been carrying a basketball around all that time but because it was a benign tumor, she was hesitant to resort to surgery.

 

Some Belly Fat is Normal!

Do you freak out about your “muffin top”? A little sanity test. Ask a lean child to lean over and notice if their belly does the same thing. Are we really expecting to be without anything at all there? There is usually going to be some grabbable stuff on the lower belly. Only a few genetically gifted lucky souls can bounce a quarter off their lower belly.

 

Yeah, but what about exercise?

Yes of course you should be doing exercises to have a lovely midsection. But which ones? Much of the information below is from the very wonderful New Rules of Lifting for Abs by Lou Schuler, henceforth referred to as NRoL for Abs. If you want a wonderful book that’ll make this all clear, get this book. Although I love all of the NRoL books, I would not suggest following any of the workout programs or diet programs. The writing is fun and accessible and the exercise information is solid. If you want a workout or diet program, please check out my endorsements or skip down to Recommended Reading below.

According to NRoL for Abs, there are multiple types of core exercises.

Static stabilization exercises require your deepest core muscles to perform for long periods of time (for example: squats. What? You didn’t think squats were a core exercise? Read on!) These are exercises which put your body into a position in which you must stabilize your spine and pelvis and hold it there. Planks and side planks are examples of static stabilization.

Dynamic stabilization exercises involve moving one or more limbs while keeping your spine neutral (for example: rollouts).

Integrated stabilization exercises are not what you’d typically think of as core exercises but they involve core strength and stability. In these movements, the prime mover is arms or legs and some people perform them without any core engagement. (This is when injuries happen!) Examples of integrated stabilization exercises are numerous and this type of exercise is fundamental to the Venus Index and Adonis Index programs – for example, a one-arm dumbbell row. With integrated stabilization, you want your core muscles to learn to hold your spine in its neutral zone. You’d think this was an easy feat but even experts can benefit from periodic review of form. For example, I recently learned that I needed to tuck my pelvis under ever so slightly more during shoulder presses and nearly two years of chronic shoulder issues have all but ceased. This after having been to quite a few experts. It took a trainer who’d seen me over a period of months to point this subtle form issue out.

Crunches

Crunches are still popular but they are generally becoming accepted as so last century. Look, you had to do like 1000 of them every single day and you never ever got that sixpack you wanted, right? So do you really need to read further? Well, okay, the truth there is there is fat covering the muscles so it really doesn’t matter if you do crunches from dawn until dusk. You are simply not going to make those small muscles pop through the fat. Sure, you feel the muscles contracting when you do a crunch. But it’s just not the way the body was meant to function because you are bending the spine. According to NRoL for Abs, you want to work your spine in resisting exercises. So the crunch is pretty pointless. See? Don’t you honestly feel better? It was bothering your neck anyway, right? It turns out that there are other exercises that give you far better activation of these same muscles and keep your spine in a safer, more protected position. You’re not needing to do more with your spine flexed and crunches will generally exacerbate the issues caused by all our current postural issues.

Side bends

I do not recommend side bends for two reasons. First, aesthetics:  For both men and women, a smaller waist is what’s visually appealing. So any motion designed to thicken it up is not going to improve that aesthetic. (I am very glad to get that off my chest! Do you think it’s okay if I have small cards made up with a link to this article and hand them to people in the gym? Yeah, perhaps not.) Nowadays, many athletes have a “banana” waist instead of a lean, elegant torso that’s simply more appealing. The second reason side bends are contraindicated is function. According to the NRoL for Abs, “…the main job of the quadratus muscles is to prevent bending movements that would take your spine out of it’s neutral zone.”

Leg Raises

Leg raises, like crunches, are contraindicated. They actually work the hip flexors more than the abs. We already have overly tight hip flexors from all that sitting. And c’mon, you know you hate ’em and aren’t even reading anymore. You just wanted an excuse to skip these evil useless things that will not help your abs pop and will not work them in a way safe to your spine.

Twists

Like crunches, just because we can does not mean we should! Okay, I’ll admit I have combed the NRoL for Abs and can’t find a clear answer on this. Suffice it to say, twisting doesn’t offer any benefit and it may compromise the spine. I think. I’m not sure I saw that anywhere, that’s just my gut sense (Get it? “Gut” sense? Maybe I should say “core” sense?) Again, you don’t want thicker abs so what do you imagine twisting is doing? It’s not going to spot reduce as there is no such thing. It’s not going to make a muscle pop through fat. Just quit it, okay? See? I just found you more time to do the useful stuff!

Planks and side planks (and pushups)

Good good good! In fact, excellent! Sorry! I know you find these challenging but they are working your abs in a static manner and providing good spinal positioning. Please check your form in a mirror! You do not want to have your butt sagging, but rather nearly straight, perhaps even slightly elevated. Hold the plank for increasing amounts of time but you never need to go over 90 seconds for a plank and 60 for a side plank (each side).  Music and deep breathing can help keep you focused and relaxed.

Stability ball exercises

Yes to some, no to others. Curl ups, pikes, other spine protecting movements, definitely yes. Crunches, no way. Weighted crunches, never!

Core breathing

In The Four Hour Body, it’s called “cat vomit”. In Lose Your Mummy Tummy, there is a lot of information on working the transverse abs. Basically, you want to suck your belly in, all the way, and hold. Rinse and repeat. A lot. You can wrap a fancy program around that but that’s it in a nutshell. I play games with this exercise – if I see a traffic light, I have to do one of these. I use the steering wheel for leverage. It’s kind of hard with the kids in the car to not give up the game because it’s impossible to carry on a conversation while doing this but I do find the steering wheel helpful for getting a great contraction. You can also bend over a chair or lie on the floor or get on hands and knees.

Ab wheels

Ab wheels are a yes and a no. For beginners, no way. You’ll fall flat on your face or wrench your back. But for advanced athletes, sure, go for it.

Weight bearing exercises

Weights are where it’s at! I have been following an exercise program for the last few months that doesn’t contain a single abs specific exercise and yet my abs are looking stronger than ever! Here are some examples of exercises you might not think of that work your abs: kettle bell swings, squats, bench press – the abs are not the prime mover – anything really! Can you feel your core engage? Or, rather, a better question would be, would your body be better served during this movement by engaging your core? So, for example, pressing the remote might not actually be a core exercise. But moving a wheelbarrow? Absolutely! Even opening a jar! There are so many times in life where they say “Put your back in it” but what you should really do is brace your core, often including glutes to both increase effectivity on the movement and protect your spine and indeed your whole body alignment.

Life

Not everything should be about the the gym; we are meant to move and do things. Real things; not just stuff on the computer!  On the flipside, the gym can help our performance in life. Sometimes, life throws you work you aren’t fit to do and you injure yourself. Inspired to improve, you work out and increase strength and find yourself better suited for life’s actual work next time. This can happen in surprising ways. My sprints were much-improved after many months off simply from having worked on core and glute activation. I can hurl a 50 pound bag of dirt up on my shoulder and carry it to the garden no problem (and I am certain to alternate shoulders!!!) and walk around a museum carrying a child or a heavy backpack for hours. I can deal with hours of yardwork without suffering for days. (Well, okay, usually.)

Glute exercises

My younger daughter is a competitive gymnast. Her teachers are constantly reminding her to keep her glutes tight. I also see the gymnasts perform quite a bit of work which targets glute strength. Along these lines, I find contracting the glutes helps increase my strength on seemingly unrelated moves like bench press or standing shoulder press. Of course the glutes can and should be involved in these lifts so taking time to target glute strength specifically will benefit your overall health no matter what!

Most of us have glutes that are “asleep”. Learn to wake your glutes back up with the Strong Curves program.

Get sexy!

Wiggle those hips! Belly dance, use your hula hoop, do some Zumba. Move, stretch. Oh and walk and stand too, okay? But with your core engaged, not just sagging and hanging. This is not such an easy feat but work at it and over time, you will develop the endurance to keep these muscles engaged for longer periods of time. Wear form fitting clothing (men too!!!!) so you don’t fall down on the job.

 

So you want a small, sexy waist! What’s the plan, Stan?

First, find your abs! Get the fat off! And if you do this and still have a thick waist, it will take time for overdeveloped abs to atrophe to a more sexy size and shape. Simply don’t do any abs as prime mover (dynamic stabilization) exercises for a while. This is only for advanced athletes with low levels of body fat who have built up too much muscle around the waist and lower back and are seeking a more pleasing aesthetic. If that doesn’t do the trick, it may be necessary to cut back on static stabilization exercises. There is nothing necessarily wrong healthwise with this, it’s just that some prefer a smaller waist.

Sanity check

The other day, my husband, tween daughter and I were all lamenting the fact that we have a bit of pudge that goes over the top of our pants when we sit. Is this muffin top? Then I had a great thought! I turned to my 7 year old gymnast who no one in the world would think had any fat to spare and asked her if she had the same issue. Indeed she did! We all breathed a great big sigh of relief. Sure, there are some people out there with bellies so tight you can’t pinch up any skin at all. But that just is what it is or they’re starving or whatever. Most of us need to accept that is is not going to happen for us. And further, this is not necessarily a desirable goal. I asked a woman at my gym how she got her ripped abs and she made it clear that it was mostly down to genetics, her daughter had ’em too, but she also made it clear that men don’t like this! I checked that out with my husband he he totally agreed; he does not like to see that level of leanness on a woman’s body. I love the Adonis Index and Venus Index programs because they help men and women achieve their best look without getting ridiculous about it. Proportions are what’s sexy. It’s not generally a stage ready look, but it can get you there. It’s a look that we, as humans, find most attractive. It also, by the way, happens to be about optimal health. Funny we’re not allowed to pursue a look just ’cause it’s hot!

 

The real goal: Learn to Brace your Abs

This may be a bait and switch but the goal is not just the aesthetically pleasing, and for some, like me, ever elusive flat abs. The real goal should be spinal health. To that end, we must learn how to move to protect our spine and get our whole core working together. Stuart McGill says:

Teaching activation of the entire abdominal wall to patients and to performance athletes alike, is important.

I’d venture a guess that most of us have no idea how to use our abdominal muscles correctly. About four years ago, when I finally started learning more about this subject and began putting together my team which includes personal trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists and PTs to help with rehabilitation, I began to finally understand proper form. My chiropractor at the time asked me to flex my abs. He tapped them and informed me that I wasn’t flexing them at all! I was sucking in just as hard as I could! He showed me what he meant and waited patiently while I contorted my face and tried to duplicate what he’d just demonstrated. It took a few tries until I got it, sort of by accident. It was not a way I’d ever moved my body before. I didn’t suck in. I didn’t push out. I guess it’s a static contraction: a bracing. It makes the whole abdominal wall hard to the touch. Back then, I had a boatload of fat but I was pleased to find all this nice muscle really was underneath! Now when I do this same move, there is only a little bit of flesh over the abs. Can you do this? The spine doesn’t move at all. This is what we’re looking for; engaging the abs during pretty much every single weight bearing movement in life including picking up a bag of groceries. In the end, this is going to help you avoid back injuries and maintain spinal health.

Here’s more from Stuart McGill on the abdominal brace:

Begin by standing in a relaxed upright standing posture with sufficient erectness so that the torso extensors are inactive – palpate them to be sure. Then contract the entire abdominal wall and feel the back musculature contract. This is the brace – all muscles around the torso stiffen to ensure stability. Now the focus is on matching the intensity of the contraction to the stability demand of the task. Interestingly enough, stiffness and stability is an asymptotic function – in other words a lot of stability is achieved in the first 25% of the maximum contraction level. Thus 100% muscle contraction levels are rarely needed – the trick is to activate many muscles to achieve symmetric stiffness around a joint.

There is also discussion of the abdominal brace in NRoL for Abs. Imagine someone was going to punch you. You’d instinctively brace.

Recommended Reading

Venus Index – Train your body to a gorgeous hourglass figure

Adonis Index – Train your body to a sexy godlike physique

New Rules of Lifting for Abs

Stuart McGill

Training women

 

3 comments to Abs abs abs! The quest for the elusive flat belly