The Total Approach to Flat Abs

I receive more questions about how to reduce, tighten and tone the abdomen than any other body part. Judging from the articles written in fitness magazines about ab exercises and the number of TV infomercials selling abdominal machines, the rest of the world is also obsessed with getting a trim tummy. It has been suggested by health experts that, perhaps, this "obsession" is a subconscious instinct for survival since excess abdominal fat is linked with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as back pain and even breathing problems. Therefore, a flat stomach will benefit not only your self-esteem but also your health.

Many people think that achieving a flat abdomen is as simple as doing crunches five minutes a day. Who can blame them? After all, that's what the ads all say. Unfortunately, it isn't as simple as that. There are many other factors involved in creating those bulges around your midsection. These factors include the skin tone, the fat layers (both under the skin and around the internal organs), the abdominal muscles, and the internal organs. Your posture and even the amount of stress in your life plays a part in whether you will have flat abs or not.

In other words, to achieve the flattest abs that you are genetically capable of, you need more than just 100 crunches a day and the latest ab machine - you need a total approach.

Reduce the fat.

Imagine that your body is a car. The food you eat is the gasoline. Your fat is the gas tank. In a real car, when you put more gasoline than the gas tank can handle, the gas spills out. In your body, unfortunately, when you eat too much, your "gas tank" expands to accommodate the excess calories. If you are genetically engineered to be like the older Volkswagen models, your gas tank is in front of you while other people have their "gas tanks" in their hips, buttocks, thighs, arms, upper back, etc.

To lose the fat in your tummy, you need to burn off the energy that is stored there as well as limit the amount of calories coming in. The best way to do that is through total body movement like aerobic exercise or weight lifting and sensible eating habits. Abdominal exercises alone just don't burn enough calories to make much of a dent in reducing your stomach bulges. Lower body aerobic exercise like walking, running or cycling will make a big tummy smaller even though it is the leg muscles that are working and not the abdominals. However, if you want to put extra emphasis on working the abdominal muscles as well as burn a substantial amount of calories, try boxing, kayaking, tennis, rowing, hula hooping, hawaiian, latin or belly dancing. Shoveling dirt is also very effective at working the waistline while you burn calories and, one day, some enterprising fitness instructor will choreograph it to music and make a lot of money!

Tighten the muscles.
You have four abdominal muscles. The deepest muscle, the transversus, wraps around your trunk like a wide belt. The next two muscles, the internal and external obliques, criss-cross your waist with diagonally opposing fiber directions. The most visible muscle is the rectus abdominis, which runs straight down the front of your abdomen. When these four muscles are tight and toned, they act like a girdle or corset to hold your internal organs in place in your abdominal cavity. When they are flabby from not being exercised or from being stretched due to pregnancy, the internal organs bulge outward. Strong abdominal muscles also protect your spine from injury and keep you free from lower back pain.

Abdominal exercises were designed to strengthen your abdominal muscles and, therefore, are a major weapon in the war against big bellies. However, they are not the end all and be all because they just don't use up enough calories to burn off the excess fat that is either under the skin on top of the muscles (subcutaneous fat) or below the muscles surrounding the internal organs (visceral fat).

For abdominal exercise to be truly effective, use a variety of exercises. Don't just do crunches and more crunches. Make sure to include rotating movements and exercises where the arms and legs are moving while the abdominals are held tight. Make sure to also include exercises that stretch the abdominals because an unbalanced exercise program with excessive crunching can encourage a slouched posture. Do your exercises slowly and with control so you really work the muscles and are not just jerking your head and shoulders. Remember that quality is better than quantity. Whenever someone tells me they can do 300 crunches a day, I am almost sure that they are doing it fast.

If you are aiming for a "six-pack" or the defined chiselled abdominals of a bodybuilder, be prepared to suffer. You need to have a low body fat percentage so very little fat is covering the muscles and you need to do intense abdominal exercises with weights because the only way to get the 'six-pack" or "pan de sal" look is to make the rectus abdominis and the external obliques bulkier in the same that you do dumbell curls with weights to make your biceps bigger and more prominent. This is an unrealistic goal for most women because females tend to have rounded bellies even when they are very slim.

Skin tone.
Loose and stretched skin contributes to the look of a big belly although there may not be all that much fat in the abdomen. No amount of exercise or proper eating will restore skin that is already stretched. The only solution would be a surgical procedure that is nicknamed a "tummy tuck". Since loose skin is not life-threatening, a tummy tuck is elective surgery. If you decide to undergo the operation, make sure you know what you are getting yourself into by consulting a qualified surgeon and then making an informed decision.

Bloating and gas.
Many people don't realize that the content of their stomach and intestines also plays a role in how flat the abdomen will look. Gas in the intestines from food like beans or cabbage will distend the abdomen. Carbonated soft drinks are big culprits here. Not only will you have gas but the high sugar content retains liquid longer in the stomach. Besides, the additional calories are no help in keeping your "gas tank" as small as possible. Chewing gum all day long and excessive talking while eating are other ways to introduce gas into your intestines. According to acquaintances of Marilyn Monroe, she would use enemas and suppositories before going to a party to empty her intestines of all its contents so her abdomen would look flatter. This is not something I would recommend unless you want to end up, like Monroe, dependent on those artificial means of going to the bathroom.

Constipation will also distend the tummy so make sure to drink lot's of water and eat high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The fiber in these foods will also make you satisfied with less food and they are low in calories too.

The quickest way to make your belly look smaller is to stand straight. And the quickest way to have a pot belly is to slouch. Whenever you slouch, your abdomen has no other place to go but stick out in front. I cannot stress how important good posture is both for your looks and the health of your spine. Not only should you remind yourself daily (even every hour) to sit and stand properly but you should also make it a habit to pull in your abdominal muscles instead of just letting everything hang out.

Strengthen the muscles of your upper body (shoulders, back and chest) to "pull" your shoulders back and open. Stretch hip and leg muscles because when these muscles are tight they pull the pelvis out of alignment making the belly jut forward. This is one reason why I encourage people to do weights and some form of "elongating" exercise like Pilates or yoga because the combination of the two formats can improve posture dramatically.

Alcohol, smoking and stress.
What do alcohol, smoking and stress have in common? They all raise the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, that scientists suspect direct fat to be stored in the abdominal region. Stress can also indirectly affect your belly if it drives you to overeat as a coping mechanism. Alcohol, meanwhile, can be a major source of excess calories because it is just so easy to gulp down a couple of hundred calories in one sitting.

The total approach.
Do heart-pumping total body exercise to burn off the fat, weight training to increase muscle mass and metabolism as well as improve posture, tighten the abs with the right variety and technique of abdominal exercises, eat the right food to avoid gas, constipation, and excess calories, drink lot's of water, drink alcohol in moderation, find ways to relax and, finally, stand straight and hold in your gut!

The Association of Fitness Professionals will hold a seminar for both fitness professionals and enthusiasts on February 26, 2000 at the U.P. Diliman Campus. Call Lorna at 842-0567.

The Sports Medicine Association of the Philippines will be holding its 9th Annual Convention on March 18, 2000 at the UST Auditorium. Call Bembem at 521-9123 or email sportsmedphil@yahoo.com.

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