Visible abdominal muscles are seen as the ultimate sign of athleticism, discipline and aesthetics by both the public and fitness professionals alike.
Messages like ‘Abs are made in the kitchen, built in the gym’, ‘Earned not given’ are popular, making it seem like sheer will power alone is the reason some people have them and others don’t.
The belly facts
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There are a few things that can influence why we hold fat around our mid-section. Ranging from genetics, diet, hormones and gender, I’ll tackle these one by one. First the facts.
• Visible abs are not simply a result of crunches, planks or v-sits but more the overall percentage of body fat you have.
• Visible abs are not an indicator of core strength, there are many larger athletes with exceptionally high core strength.
• There’s a minimum level of fat needed to support your metabolic processes, if you get too lean to see your six pack, your body may stop functioning at a basic level thus digestion and menstruation become compromised.
• ‘Visceral fat’ around the vital organs is a growing public health concern. So while belly fat is obvious on ‘apple’ shaped people, visible abs can be a red herring as to the metabolic health status of a person.
• People with metabolic syndrome typically have apple-shaped bodies and carry a lot of weight around the middle. It’s thought that having a pear-shaped body, narrower waist and wider hips, lowers the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and other complications of metabolic syndrome.
• There are three layers of abdominal muscles. The superficial rectus abdominis (your visible six pack) is just one. The deeper core muscles, transversus abdominis, obliques, diaphragm and pelvic floor, work to stabilize the spine, improve mobility, breathing, and posture.
• If you’ve lost a lot of weight, you may have loose skin preventing you from seeing definition on your stomach. You can still build your abs, though excess skin cannot generally be tightened through diet and exercise.
Key factors influencing belly fat
Some people are genetically predisposed to having less belly fat because they’re a naturally lean body type. There are three body types; ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs.
Typical ectomorphs are long and lean, mesomorphs classically athletic and endomorphs smaller and wider.
Where your body first stores fat tends to be the last place it’s lost.
Your body type, fat percentage, strength and flexibility is somewhat inherited and there’s an element of working with what you’ve got to maximise outcomes, set realistic goals and expectations for yourself.
Understanding your genetic start point and how your body naturally responds to diet and exercise can go a long way to supporting your health and fitness goals.
Nutrition is the foundation for any health and fitness outcome. You cannot out train a poor diet. As a general rule, 70% of your result whatever your goal tends to come from the foods you eat, 20% from exercise and 10% from rest and recovery.
Good nutrition supports hormonal balance and a healthy digestive system, both of which are required to reduce belly fat.
Inflammation of the gut and poor digestion can often make you appear bloated around the middle.
To address this, start by reducing or completely removing refined sugar and processed foods. Be mindful of your alcohol consumption; choose whole fresh organic produce where possible.
Many processed foods have no nutritional value, contain additives and are linked to obesity. Increasing the amount of fibre in your diet will support digestion, as will staying hydrated by drinking at least 2 litres of water throughout the day.
Hormones are chemical messengers that carry signals around the body. These signals are often determined by the food you eat and emotional balance you maintain. Insulin resistance is a hormonal imbalance and often the cause of belly fat.
When we eat, our blood sugar levels spike and a hormone called insulin is released to help manage this.
If this happens too often and drastically, our body stops responding to the insulin and becomes ‘insulin resistant’ a consequence of which are cravings and excess body fat, particularly around the belly. Insulin resistance is a precursor to metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
Prolonged stress can elevate levels of the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol, leading to fatigue and belly fat.
It’s also thought that increased exposure to cortisol is associated with more belly fat in women.
Managing your blood sugar levels with nutritional therapy and mood enhancing foods, alongside stress reduction techniques like deep mindful breathing, can help to rebalance hormones and improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Men and women metabolise and store fat differently.
Women have a naturally higher percentage of overall body fat specifically in the hips, butt, and legs, whereas men tend to gain weight in the upper body.
Women’s bodies can change after having children, the abdominal wall may become weaker and there could be loose skin around the tummy reducing the likelihood of seeing a six pack.
As a result, it’s important to use both resistance training to build muscle and high intensity interval training (HIIT) to burn fat.
Training methods like CrossFit incorporate HIIT and resistance training, creating an ‘after burn’ effect, boosting your metabolism as your body continues to burn calories post workout.
The truth about belly fat is…
There are many reasons, some beyond your control, as to why you either struggle with developing a six pack or find it easy. Lifestyle and consistency are major factors.
So ensure you get enough sleep, incorporate resistance training into your workouts, limit processed foods, manage stress and be mindful of your alcohol consumption.
You can build your abs like any part of the body. However to see them, you have to lose the fat obscuring them. Fat cannot be lost from specific areas via ‘spot reduction’, it’s all or nothing.
To lose excess body fat, you must move more and eat smarter. And if you work towards strength and health as primary goals, ‘the beach body’ including washboard abs may be the bi-product.
Connect with Expert Sophia Smith