This is without a doubt the most frequently asked question I get as a personal trainer – probably because there’s so much information, and mis-information, available nowadays about this subject. Call it the midsection, core, belly, muffin top, spare tire, or something else – we all have one and we all struggle with getting, and keeping, it looking the way we want.
First, let’s talk about the “core.” It’s technically a collection of muscles that spans from the glutes to the rib cage – front, back and sides. These include the rectus abdominus (what makes the “six-pack”) and transverse abdominus in the front, the groups of obliques on the sides, the hip flexor complex, the glutes complex, and the smaller muscles of the low back. The muscles of the core serve an important purpose: to support and move the spine. This is why core strengthening and mobility are so important. When the core is weak, a host of other problems up and down the chain ensue.
Now, let’s talk about fat. The body contains three types:
Triglycerides: These are fat cells that circulate in the bloodstream. They comprise about 95% of all fat in the body and have many functions.
Subcutaneous fat: The layer of fat directly below the skin’s surface, such as between the skin and the abdominal wall, or the dreaded cellulite in the thighs and upper arms.
Visceral fat: This is what we usually think of as “belly” fat. It’s located deep within the belly, below the stomach muscles and close to the internal organs.
Why do we store excess visceral fat?
There are many reasons why humans store excess body fat. Here are three of the most common ones:
Inactivity and excess caloric intake
As a society, we’re becoming more and more sedentary with rates of overweight and obesity at epidemic proportions. Technology, desk jobs, urban sprawl, and the prevalence of highly palatable, inexpensive, high calorie foods are just some of the contributing factors. When we consume more energy (in the form of calories) than we expend, the extra energy is stored as body fat. [Read: Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The Debate is Finally Over.]
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It’s produced by the fight-or-flight response to perceived threats, most of which nowadays are more imagined than real. Interestingly, other things that we don’t necessarily think of as “stressful” actually place the body into stress mode and generate cortisol production: too much high intensity cardio exercise, and extremely low calorie diets. A steady stream of cortisol, which can’t be used by the body for fight-or-flight, winds up stored as body fat. [Read: More About Cortisol, the Stress Hormone]
This condition affects an estimated one-third of Americans. It causes the body to store food as fat instead of using it for energy. Starches and simple sugars are the biggest problem, and even very active people can have it.
Metabolic syndrome is linked with a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin, a hormone, moves glucose (sugar) into the cells to generate energy. With insulin resistance, however, it can’t do its job – so excess glucose remains in the bloodstream instead of getting into cells to be used for energy. This excess glucose winds up stored as fat.
Eliminating belly fat – what doesn’t work, and what does
It seems everyone has some magical prescription for reducing belly fat – whether it’s a pill, potion, special food diet, or exercise routine. One thing is for certain – there is no magic solution. Instead, here are some proven, commonsense ways to achieve a slimmer midsection:
Do: Stand more and sit less. When we sit, the core muscles are not engaged or active. Standing, however, activates the core just to keep the body upright. Find ways to incorporate less sitting and more standing into your daily activities.
Do: Eat fewer empty carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Replace them with more fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats and whole grains. Check the sugar content on processed foods you eat regularly. You’ll be amazed how much added sugar is in so many of the foods we eat, from supposedly “healthy” breakfast cereals to spaghetti sauce. It doesn’t really matter what type of sugar (thinking of the high fructose corn syrup scare from a few years ago). [Read: How to Get Your Eating Back on Track]
Do: Exercise the right way.
- Forget about crunches: these are the least effective form of core exercise.
- Whenever possible, avoid using weight machines for strength training. Instead, use dumbbells, stretch cords/bands, barbells, or just body weight. Most weight machines involve sitting, so there’s no core engagement involved. When you must hold your body upright and lift the weight, your core is constantly active. [Read: The Myth of Weight Machines]
- Recognize that you cannot “spot reduce” fat from specific areas of the body through targeted exercises. Working your abs for 4 hours a day, seven days a week will give you very strong (and larger) ab muscles, but they’ll reside underneath that layer of fat.
Instead, develop a regular weekly exercise program that incorporates full-body strength training two to three times per week, and moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Short bursts of higher-intensity intervals, with plenty of recovery in between, can also increase calorie-burning without over-stressing the system. Build these into your strength training or cardio sessions to add variety to your workouts.
One final word…
It’s important to emphasize that physical appearance is not nearly as important as having a strong, healthy body. Excess visceral fat can lead to serious health risks. A strong (not necessarily flat) core is foundational to wellbeing, providing balance, good posture, and elimination of aches and pains up and down the kinetic chain from the neck to the knees.
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, she specializes in helping people in mid-life and beyond to become stronger, fitter, and lead healthy and active lives. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.