Are your abs not as flat or defined as you’d like, despite eating healthy and exercising? You might assume there’s something missing from your training or your diet. Maybe you have too much belly fat covering your muscles. But that’s not the only reason your abs don’t look firm and flat. If you have a low body fat percentage and you’re training hard, your ab “flab” could be due to other causes. Let’s look at a few of the causes that people often overlook.
Tight Hip Flexors
If your abs stick out when you stand, tight hip flexors rather than abdominal fat may be the culprit. If your hip flexors are too tight, it draws your abdominals forward, so it looks like you have a tummy bulge.
Why might your hip flexors be too tight? For most people, the problem is sitting too much. Sitting causes your hip flexors to shorten and the opposing muscles, the glutes, and hamstring, to relax. The muscle imbalance shifts your pelvis forward, causing your abs to stick out. The medical term for this is lordosis.
To correct lordosis, add hip flexor stretches to your routine and strengthen the opposing muscles, your hamstrings, and glutes. It’s a tried-and-true formula for a healthier posture and less tummy bulge. In fact, a study found that exercises that strengthen glutes, hamstrings, and abs help shift the pelvis back into alignment. Kneeling hip flexor stretches is an effective way to loosen up tight hip flexors and you can do this stretch at home or even at the office.
A belly bulge that doesn’t respond to diet and exercise could be diastasis recti, a common condition in women after giving birth. Diastasis recti is caused by the weakening of the connective tissue that separates the two muscles in the front of the abdomen, the rectus abdominis muscles. The connective tissue weakens as the growing fetus grows inside the mother’s womb.
Women who have had multiple pregnancies or gave birth to large babies are most at risk. A less common cause of diastasis recti is lifting something heavy using incorrect lifting techniques. Most women who develop this condition are in their 40s or older.
How do you know if you have diastasis recti?
- Lie on your back on a mat with your legs bent.
- Raise your shoulders off the floor and place your hand between your ab muscles just below your navel.
- If you feel a gap equivalent to the length of two fingers or greater, it’s likely diastasis recti.
It’s best to confirm the diagnosis by seeing a healthcare professional. There are specific exercises you can do that may help, but avoid doing abdominal crunches, sit-ups, or other exercises that place pressure on your ab muscles.
Also, avoid lifting heavy items. If conservative therapy isn’t effective, a surgery called an abdominoplasty can help. With this procedure, the surgeon sews together and tightens the separated area.
Bloating or Water Retention
A tummy that sticks out may not be body fat but bloating. One of the most common causes of bloating is consuming fiber-rich foods. However, these foods have a variety of health benefits too, so you don’t want to give them up completely. Instead, add them to your diet slowly, so your gut adapts to an onslaught of fiber. Gradual changes work best. Rather than doubling your fiber intake overnight, add one additional fiber-rich foods to your diet each week.
Certain fiber-rich foods are more likely to cause bloating than others. The worst offenders are beans, cruciferous vegetables, and for some people, foods that contain wheat. Some fruits, including apples, prunes, peaches, and pears, can increase flatulence and bloating too. One way to reduce gas when you eat beans is to soak them overnight and eliminate the water they soaked in before cooking them.
If you’re sensitive to certain foods or your body lacks the ability to digest those foods, it can trigger bloating and abdominal distension. The most common food sensitivity in adults is lactose intolerance. Babies have an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a carbohydrate in milk. With age, levels of this enzyme go down, sometimes to the point you can’t break down lactose, a condition called lactose intolerance. Bacteria ferment the undigested lactose and you develop bloating abdominal distension or diarrhea. Many adults have some degree of lactose intolerance and need to minimize dairy to avoid symptoms.
Another problem that triggers bloating is swallowing too much air. The way to reduce air swallowing is to avoid chewing gum, carbonated beverages, and talking while eating a meal. Slow down the pace of your meals to reduce air swallowing too. Learn how to better manage stress too. Anxiety can cause gulping and air swallowing.
Make sure you’re drinking enough water too. It seems counterintuitive, but not drinking enough water can cause you to retain more water. Also, reduce your salt intake and consume more potassium-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables to counter your body’s tendency to hold on to water.
The Bottom Line
Not all abdominal flab and tummy bulges are due to weight gain or belly fat. If you can’t pinch fat between your fingers, the problem is more likely due to bloating, water retention, lumbar lordosis, or diastasis recti.
Also, if you have bloating that persists, see your physician for a full evaluation. Bloating and abdominal fullness can sometimes be a sign of ovarian cancer. If you get bloating after meals, look at the composition or your diet.
Keep a food journal and see if specific foods trigger the symptoms. If so, try eliminating those foods and see if your abs look flatter. Whatever you do, keep exercising and eating a healthy diet of whole, nutrient-dense foods!
- “Abdominal Separation (Diastasis Recti)”
- Medical News Today. “How Much Fiber is Too Much?”
- com. “Bloating 101: Why You Feel Bloated”
- J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Feb; 27(2): 383–386. Published online 2015 Feb 17. doi: 10.1589/jpts.27.383