You’re working hard to get flat abs and you’ve noticed your abdominal muscles look more defined as you’ve strengthened the muscles and shed body fat. Still, you notice your abs aren’t as flat as you’d like based on your weight and body fat percentage. In fact, you notice an abdominal bulge that you just can’t seem to get rid of. Persistent fullness or a “pooch” in the lower abs and it’s not always due to belly fat. Here are surprising reasons why your tummy isn’t flat.
Lumbar hyperlordosis is a relatively common problem where the lower back curves inward more than it should. This causes the lower abdominal region to protrude forward. How do you know if you have this problem? Stand with your back against a wall so your shoulders, buttocks, and heels are touching it. Have someone slide their hand into the space between the wall and your lower back. They should only be able to slide part of their hand into the space, up to the knuckles. If they can slide their entire hand or arm, you have more curvature than you should.
What causes it? Usually, weak abdominal muscles or tight hip flexors. There are some anatomical reasons like having one leg that’s shorter than the other, but in most cases, tight hip flexors due to poor posture and sitting in front of a computer too much is the culprit. When you sit too long, your hip flexors shorten and pull your pelvis forward creating unnatural curvature in your lower back. Lifting improperly can also aggravate lumbar hyperlordosis.
How can you improve this problem? Make sure you’re using good form when you lift, especially when you do squats. No arching your back. Then, begin doing exercises to stretch your hip flexors, spine and hamstrings daily. There are some good ones you can do with a bosu ball. Here’s an example. Stand in front of a bosu ball, bend over while keeping your knees as straight as possible. Place your hands flat on the rounded surface of the ball. Gently push down on the surface of the ball to stretch out the muscles in your spine. There are a number of other exercises you can do to stretch your hip flexors and improve a protruding tummy. The key is to be consistent. Lumbar hyperlordosis also puts you at greater risk for lower back pain. So start stretching those hip flexors.
If you’ve been pregnant and can’t seem to get rid of that abdominal bulge, you may have a common problem called diastasis recti. This simply means the paired rectus abdominus muscle that runs vertically down each side of your abdomen has separated in the middle due to stretching of your abdominal muscles during pregnancy.
How do you know if you have it? Lie flat on a mat with your knees bent. Place your hands in the middle of your abdomen near your navel as you do a crunch. If you feel a separation that’s more than three fingers wide, you probably diastasis recti.
Ordinary abdominal exercises won’t help this problem and, in some cases, can make the problem worse. To help this condition, you can try to strengthen your deepest abdominal muscle called the transverse abdominus. If you suspect you have diastasis recti, look for a trainer who specializes in this problem to guide you through focused exercises for this problem and make sure you’re doing them properly. Still, many feel that results are questionable with any method of exercise for this condition and you may need to seek the advice of a medical specialist.
The “pooch” in your belly may also be abdominal distension due to food intolerance. Some people develop gas and distension when they eat certain foods, especially raw vegetables and beans. In addition, some sugars are difficult to digest. One of the most common examples is lactose, the primary sugar in dairy products. As adults, a significant number of people lose their ability to break down lactose. This causes abdominal bloating and distension, cramping and diarrhea. Some people also have problems breaking down fructose, commonly found in fruit and some vegetables.
High-fiber grains and wheat can also be challenging to digest and lead to bloating and abdominal distension if you eat them in large quantities. Abdominal bloating can also be a symptom of gluten-intolerance or gluten sensitivity. If you notice your tummy is flat when you wake up in the morning and gradually expands during the day, you may have a food intolerance. The best way to find out is to do an elimination diet, eliminating suspicious foods for two weeks to see if your symptoms improve. That abdominal pooch may not be fat at all – it could be gaseous distension because you’re not completely digesting certain foods.
Some nervous people unconsciously swallow air, a condition called aerophagia. This can lead to abdominal distension. It’s not uncommon to swallow air during an intense workout. A cardinal sign of this is feeling the urge to burp during or after exercise.
Just as lumbar hyperlordosis can create a tummy “bulge” – so can poor posture. Strengthen your core muscles and be more aware of your posture when you’re standing and sitting. It may be helpful to replace your chair with a stability ball to engage your core muscles and increase awareness of how you’re sitting. Stand in front of a mirror and take note of your posture. Everything should be in one straight line. Does standing straight eliminate that tummy pooch? If so, you have your answer – work on your posture.
Some medical problems like irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease and gynecological issues like fibroid tumors of the uterus can cause a tummy bulge. Ovarian cancer can too. If you have persistent tummy distension or a bulge, especially one that’s hard or is associated with other symptoms, see your doctor.
The Bottom Line?
Abdominal pooches aren’t always due to excess body fat. Keep these other conditions in mind if you can’t seem to get rid of your tummy.
Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy Volume 29, No. 1, Spring, 2005.
Medscape. “Approach to the IBS Patient With Significant Persistent Abdominal Distension?”