Probably the most difficult parts of the body to change, especially for women, are the hips and midsection. More specifically, the glutes and the lower abs from the belly button down, otherwise referred to as “the pooch.”
I wish to shed some light on what is getting in the way of progress and what can be done about it.
Let’s start with the lower abs, that area that just won’t go away regardless of what you eat or how many crunches you do.
There are two primary components at work, dysfunctional body mechanics and / or hidden internal stressors.
1) Dysfunctional Body Mechanics:
If you have had children, abdominal surgery or a trauma to the abdominal or lumbar region it is very likely that you have this condition. Even if you were able to remove all the subcutaneous fat lying on top of the abdominal muscles the pooch will still stick out. What has taken place is that you have essentially “disconnected” your abdominal wall from your brain.
I know what your thinking. “What is he talking about?”
The muscles literally “go to sleep,” the brain “forgets” how to use them. The result is compensation by other muscles being called into action. This “amnesia” is very common when abdominal surgeries are performed.
While you have one abdominal wall, the muscles are broken down into two sets based upon function. The first is called the Inner Unit and consists of the diaphragm (the top), pelvic floor (the bottom), transverse abdominus (the front and sides), and multifidus (the back).
- Stabilize the Spine (resist compression, torsion and shearing)
- Stabilize the Sacroiliac (SI) joint
- Stabilize the Pelvis
- Prop up and stabilize the Rib Cage to the Pelvis
Remember back to when you were pregnant (if you are a male, or have not been pregnant…ask someone who has experienced this), when your entire body felt as if it were being pulled forward and you had to lean back and “waddle” to get around? This was partially because of an altered center of gravity due to the weight of the baby pulling you forward. The other part was the Inner Unit shutting down due to the chronic stretch placed upon the muscles.
Months, even years later, the body is still “programmed” to operate like it did when it was pregnant, not hormonally, but mechanically.
The Inner Unit has shut down and the rest of the body is compensating. This is also a significant reason a women’s glutes will often flatten after having kids (we will discuss this phenomena soon).
It does not matter what traditional abdominal exercises you do, crunches, planks, hanging knee lifts etc., they will not get rid of the pooch. The pooch is because of a lack of Inner Unit function.
All the traditional abdominal exercises primarily involve your Outer Unit. The Outer Unit consists of those muscles visible from the outside, such as the “six-pack” rectus abdominus and obliques. The purpose of the Outer Unit is to provide gross stabilization under heavy loads to assist the Inner Unit, but mostly it initiates movement from your center.
Why doesn’t the Inner Unit respond to traditional exercises? The Outer Unit requires a conscious contraction of the abdominal muscles, flexing, tightening, engaging them, etc. The key point is you are willing them to contract.
The Inner Unit on the other hand is not primarily driven by conscious thought, rather it is more reflexive in nature. Remember, the Inner Unit’s primary role is stabilization of the spine and related joints. For this stabilization to be effective it has to occur before forces are applied to the body. It should be a subconscious program that the neuro-muscular system applies milliseconds before your body moves. Dysfunction within this process is why someone may injure their back merely bending over to pick up a newspaper or turning suddenly.
What Can You Do?
Learn how to diaphragmatically breathe again: An inability to engage the diaphragm has a significant negative affect on function as it literally forms the lid or top of the Inner Unit.
During the third trimester, any women who was pregnant can recall having a difficult time taking deep breaths. The diaphragm cannot fully expand as the baby is taking up so much room between the pelvis and ribcage. The result is an inability to fully open up and use your lung capacity.
The body will compensate and begin using its accessory breathing muscles; the intercostal and the scalene muscles. Your breathing is then initiated from the upper chest, shoulders and neck. While it works, it is inefficient long-term and rather stressful to the body often resulting in shoulder and neck pain.
A simple way, and there are many, to retrain your breathing is to lie on your back, with your knees bent (supported with a pillow) and your hands on your stomach. Breathe in and out through your nose. As you breathe in, focus on making your stomach rise up. As you exhale, let your stomach drop. When you can breathe diaphragmatically lying on the floor, practice it sitting, standing, walking and while working.
Engage and train your Inner Unit: Your Inner Unit is designed to function subconsciously or reflexively. Traditional exercises will not work. An assessment of Inner Unit function is strongly encouraged especially if you have any lower back complaints. Your Inner Unit should be able to function without altering your ability to diaphragmatically breathe.
2. Reduce Stressors: I have discussed this topic before and it should and will be mentioned again being it is so relevant. If you have had a proper functional core assessment and executed appropriate exercises and still have not been able to resolve the pooch issue, then the you need to dig deeper and investigate hidden internal stressors.
Hormonal Imbalances are very common today and a sure sign that chronic stressors have taken hold and are wreaking havoc. What follows is a breakdown of common hormones that get disrupted:
Cortisol: Cortisol is most associated with the “fight or flight” stress response and the body’s first line of defense against stress. Cortisol mobilizes blood sugar for quick energy. The more cortisol produced, the more blood sugar released to energize the muscles so that they can respond physically to the stressor. Chest breathing is a source of chronic stress that triggers the stress response.
When blood sugar is elevated and not burned off as energy insulin is released to take the excess blood sugar and store it away….as fat. This is very counterproductive and happens often as most stressors are not physical in origin.
The stress response also diverts blood flow from the abdominal cavity to the extremities so you can fight or flee, this response is hardwired. A decrease in abdominal blood flow slows down the digestive process. Undigested food stuff will ferment, go rancid or putrefy which will create inflammation and bloating. The bloating or distention can place pressure on the nerves that run through the abdominal region. Many of these nerves also innervate the Inner Unit muscles. When you compress a nerve the signals traveling that pathway get compromised. This often results in a decrease in muscle function which destabilizes the lumbar spine and pelvis.
Insulin: Insulin is the hormone that takes excess blood sugar and stores it as fat. Long term elevated insulin levels lead to insulin resistance which also leads to fat storage.
Testosterone: While often thought of as a male hormone, both sexes require testosterone, just in lesser amounts for women. Elevated testosterone levels in women can contribute to fat storage.
Estrogen/Progesterone: While present in both sexes, women require higher amounts. There is a fine balance required between both hormones. When out of balance they can contribute to the storage of excess fats.
Maintaining hormonal balance is even more difficult today because modern society has introduced many artificial compounds such as BPA which are estrogen mimicking. With women so tied to the menstrual cycle, altered levels of these two hormones can have a significant impact upon your health and wellbeing.
*Controlling or altering hormones is serious. The best results, the optimal results, require functional testing, involving saliva, to learn the exact amounts and ratios of hormones. As a Certified FDN® Practitioner, I have access to such labs and have the training to interpret the results and plan an appropriate protocol.
You may now be thinking, “Why would my hormones be out of balance?”
That is an incredibly perceptive question to ask. The simplest response is because of chronic elevated levels of stress. More specific, because of Adrenal Fatigue.
Adrenal Fatigue: Your first line of defense against stress is your Adrenals. There is a delicate balance between Cortisol and Didehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. Your Adrenals produce Cortisol and DHEA. When forced to respond to elevated levels of stress over time, the Adrenals will begin to fatigue and the result will be altered Cortisol:DHEA levels. As you can see from the image below, altered levels of sex hormones is just one aspect of the body that is impacted negatively by chronic stress.
Stressors are commonly Physical, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual, Nutritional, Environmental and Chemical in origin. Your body does not care the source or the intent of a stressor. Your body is preprogrammed to resolve the stressor to the best of its ability.
In a manner of speaking, the health and function of your Adrenals is a window into the overall health and function of your body. As the Adrenals fatigue, they create a cascading effect on other glands, organs and systems in the body such as the Digestive, Detoxification and Immune systems.
Dysfunction within these systems create internal stress with further overwhelms the Adrenals. It becomes a downward spiral if there is no intervention. Luckily, all these systems can be tested functionally so the cycle can be not only stopped, but reversed.
The DRESS for Health Success® Lifestyle Program I offer is designed to maximize your body’s innate ability to heal by taking advantage of healing opportunities.
Last Thoughts: Even if you are doing all the best exercises, if you are stressed out, and your Adrenals / Hormones are out of balance the results will be limited and temporary at best. Don’t train harder and longer, train smarter and investigate the other half of the equation…the hidden internal stressors
In the next post we are going to look at the hips (glutes).
*If you have any questions regarding this information, don’t hesitate to contact me for a consultation.