I’m puzzled. Why is it that some of my clients have a pot-bellied appearance, yet their abdomen is hard not flabby. How do I help my clients with this abdominal distension?
Many women refer to this abdomen distension as a "pooch," whereas men usually express concern about their "pot belly." Regardless of the lay terminology, it is important for the fitness professional to understand the cause of the abdomen distention in order to design a conditioning program that can help the client.
The distended abdomen typically is caused by weakness of the muscles/connective tissues that control visceral position. According to researchers, the muscles that are predominately responsible for this function are referred to as the "inner unit", or more specifically the transversus abdominus, lumbar multifidus, diaphragm and the pelvic floor muscles.
If the deep muscles are weak (inner unit), the superficial muscles must work overtime to maintain body equilibrium. The reason for the feeling of hardness when palpating the area is due to the over-recruitment of the "outer" muscles. The rectus abdominus, external oblique and portions of the internal oblique now must support the sagging viscera, which normally would be supported by the inner unit.
A common misconception with the "pot belly" syndrome is that performing traditional exercises (i.e., crunches, ab bench, sit-ups, etc.) will help this condition. These exercises have not been shown to adequately recruit, strengthen or improve the endurance of the muscles necessary for regaining control of the viscera. Localized and specific exercises that train for control may be critical for improving subtle patterns of muscle recruitment. Motor skill training that targets your clients' imbalance needs to be introduced into their program, in addition to their current methods of ab training.
To explain the function of the inner unit, compare your client’s spine to a multi-segmented pole (see below). The guy ropes balancing the whole pole can be compared to the rectus abdominus, obliques and the erector muscles (outer unit). The deep muscles provide the link and support between the segments. It is of little use to have strong guy ropes if there are weaknesses in the links between the segments. This is analogous to having strong outer abdominal muscles and weak deep abdominal muscles.
Next, we will explore an example of one of the many exercises you can use to help your client. Once the principles are understood, the only limitation is creativity and the functional capacity of the end user.
- Assume 4 point stance
- Take a deep diaphragmatic breathe
- As you exhale, make an "S" sound, and draw your abdomen in as if to pull your belly button closer to your spine
- Do not concentrate on pushing your back flat but rather on lengthening you torso while drawing up and in
- Goal: Train the muscles of the inner unit by performing 10 repetitions of 10 second holds.
IMPORTANT TRAINER TIPS
- The lumbar spine remains in a neutral position!
- The client must be able to breathe normally during the abdominal drawing-in action!
- Maintain specificity of deep muscle action independent of the outer muscles
- The abdominals must be pulled in, not pooched or distended
Strengthening the weakness of the inner unit is only part of the correction process. Imbalances rarely occur in isolation. Recommend your client consult with a trained practitioner in the field of musculoskeletal imbalance.