As a trainer, I get a lot of questions about how to get big arms, toned legs, nice shoulders. The body part I get asked about most, however, is the “lower abs.” Hearing that I’m a trainer, an exerciser will sidle up to me, point to the area right below their belly button, and ask, “What can I do about this?”
There are several misconceptions behind this simple question, so I’ll take them one at a time.
You Can’t Isolate Parts of Muscles
Thanks in large part to the bodybuilding approach to fitness—in which you divide your body into segments, like a butcher’s diagram of a beef steer—many people believe that muscles, and even parts of muscles, can be worked in isolation from one another. So they believe it should be possible to perform an exercise that specifically targets that six-inch square section of flesh below their navels.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Muscles tend to work in groups. Even a simple action like getting up from a chair activates muscles from your neck to your ankles. And forget isolating a part of a muscle. Much like bungee cords, muscles tend to stretch and shorten along their entire lengths.
That’s true of the rectus abdominus, or six-pack muscle, as well. Contract the “lower abs,” whatever those are, and you inevitably contract the entire muscle from its point of origin at the front lower edge of your rib cage to its point of insertion at the front of your pelvis.
There are, of course, effective ways to build a rockin’ six-pack. There’s just no such thing as working your “lower abs.” You either contract your abdominal muscles—all of them—or you don’t.
What most people think of as weakness or lack of tone in the lower abs is more likely just a dollop or two of fat around their waist. In both men and women, the lower belly tends to be an area where even relatively lean people carry some fat. Women’s fitness magazines like to call these areas “trouble spots,” though personally I find it more troubling when people obsess over seeing veins pop out in areas where both the Venus de Milo and Farnese Hercules were smooth.
Just because you can pinch an inch—or two, or seven—around your lower belly doesn’t mean the muscles underneath are weak. Consider this: most football linemen carry a few extra inches of fat around their bellies. Average body fat for these athletes, according to an NCAA Sport Science Institute study, is almost 25 percent.
But the strength and durability of a lineman’s core muscles—which enable him to deal out dozens of bone-crushing, full-body blows in a 60-minute game—is world class. The upshot: carrying some body fat around your middle doesn’t mean your core is weak. And having a strong core doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be lean. Which is a perfect segue into my next point…
You Really, Seriously Can’t Spot-Reduce
Although following strategies for reducing overall body fat can help your abs’ overall appearance, there’s no surefire way to target fat in specific areas. Go for a run and you might burn fat off your face rather than your legs. Rip off 50 pushups and you might burn fat from your thighs rather than your chest.
Trainers have been saying this for decades, but if you need further proof, check out this National Center for Biotechnology Information study showing that exercising the abs, though it does plenty for your core endurance, does little to decrease the fat on top of those muscles.
Where’s the good news in all this? Your entire abdominal musculature—top, middle, sides—will get stronger and more toned when you work them, just like the rest of your muscular system does. Planks, leg lifts, and many other ab-focused moves will all help get your abs where you want them to be. And the fat cells on top of those muscles will shrink with a smarter diet and full-body, sweat-inducing workouts.
So if you’re looking for motivation to recommit to smart diet and good exercise habits, your “lower abs”—or whatever you want to call that area—might be it. Just don’t call it your trouble spot.