There is probably more written about the abdominal region than any other part of the body (with the butt close behind). Even so, people still seem to be confused and have lots of questions. Here are a few that I hear most frequently:
One: "Is there an exercise that will help flatten the lower part of my abs?"
First, you have to determine whether your flabbiness is fat or flaccid muscle. If you pinch the area and there's more than one-fourth of an inch (excluding loose skin), it's probably fat. If it's fat, that's normal. In most people, fat does indeed seem to accumulate from the naval area on down; that's just genetics and physiology. But remember that there's really no such thing as spot reducing. Fat doesn't belong to the muscle it's near; it belongs to the entire body. To burn fat anywhere, you must expend more calories than you consume by exercising and eating well.
If it's lack of muscle tone causing the bulging, there are a number of exercises to tone your rectus abdominus, which is the large muscle that attaches your rib cage to your pelvis. Most people work their abs by doing crunches--an exercise in which the lower body is kept immobile as you lift your shoulders off the floor. But as Jerry Robinson, founder of the company Health for Life and author of "Legendary Abs III" (Health for Life, 1995), points out, it is possible to increase the focus on the lower portion of the abdominals. This requires exercises in which you stabilize the rib cage and movement is concentrated at the pelvis. So if your major problem is located below the navel, try a reverse curl. While lying on your back, lift your hips off the floor by contracting your abs as you bring your knees to your chest.
I also have to add that lower abdominal bulging, especially in women, may be caused by other factors, including constipation, bloating and fluid retention. Then there's also loose skin caused by pregnancy, or extreme weight loss and gain.
Two: "I've read articles saying that working the abs without losing weight is useless, that instead of flattening the stomach it can create a permanent pouch. Is this true?"
Toning your abs requires a two-pronged approach: Lose the fat and tone the muscle. You need to do both at the same time.
That said, let me explain how the myth got started: As people who are not in shape start doing crunches, they will inevitably build some abdominal muscle. So with the slight increase in size, their abs can appear a little poochier at first. But as they continue to lose the fat and develop some muscle tone throughout the body, they will develop the overall look they're after.
Three: "How often should I work out my abs?"
The general rule for working a muscle is to rest it for at least 48 hours before working it again. But with most muscles, you're working out by using external weights to overload the muscles. With abs, however, you're typically doing lots of reps with not a lot of resistance, so less recovery time is needed. Does that mean you can or should work your abs every day? Myself, I've found that working the abs seven days a week builds them no better or faster than working them three to four times a week.
Four: "My abs are driving me nuts. I work out five days a week for 50 minutes on the treadmill, and I eat well. But still, I can't seem to get my stomach in shape. What should I do?"
People who eat and exercise well but can't seem to burn that last little area of fat may be able to get the results they want by really pushing themselves during at least one of their workouts per week. Why? Because when a body gets used to a certain level of exertion, it doesn't require as much energy and therefore doesn't burn as much fat. A weekly workout in which you really push the limit by working harder than you normally would sends the body hungrily in search of fat to burn.
Then too, I've found that people who do only cardio exercise and haven't discovered the magic of weight training often have trouble getting the body they want. Weight training is the key. Not only does it sculpt your body, but it also cranks up your metabolism, so that even at rest your body is consuming more calories than it otherwise would. It's this that can make the final difference.
Five: "Are any of these home ab devices helpful?"
The biggest problem I've seen with these devices is the one-size-fits-all mentality. While they fit some people, they may not fit you properly.
The Ab Roller-type devices are great for people who need the neck support. You can get the same support, however, using a beach towel. Lie halfway down it and pull yourself up by gathering the top corners together.
In my experience, these devices are most useful if they inspire you to actually exercise. That, after all, is the key.
Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her new video, "Kickboxing Workout." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.