Abdominal Doming and Lower Belly Pooching
The Secret to Flat Abs
Having flat abs is one of those aesthetic signs that you've been hitting the gym and watching your macros (probably more on the macros side), but as a physical therapist, I'd like to dive into this topic and go deeper than aesthetics.
I've had enough patients that "have met aesthetic goals" but are in loads of pain that I think it's a topic worth talking about. Their neck and back pain and sometimes twisted pelvis are being caused by their abdominals or more likely their approach to strengthening their abdominals. There is a wrong way to go about this aesthetics goal that just creates more imbalances.
Why waste your time trying to be fit if you can't also enjoy it by feeling great in the process?! More neck tightness and pain does not equal life happiness!
I want you to have amazing looking abs AND a strong healthy back AND hips that feel incredible.
Abdominal Muscle Anatomy
To understand abdominal exercises and picking the right approach for you, it's important to understand the physiology of abdominal muscles. Let's start deep and work our way to the surface.
Transverse Abdominals (TAs or TVAs) are the deepest layer of abdominal muscles. They connect into a sheet of fascia in the front that goes under your rectus muscle. This fascial layer has the ability to glide separately from your rectus (6 pack muscle).
Internal Obliques (IOs) are the next layer up and they run diagonally on the sides. The IOs split and form part of the fascial layer below the rectus and part above it. They truly sandwich the rectus muscle.
External Obliques (EOs) are the most superficial layer (closest to the surface) and they run diagonally on the sides like putting your hands in your pockets, opposite of the IOs. The EOs attach to fascia that runs over the rectus muscle. This top layer of fascia is very interconnected with the rectus unlike the bottom layer of fascia that can glide.
Rectus Abdominis (RA) is the muscle we think of as being the 6 pack muscle. It's often the muscle most targeted by traditional abdominal work (think front planks, crunches and situps). The issue is that this muscle must stay in balance with the ones on the sides and to make it even harder, the side muscles must all show up equally as well.
To simplify, the TAs and IOs are more of your stability system and the EOs and RAs more of your moving system. If we're all movement and no stability, the body gets cranky. Likewise, if we're all stability and no movement, that too can create tightness, aches, and pains.
So, yes, there is such a thing as too much TAs. I know, crazy right! Everything must be in balance, even our deep stability system. Patients I've seen with too much TAs tend to have very tight QLs. The QLs (quadratus lumborum) are broad flat muscles that make up your low back. So, if you feel like the sides of your back always feel tight, you might have an abdominal imbalance. To get the QLs to let go, you'll need more EOs. ?
Alright, let's break down a crunch and look at why doing it wrong will make your stomach bigger and doing it right will make your abs flatter. I probably should have led with that statement...
What is abdominal doming?
Abdominal doming is when your rectus abdominis muscle (think 6 pack that runs up the middle) becomes dominant over your other ab muscles. When you pick up your head, your rectus pops up and we don't see support from anyone else (keep reading to check out the video where I demo this!).
Your transverse abdominals, internal and external obliques should kick in when you lift your head. When they do, your abs flatten. If they don't, then your abs dome or stick out. This is often associated with a diastasis recti and/or hernia. If you have this pattern, the more ab work you do, the more your abs will bulge.
The body is meant to work together and when it doesn't things go very wrong. I also often see a dominant rectus go hand in hand with a pooching belly, tight hip flexors, back pain and tightness and hip pain. It's truly a sign that your deep inner core, a.k.a. your support system, isn't doing its job, which makes a lot of other parts angry for having to pick up the slack.
Let's look at how this works.
Dominant Rectus with Doming During Crunch
Balanced Abs with TAs, Obliques and Rectus Contracting to Lift Head
We need a balanced core system
Now, we've looked at having a rectus dominant pattern with not enough lateral (side) abs. What happens if we have too much TA and IO and not enough RA and EO? So, too much stability and not enough movement. This often creates a much wider diastasis recti situation, but will often feel pretty darn good on the pelvic floor.
Likewise, if someone is in more of a RA dominant pattern or EO dominant pattern, they usually have a narrower diastasis but more pelvic floor issues. (Or they at least have to deal with more pressure down on the PF since the EOs create a tremendous amount of pressure. They have to move us after all. Movement generation creates force and pressure.)
Upper vs lower abs
I want to dive into one more area before we go and that's upper versus lower abs.
Yes!!!!! You can work and target lower abs. Check out this short video for instructions on how to get more lower abs during your workout. This is really great for helping with neck and chest tightness as well since the habit of upper ab gripping can really cause a lot of pain.
So, as you can see, diving into abdominal balance is so much fun!!! (I'm sure that's exactly what you were thinking. LOL) But, in all seriousness, if you're experiencing pressure or heaviness down on your pelvic floor, feel like your ribcage is really wide, want to improve your diastasis or simply want to work on aesthetics without feeling neck and back tightness, then it's worth looking into being a little more specific with your abdominal training program. You'll get better results with less work if you know exactly where to focus your efforts!
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