I consider myself to have a fairly strong core. Yet when I sit down, I still have belly fat showing. I wish I could say that I was completely above such matters as body image but it’s still a work in progress for me. And so it seems for today’s society as well. People are ashamed of their bellies hanging out. It’s the flat stomach that gets all the love. But this has some serious implications.
PICTURE A BALLOON
Picture a balloon filled with liquid. If you squeeze it with both hands, it will change shape but not volume. In other words, the water has to go somewhere, you can’t compress it. This is the way your abdominal cavity works because it mostly consists of liquid. It means that if you squeeze in one place, it will “spill” over to another place.
On the other hand, your chest cavity is filled mostly with air that can be compressed. You can try this by wrapping your hands around the lower ribs. As you inhale, the ribs open out making space for the air. Now if you relax everything, the chest automatically recoils/compresses into its starting position.
YOUR DIAPHRAGM WANTS TO MOVE
Considering the above, now picture the movement of your diaphragm when you breathe. It sits at the bottom of your chest separating the chest cavity from the abdomen. At rest, it’s roughly dome-shaped. Not quite as symmetrical as the picture below but you get the idea. As you breathe in, it flattens pushing down against the contents of your belly. This is a very natural and most biomechanically sound way of breathing that has many benefits (which I will talk about another time).
ENGAGING THE CORE
Now imagine you walk around all day with your stomach squeezed in. What’s the poor diaphragm to do? It doesn’t have anywhere to go! Just try it. Suck your stomach in and try to breathe into your belly. Impossible. The breath has to go up into your chest.
SHOULD YOU JUST STOP DOING IT?
Does this mean you should never engage your core? Not quite. Your abdominal muscles actually naturally switch on when you exhale. So I’m not saying you should never use them. But your core should be responsive, not rigid. If you walk around all day with your belly squeezed in or do a yoga or pilates class gripping your core for an hour, sooner or later this will create problems.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
So what’s the solution? Relax the belly on the inhale making space for the diaphragm to move the way it’s evolved to do. Engage your core but maintain some movement around the belly even in shapes that require more core engagement for stability (for example plank).
And if you’re self-conscious about your stomach hanging out, place your hands on the place that you perceive as visually undesirable and consciously give it some love. It’s alright. We all have fat on our bellies.