How to stop the muffin top

Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo

Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo


As y’all may have noticed, we women tend to store fat in certain areas, one being right around our middles, specifically around the naval. You can likely grab a fold right now, but please don’t (it’s a downer). It’s frustrating to be muscular and lean in much of your body and still have to deal with these stubborn pockets of fat, aptly dubbed “fat puckers” by my extremely fit friend Melinda, who asks:

“I still have slight ripples on my stomach even after I have worked out 5 months, 5 days a week.  What is with that?”

The Short Answer:
Localized fat, easily attracted to certain areas (waist, abdomen, hips, back of arms), is also loath to leave. Unfortunately, these obnoxious “fat puckers” cannot be selectively targeted for removal by exercising them off. So even if you’re working out 5 days a week—getting on the elliptical or treadmill and crunching and planking till you drop, you will lose fat from all over your body—typically in reverse order: first in, last out.  Hello stubborn pockets.

The Science Behind It:
Fat storage patterns reflect our genes (primarily), our history—e.g., how we grew up—and how our metabolism works. We store fat where we are genetically predisposed to deposit it, and we add to stores through what we eat and how our bodies use it. Once created, fat cells never go away. Diet and exercise may shrink them, but they are always there, lying in wait to plump up again. Exercising cannot directly target certain areas for fat reduction because the body’s metabolic machinery controls what fat gets used, as well as when and how.

text-boxWhat To Do:
What we can do is retool our metabolism to make it work better for us.  We can burn fat through cardio exercise and active living; and we can alter body composition and influence where fat is stored through better nutrition AND strength, or resistance training. So—

Eat healthily.  A healthy diet can certainly help prevent fat storage. Quick tips:

  • Avoid added sugar. Choose foods like whole grains, vegetables, good fats, and fruit. Whole fruits are high in fiber (important) and contain small enough amounts of fructose (a simple sugar) that our bodies can burn it for energy instead of storing it as fat. The problem is that ADDED fructose—in the form of soft drinks, sweets, cereals, convenience foods, canned sauces, soups, etc. —overwhelms our liver’s metabolic “burner,” and it gets stored as FAT… in all the body’s favorite places.
  • Avoid excess alcohol.  Your body metabolizes alcohol via the same route as fructose. It is metabolized first by the liver, with any excess stored nearby as fat in the liver and around the abdominal wall.
  • Don’t over-restrict caloric intake in hopes of burning fat.  When you deprive your body of the fuel it needs, it goes into “shutdown” or survival mode. This response slows your metabolism and sets you up for weight gain once you return to normal eating. We’ve all seen it—those people who shed a ton of weight only to gain it all back (and then some). Plus, losing weight too fast through crash dieting leads to greater fat storage: in its desperate quest for energy, the body will more readily burn lean tissue (what you want to keep) before it burns fat. So now you’ve inadvertently increased the ratio of fat to muscle cells, which translates into relatively more places to plump and store.

Move more. Pick something you like to do that gets your heart rate up and do it at least 30 minutes five times a week.  Active living means more than just programmed exercise. Get up from your chair more often, park farther away, take regular walks, go hiking and biking—do something you enjoy.

Train with weights.  Cardio alone is not going to address stubborn fat puckers. Muscle tissue burns calories; fat tissue stores them. Resistance training develops lean tissue, which raises your basal metabolic rate, increasing calorie burn even when you’re sitting still. I know I am a broken record on this point, but women DO NOT do enough strength training even though its benefits are proven.  For core strengthening, your own body can provide the needed resistance—see some good suggestions here.

stomach-musclesWhat are the muscles that will come to the surface and shove aside that belly fat layer?  There are four major ones (see numbered picture):

1. Rectus abdominus
2. External oblique
3. Internal oblique
4. Transversus abdominus

So eat right, move more, and grow muscle—and take the pucker out of fat pockets!


How to stop the muffin top — 2 Comments

  1. Ok, we must live right, be patient, and forget spot-reduction. With all that being said, what are the “right” kind of ab/core exercises? I see articles all the time about how I’m probably not doing the “right” kind, how crunches aren’t the best approach, etc. What is the right approach?

  2. There are lots of resistance exercises that, combined with good nutrition and a cardio regime, can help define those stomach-ab muscles so they become more apparent. I am not dismissing crunches, just saying they and other resistance moves for the core need to be done along with the other stuff. The best core exercises engage multiple muscles that work together to stabilize and strengthen the entire torso and stabilize the spine. Some of the best ones use your own body for resistance, such as planks, bridges, straight leg and bicycle crunches, etc. Pushups are always a great overall exercise because they recruit nearly all your core muscles plus upper (and lower) body. Ab rollers can really do the trick as well, but watch your form–lower back strengthening needed for those. This link offers a list and how-to. Thanks for the question!

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