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Reasons why you can have a belly without being really fat!

The appearance of a rotund, swollen abdomen is a classic litmus test for a person being termed as fat or not. In fact, with the age of the internet warriors and evolution of 'fat shaming' the appearance of a pot belly can give someone a totally novel set of undesirable adjectives.

However, from my experience with my own self as well as a large number of people I continually keep consulting with on a personal basis, the problem of such an appearance may not necessarily lie in only accumulation of a high amount of body fat around the waist.

Here's a quick list of some reasons we would have never thought of that can lead to that out of shape appearance when we wear close fitting jeans
If you suddenly need into sqeeze into your regular jeans, you should read on the following post!

1. Anterior pelvic tilt/tight hip flexors:

The people I consistently train with in the gym know one thing about me and that is, I always begin my training session with that same old boring dynamic hip flexor mobility drill which looks something like this:

The way I spend a majority of my life, which isn't much different from what this blog's audience must be doing is mostly sitting on my butt while I am doing something(or pretending to). This does two things to our lower body musculature.

 a. It shortens the length of the muscles which help us in folding at the hip joint in the frontal direction, aka Hip Flexion. The muscles groups responsible for this are grouped under the category hip flexors such as:

i.  Iliopsoas or inner hip muscles

ii. Psoas major
iii. Iliacus muscle.
iv. Rectus Femoris, especially around the proximal origin point at the hip jointAt the same time, an equal and opposite development also happens. The length of the muscle fibers which are antagonists to hip flexion also takes place. Particularly the hamstring muscle groups, the gluteal complex and several para spinal muscle groups that help you 'straighten up' or extend at the hip joint.
A cool info-graphic showing the muscle groups involved and directional vectors they act in to control the tilting of the pelvis
The muscle groups just mentioned above have all one common purpose, apart from causing the requisite movement at the involved joints: They server the purpose of protecting the spine during sudden and unnatural shocks which can take the spine out of its neutral alignment. These muscles achieve this by producing compensatory action at their particular joint and saving the spine(which being the backbone is the most crucial element to be protected) from any irreparable damage.

What this entire fiasco is all about is maintaining the length-tension relationship of any muscle fibers along its length. The length-tension relationship vastly determines how much force can be produced by the contraction of a muscle. When it comes to your biomechanical health and integrity, the force production potential of the above mentioned muscle groups can determine how much they are fulfilling their purpose.

When the pelvis is in its neutral position, it allows for the most amount of space between each vertebra as they are aligned in their natural curves. Coccyx – lordotic, Sacrum – kyphotic, Lumbar – lordotic, Thoracic – kyphotic, Cervical – lordotic. Curves of the Spine
And now for how is all that shit related to making you look bloated. When the above phenomenon of tightness in hip flexor is caused. it results in your pelvic floor going out of alignment and start appearing like this:

Can you notice the way the anterior aspect of the abdominal wall on the skeleton to the right above is not really straight, rather it slants its way down and back giving rise to a somewhat rotund appearance. If the skeletal images aren't making it clear enough, here's another graphic which should throw more light on this development:

The unfortunate guy on the right appears to have a higher amount of girth around his waistline in spite of not really being a very fat guy in general.
The girl in Fig 1C has appearance of a pot belly that isn't there.
For the ladies, prolonged use of high heels as well might result in anterior tilting of the pelvis and cause the aforementioned symptoms:

How should we really take care of it? Simply reversing the changes which the muscle groups mentioned above have experienced. Practicing the dynamic hip flexor mobilizations such as the one mentioned in the video at the start of this section should be a good help. Focus on elongating the hip flexors on the frontal portion of your upper leg and groin as you you squeeze your glutes and push your hip bucket forward on all repetitions.

2. Widening of the waist muscles due to hypertrophied oblique muscles:

Remember the old school bodybuilding advice which warned against using lateral flexion movements such as the weighted side bends which can cause the appearance of a wider waistline than usual. The exercise is done with a positive intention of strengthening the external obliques in this plane of movement. However, the enlargement of these muscle groups can significantly increase the ratio of your waistline width to your shoulder width. The result is what is referred to as a square waistline. This can especially be a deal-breaker for the female trainees who are aspiring for a figure or bikini competition.

A better approach for oblique strengthening can be to utilize anti rotation drills such as the paloff press and not going too heavy on these movements.
If you'd still feel like incorporating the plain old side bends and also savvy the side plank variations, a deeper look at their waist enlargement potential reveals that more than the exercise itself, the loading strategy is what needs a makeover. Ditch the "heavier is better" thinking and go for a moderate weight on your side bends, for moderate to high reps.

In fact, side planks done in the hardstyle fashion can be a good choice. While you do your planks, ensure that you are generating gradual and maximal tension throughout all the muscles of your body from head to toe while you are planking. Also, maintain a steady breathing pace throughout the duration and limit your plank sets to not more than 10 seconds. Planks performed in this manner should add durability to your big movements such as the squats, deadlifts, pull ups etc and not lead to excessive enlargement of the obliques while simultaneously delivering an anti-flexion capability.

3. A history of powerlifting based practice.
Think of an automobile tyre. You are going on a rough terrain in your pick up truck and you suddenly start feeling more jolts and jerks than you usually do. At the same time, you start feeling a slowness and the acceleration drops. The first thing you will be checking is the amount of pressure in your four tyres. And if by any chance,we find the pressure ot be less in any one of the, we immediately know the reasons for the uncomfortable journey. Fuller pressure with more air present inside the tyres helps produce a better force against the ground and propel the car forward.

When you are descending into the bottom of a heavy squat, your abdomen is braced against your upper legs(provided you have squatted to a substantial depth), the amount of air you can engulf inside your abdominal cavity will only determine how much throttling you can produce as a result of this bracing which will help you rise up from your bottom position.
Now unlike the automobile tyre which comes with a standard rating of pressure that it can withstand, quite oddly, your abdominal cavity does not come with a set level of pressure that it can engulf. And as a result of this, as  the amount of weight that you are lifting keeps increasing, so does the amount of deep breathing which you do while performing that lift. And if you look at the construction of your abdominal cavity, its an adaptable structure which can stretch out and enlarge itself over prolonged demand of enlargement due to all that increasing breathing requirements.

This results in an overly enlarged gut on most heavy lifters which perform lifts such as the squats and presses using the power breathing techniques.
But in-spite of this enlarged belly look, we should still remain cognizant of the fact that appearance of a belly due to this reason should be a good thing since it symbolizes that we are using correct lifting and force production technique while doing our heavy lifts. Advanced lifters having spent decades practicing and studying the science of strength understand the principle of breathing behind the shield to produce as much force while moving a super heavy weight. It's an adaptation which just follows closely when you are an expert lifter.

In fact, I have myself experienced such comments questioning my somewhat enlarged belly as my weights in squats, deadlifts and presses kept going up and I kept practicing belly breathing throughout them, over the years.

So, do not take it as a sign of higher adiposity and feel proud that you have been practicing a good force production technique for moving really heavy iron.

4. Lack of quality sleep

I remember those days when I have had one of the most gruelling and textbook perfect training sessions of the month. And yet the first question I hear from onlookers in office is "What he hell happened, how come you gained that pot belly overnight? Not going to the gym these days hmm?"

The sheer devastation of such questions aside, there is in fact solid science behind why such a contradictory scenario can happen with anyone. When I evaluated my week that day, I wasn't really sleeping up to the mark. My night was either composed of a late doze off or suddent wake up in the middle of the night, or of course an early rise in the morning which was inevitable.
That's my face when I listen to Boss' question on a morning I haven't slept well!

Lack of sleep makes your body sense it and respond with releasing a stress busting hormone called cortisol. While corisol release has its own place when you need a producive drive of alertness in the morning as you rush for work, elevated levels of cortisol when you are trying to sleep may mes up your sleeping ethics entirely. And on top of that, this elevated stress may in turn trigger more cortisol response. A higher than normal release of cortisol has been associated with an increasing trend in obesity and even diabetes. On the other hand, quality, deep, inception like sleep for at least 7 to 8 hours, if you can afford it, has been linked to a steady release of human growth hormone, the fountain of maintaining muscle, recovering from your training sessions and keep the fat off. In the constant fight between Cortisol and HGH, due to a regular loss of sleep, basically, Cortisol is winning. And along with it, its allies, poor state of mind, altered moods, lack of focus, loss of skin health, eyes with dark circles around them, messy recovery from workouts and yes of course, accumulated fat, especially around the abdominal region are winning. You appetite drops considerably. Wait, let me correct that, your appetite for the foods ou reallly need dies. And you suddenly start fulfilling your emotionally driven hunger pangs with foods such as candies, extra cheese burgers, sweets and the like. The resultant phenomenon is we turning into a fatter guy than we intended to be inspite f training really hard and eating quite clean during all other times.

The solution? It's simple. Simple but not easy. Take off from anything you are doing by 10:00 to 11:00 PM at night and jump straight into the bed with the light off. I know you have all heard of the quotations saying about successful people that they either wake up at 4 o clock or go to sleep at that time. Well, I'm not sure about you but if I was that guy who wants to be successful, I would rather prefer being the one waking up at 4. That's how nature want us to live. And anyone wishing to disturb that homeostasis shall face consequences such as resultant obesity out of the malpractices and latered lifestles. People working in night shifts and BPOs are living examples showcasing the ill effects of extremely altered sleep cycles. I might sound like a broken record by mentioning this point countless times on this blog but it bears repeating. Pay attention to your sleep and more health problems of yours than you can imagine shall get solved on their own. Trust me on that one!