By Ivan Blazquez, M.Ed, B.S., ACSM, NGA Pro Natural Bodybuilder, Triathlete
My approach to whittling the waist is simple and is just that, to decrease the circumference of the waist. This I have found is actually easier than getting a 6-pack. While the 6-pack is a nice thing to have, the more important thing is to simply bring the waist size down to an ideal standard. Unfortunately, bulging waistlines are on the rise in today's world and particularly so in the United States. One of my role models was Jack LaLanne. I will never forget one of his famous quotes, "Your waistline is your lifeline." That quote stood out to me because he was doing this country and world for that matter, a great service in saying that. Essentially, this quote means our waist is an important health indicator. The standards for men are to have a waist less than 40 inches, but ideally less than 35 inches. For women, the standard is to have a waist less than 35, but ideally less than 32. Yet, for many, getting the waist size down seems to be a daunting and unforeseeable task. While genetics due play a role (i.e. being apple-shaped), other factors such as stress management, fitness level and diet also play a role. The first factor (genetics) is uncontrollable, but the other three are in our control.
The remainder of this article will address various factors that influence waist size and will more importantly offer practical ways to reduce waist size to a more desirable level.
If waist control is the problem, then understanding the roots of the problem are essential to delivering an effective solution. A quick estimate of what constitutes to waist size is differentiating how much is visceral vs. subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat is fat that surrounds organs and is under the abdominal wall/musculature. On the other hand, subcutaneous fat is the fat one can pinch on the abdomen, it is the fat underneath the skin and over the abdominal wall/musculature. An easy way to partition these 2 kinds of fat is to use a tape measure and then do an abdominal skinfold measurement. For most people, this will require making an appointment to have a body fat test done using skinfold calipers. While this may not be in textbooks, I've found in my experience that an abdominal skinfold measurement of less than 25 mm is desired. A measurement in the teens (i.e. 11-19) is above average, while a measurement in the single-digits (1-9 mm) is superior. The logic to this skinfold standard is based on the notion, "Pinch an inch." An inch is 2.54 cm which equates to 25.4 mm. Thus, if one can "pinch an inch," then that would be an area where fat tends to accumulate. In fact, I've found it not uncommon to find an abdominal skinfold of 50 mm in obese and overweight individuals. In this case, simply seeing relative improvement of getting it down to 30-40 mm will have a positive impact. So in order to make sense of this, here are some mock case studies.
Person A: 42 inch waist and 45 mm skinfold. This person has high subcutaneous and high visceral fat
Person B: 34 inch waist and 30 mm skinfold. This person has low visceral fat but high subcutaneous fat.
Person C: 40 inch waist and 18 mm skinfold. This person has high visceral fat but low subcutaneous fat.
Person D: 31 inch waist and 12 mm skinfold. This person has low visceral fat and low subcutaneous fat.
As can be seen, 2 simple measurements (tape measure and skinfold) can be quite revealing and helpful. Aside from partitioning whether a person stores more fat internally (deep fat) vs. externally (shallow fat), now we know the exact roots of the challenge so now an appropriate exercise and nutrition plan of action can be implemented.
Eliminate the Waste From the Waist - Pun intended for this subtitle. Essentially, the waste is inside or outside your waist. Regardless of the fat depository location, there are several methods I've implemented to produce fantastic results! Personally, I have had to work hard but more importantly, study and learn to understand how to get my own waist in shape. I am naturally apple-shaped, as are most men, however, I have learned various techniques that have proven to be very effective in keeping my waist size at a desirable level. The importance of bringing the waist "down" to standard is that having a large midline is associated with various health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc. Following are some techniques, in no particular order, to directly and indirectly address the waist.
Aerobic Exercise: We've all heard this before, but are the recommended 30-60 minutes of exercise 3-5 days per week being done? Cardio directly uses fat for energy since fat is the main fuel source for aerobic exercise. Fat burns in the presence of oxygen, and aerobic exercise is ideal for optimizing oxygen transport and utilization. In terms of intensity, using heart rate is ideal. Depending on one's age, heart rate will vary with corresponding intensity. The recommended intensity is 50-80% intensity dependent on the individual's fitness level. For an exact heart rate range, seeking the assistance of a certified personal trainer would be recommended. Since everyone is different, age and fitness level will be taken into account, however, this is only the objective side of the equation, the subjective side is also important. Sometimes a person may have a slightly higher or lower true maximum heart compared to the age-predicted maximum heart rate. This is where the fitness professional can observe and ask the person how he/she feels during exercise to confirm the objective (heart rate) with the subjective (how person feels and body language). This is something that just computing a target heart rate over the internet misses.
HIIT: Additionally, a more potent form of cardio is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Specifically, HIIT targets visceral fat very effectively. In fact, this is why it is common to see a drop in pants or dress size without seeing any noticeable definition or toning of the midsection. HIIT does also target the subcutaneous fat, but this layer of fat is typically harder to get to than the visceral fat, and that is ok! In fact, often times, the waist size will come down first and then, the toning and tightening effect of the waist can occur thereafter. Since everyone is different, this pattern may not necessarily be reflective in some, but for others this is a common fat-loss pattern. Just bringing the pants or dress size down to a desirable level and having the waist size be in accordance to the standards for men and women is more important than any aesthetic benefits. Even if the waist size does not meet the standards, just bringing it down relative to the starting point is very beneficial and independent of any waist size change, simply being physically-active will offer significant health benefits. For those who may not see much waist reduction even with exercising 4-6 days per week and including HIIT; I have found a less than optimal diet and lack of weight training can be to blame. Thus, let's look at the other aspects of waist control.
Spot-Induction: This is my spin on the common myth, spot-reduction. Spot-reduction is the theory that one can reduce bodyfat at any site of the body if the muscle underlying the stubborn area is targeted and worked with high-repetition or endurance-type exercise. While this theory is generally accepted as a myth, there is a way that is logical and can potentially spot-reduce. This technique is based on the capability to induce fat removal from a stubborn area. Theoretically, if blood flow and heat are generated in an area of the body, intramuscular fat can be used for energy and broken down, but often times, the exercise is not long enough to burn the broken down fat, so eventually the fat restores itself. This can produce a frustrating hamster-wheel effect where fat is broken down and then restored. However, there is a way to possibly circumnavigate this hamster-wheel effect, a training protocol I like to call "spot-induction." For me, if I want to trim down my waist or tighten my abs, what I do is perform core work for 10-15 minutes, this theoretically breaks down fat either inside the muscle or outside the muscle. Then, I perform some moderate and/or high intensity cardio or HIIT followed by moderate to lower intensity cardio. In my mind, what happens is the broken down bodyfat from the core work can be effectively used for energy since other working muscles will be requiring and demanding energy.
Now while this is interesting from a physiological perspective, perhaps what is really happening is I am exercising more and burning more calories at the end of the day. And as is known, this common perspective is very well accepted as the common way of losing weight and/or bodyfat. Either way, it certainly doesn't hurt to incorporate this method. And for women, perhaps doing some hamstring and glute work for 10-15 minutes before the cardio could elicit a similar effect. In fact, I have personally done hip-glute work before cardio. In fact, let's take a look at some examples of theoretical spot-induction. I've seen runners and cyclists with toned, strong legs and calves, but still have love handles. I've seen boxers and male gymnasts (i.e. one's who do the pummel horse, bars or rings) with small and soft legs but very toned and sculpted upper bodies. The presumption is that since runners and cyclists use their leg musculature to perform the majority of physical work, fat that is closest and most convenient for the body is used and thus the toning and slimming effect. On the other hand, boxers and gymnasts use their upper bodies the majority of the time, so a slimming and sculpting effect occurs there.
While this is largely observational, it is anecdotal, yet sometimes academic research can play catch up with what many may have already suspected. Often times, research offers a method of confirmation and quantification of anecdotal observations. My point is, why wait for the research to catch-up? There is nothing to be lost by performing some extra core or hip work in a chronologically specific manner. Additionally, I've also done core work after cardio. Other times, I've done core work before and after cardio.
While the spot-induction method is intriguing, be aware of what type of exercise will be performed after the core work. Having a fresh core is important if one is going to run or do squats, lunges or any exercise that requires significant core stabilization. Essentially, the intensity of core work will and should be directed by what kind of exercise will ensue. If it is a light day, the core work can be higher intensity. If it is a heavy day, perhaps the core work can be done after the main workout or done as a light warm-up beforehand. All in all, the most important thing is using common sense and judgment and listening to one's body.
Resistance Training: With weights, I have found there to be more of a gender difference in this exercise mode. For men, there is a lack of cardio being performed, so a common sight that can be seen is a guy with big arms and legs but a big belly as well. For women, there is a lack of weight training being done, so a common sight can be a woman with a small frame, but soft and jiggly arms and/or legs. Ironically, the answer to each of these gender-related deficiencies is doing what is not being done. For men, more cardio and for women, more weights. For men, cardio will make the muscles actually look bigger, since less bodyfat will surround them so there will be more shape and striations popping out.
For women, weights will NOT lead to bulky muscles, but what they will really lead to is slim, sculpted, sexy, long, lean and toned muscles! Weight training has a shaping and sculpting effect on muscles in a way that the muscles are overloaded more so and in a specific manner that is different from cardio. Weight training activates muscles being worked, so it is important to work all the muscles during the week. So within 2-3 days per week, it is important to work all the major muscle groups. What happens is, within each muscle group worked, rebuilding and repair will take place, and this process plays a role in elevating metabolism for hours after the workout. This is a unique trait that certainly distinguishes weights from cardio. While HIIT can elicit a similar after-burn effect, HIIT typically will not make the muscles sore like weight training. This is what makes weight training such an essential and important part of anyone's exercise regimen.
Core Training: A pet-peeve of mine is seeing people do various old-school exercises for the abdomen such as double straight leg raises, full-sit ups, leg thrusts (i.e. Person lays on back and other person pushes the legs down hard while the other person on the ground tries to resist), crunches with a twist, etc. While some of these exercises may have a place dependent on one's fitness goals, they are typically contraindicated due to the high load placed on the lower back. In fact, this is something I typically use to evaluate a core exercise's effectiveness, "What does it do to the lower back?" Fortunately, core training has progressed and we are now seeing improvements in core training. However, there are still many who perform the aforementioned old-school exercises for the abdomen. Notice I said abdomen, since many of these exercises do not work the lower back, the more important muscle of the core. In fact, about 80% of the population has had some kind of low back issue whether it be short-term or long-term, so why are we continually working the overpowering abdominals? An alternative approach to training the abdominals is to train them in a functional manner and to also integrate all the other muscles of the core. Yeah, but I want to have tight abs or a 6-pack! In many of my previous physique competitions, I did ONLY the exercises about to be listed. The key to these exercises is they work the entire CORE set in a functional manner. A functional manner is the core stabilizes and buttresses the spine with minimal movement, whereby the extremities can move freely and more efficiently.
Modified Crunch: Get into a normal sit-up position laying on your back. Simply drop one leg flat and place a towel or both hands under the small of your back (the space or lack there of directly under the lower back). Then simply crunch up until the tension is felt in the abdomen. This is typically 1-3 inches off the floor or just enough to begin to lift the shoulders off the floor. Ideally starting with 3x15 then eventually progressing to 3x30.
Front Plank: Simply hold a push-up position on elbows. Ideally holding for 30-s then eventually progressing to 60-s or more.
Front Plank Front-Saw: Same as above, except one rocks front to back flexing and pointing ankles during the body shifting. 3x5 is a good start, 3x10 or more is ideal.
Front Plank Side-Saw: Same as above, except one rocks side to side on elbows. 3x5 is a good start, 3x10 or more is ideal.
Side Plank: Simply hold a side push-up position (on one elbow). Ideally holding for 30-s then eventually progressing to 60-s or more
Side Plank Dip: Same as above, except slightly drop hips 1-2 inches towards floor and lift back up to neutral. 3x5 is a good start, 3x10 or more ideal.
Side Leg Lifts: Simply lay on the side and squeeze both legs together, then lift them together as one. Perform 3x15 to start, then eventually buildup to 3x30 for optimal results.
Birddog: Get into a quadriped position (on hands and knees). Hands under shoulds and knees under hips. Extend right leg and left arm and vice versa. Do 3x15 for both switch sides. Working up to 3x30 is ideal.
Vacuums: A commonly forgotten exercise, this exercise specifically flattens the tummy since the motion is exactly that. Simply suck in your stomach and hold for 3-5 seconds. The ideal way of doing this is to inhale and fill up the lungs and abdomen with air, then as one exhales, draw the navel towards the spine. I truly believe this exercise is underestimated for its effects on toning the abdomen and core. In particular, it has postural benefits by strengthening the transversus abdominis. Most often, I tend to do these when I'm sitting or at a red traffic light or just in bad traffic waiting. It also seems to help facilitate digestion which is the last piece of the waist whittling puzzle.
This is probably one of the biggest contributing factors to the waist being stubborn in so many. And a lot of times I've found that many people can be emotional eaters. For example, if one is stressed out or if one waits too long (i.e. 4-6 hours) between meals, the tendency to eat the wrongs things and more food in general will increase. For instance, when one is stressed out, the body will crave a rapidly digestible and abundant energy source. The ideal choices are high-glycemic, calorically dense foods such as donuts, pastries, candy, crackers, cookies, etc. Something I learned from a physical therapist back then was that the body tends to overdo a lot of things, one such thing being inflammation. When an injury occurs, the inflammatory response tends to occur in excess. Thus, icing as a way to reduce inflammation and pain is recommended. The stress response is no exception, in that, the physiological response is primitive and this makes a person crave the bad foods, or the one's that are easiest to get and have the highest sugar and fat. Additionally, both high doses of sugar and fat lead to a temporary feel good sensation that is hormonally-based. However, the long-term effects of this vicious cycle can be devastating to our bodyweight, body composition and general health.
The other reason for craving the wrong foods is when one waits too long between meals. This is where healthy snacking plays a beneficial role. The reason one can crave the wrong foods when waiting too long between meals are many in nature. For instance, blood sugar dropping, appetite hormonal changes, daily caloric regulation, etc. Regarding caloric regulation, if a person requires 1,500 calories per day to maintain bodyweight, then the body will compensate to try to meet this requirement. So if breakfast was 500 calories and lunch is skipped, then dinner may end up being 1,000 calories or more. While calories in do equal calories out, how those calories get put on one's body is different in terms of body composition. For instance, 1,000 calories is very high for one sitting and it is unlikely that all 1,000 calories will be stored as muscle. Ideally, eating 3-5 meals per day is recommended and this should not be difficult to do. Three meals divides up the calories to average roughly 500 calories per meal, and with this amount, less will be likely to be stored as fat since there is minimal excess when compared to 1,000 calories in a meal. A small breakfast if time is limited or a wholesome breakfast time permitting, lunch and dinner. These are at a minimum, 3 meals and perhaps sneaking in a snack here or there and now it's at 4 meals. As far as the stress response goes, now it is known that the craving for sweets or fats is a stress-induced craving and perhaps testing this theory by grabbing anything healthy (i.e. grapes and almonds, 1 banana with brazil nuts or nut butter) to see if it really works. For some, it may not, but to the surprise of others, it will! Personally, there are many times when I have been stressed out and drove past a fast food place and could smell the food in the air. However, having known this stress-craving principle, I usually test my craving and eat something healthier and 9 out of 10 times, my craving is satisfied and I didn't feed the my body's false sense of need for craving fast food. For the 1 out of 10 that I still craved that bad food, I would indulge myself with a little of it because a little is better than nothing. Often times, this works as well at preventing a binge or overeating later, but more importantly, it is a way to be flexible and not feel deprived. In the end, it all comes back to balance and having a little cheat meal here or there but eating healthy and wholesome meals most of the time.
The essentials to whittling the waist with nutrition is to eat a lot of the nutritious foods. Without going into too much detail, eating fruits and vegetables, good starch carbs, healthy fats, lean proteins, plenty of water and a cheat meal once a week or month if need be. The best way to truly get a food plan as to what foods to eat would be to appoint a registered dietician as they can provide a thorough plan tailored to meet each individual's needs.
What comes to mind with stress is cortisol and how if cortisol levels are constantly elevated, fat appears to be preferentially stored around the waist. While stress is inevitable, how an individual copes with stress is dependent on each individual. I've always felt that if one has a stressful day, all is not lost since there are ways to mitigate and even reverse a lot of the damage from stress. One way, as aforementioned, is exercise. I remember back in my senior year in college I was taking an emotional health course. One day when the class topic was the physiology of the stress response, I raised my hand and suggested that people should exercise when they feel stressed. Then a person in the class refuted my suggestion and said, "Why would I want to workout when I'm already tired?" I sensed this person's tone and delivery were defensive so I let it be. However, my rationale for my suggestion was based on an article I had already written called "The Stress-Exercise Interaction," a few months earlier for the university fitness center.
Here is the article: Stress is something we will all experience at sometime or another in our lives. One of the ways to manage stress is through exercise. When a person experiences stress, the stressors maybe different, but the stress response remains the same. The stress response involves an increased heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and an increased blood flow to the outer muscles of the body. The question I pose is this.
How does exercise effectively manage stress?" Exercise utilizes the body's normal stress response "flight or fight." For example, if a lion were in front of us, we would run. If we get stressed on the job, the same stress response occurs but in this situation we usually bottle up our emotions. Exercise provides the opportunity to utilize the body's natural stress response. Flight or fight are two instinctual physical actions that serve as defense mechanisms. In society today, this stress response can be substituted by exercise. Flight is like jogging and fight can be like cardio-kickboxing. When stress enters our daily lives, this should give us more of a reason to exercise, because when we exercise, we allow our body to take it's primal natural course of action which is to "fight or flight." Just think of it this way, we are substituting other physical actions like resistance-training in place of just "fight or flight." The concept of fight or flight is a normal physiological response that our sympathetic nervous system triggers as a result of a stressor we interpret as threatening.
If we do not allow the body to take it's primal natural course of action, we put ourselves at risk. For example, when someone is stressed out he or she is at dis-ease or uneasy which can put them at risk for disease. The problem occurs when we do not utilize this vital stress response, thereby allowing the stress to take its toll on our body. This is one of the reasons why stress has been linked to various health problems and diseases. Exercise can serve as a buffer against the adverse effects of stress. This is just another one of the many reasons why exercise is so highly advocated among health and fitness professionals.
Unfortunately, that person was very pessimistic to my suggestion for whatever reason, but now, I can honestly even answer that question further. The reason a person feels tired after the stress response is just that, it is exhausting mentally and physically. However, this is a feeling that is temporary. Knowing the physiology of the stress response, when someone loses his/her appetite from being upset, this is a classic example of the stress response temporarily suppressing appetite. About 30-60 minutes later the person will want to eat again and the appetite may in fact be increased. On the other hand, when stressed the body may crave something sweet since it is demanding quick energy and a person may just want something that tastes good, to feel good. The human mind and body are capable of so much more than one may think. There were so many times I went to the gym and was making excuses not to go, but once I got there, I felt a little better and once I got going, I felt good and when I finished, I was glad I did it! So while we may not have control of the stress, we can control how we handle and cope with stress. Here are a few ways I've found work wonders at relieving stress: exercise, relaxing music, massage, yoga, aromatherapy, pets, herbal teas (i.e. chamomile, passionflower), journal writing, etc. Now while being tired from being stressed out can make working out later a challenge, there are many ways to counter this stress and even mitigate it. For instance, working out for 10-30 minutes in the morning is very effective at reducing stress and it can be a great way to kick start the day! If this is not an option, there are so many ways that exercising can be made easier nowadays. For one, listening to music, watching tv, having a personal trainer on one's side or talking with friend during a workout can make the workout more enjoyable and less tiring. While one may not be able to completely control stress, at the very least, one can do something about it and take action to counter the effects of stress by being physically-active and exercising at least 3-days per week. In fact, even walking for 20-30 minutes 3-days a week is better than nothing and does carry significant health benefits. Going from doing nothing to doing something is better than just doing nothing.
This is an extremely underestimated aspect of waist control and this is something I recently have learned about in terms of it's impact on waist size. At a minimum, one bowel movement per day is considered adequate, whereas one bowel movement every couple of days or once a week is considered less than ideal. The common terms bloating and constipation come to mind when it comes to waist circumference as it pertains to digestive function. I've seen infomercials that have mentioned that some can have 3-5 lb's of waste backed up due to inefficient processing and/or elimination. Without delving into the physiological aspects of digestive health too much, I've come to find that staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercising and reducing stress all seem to work effectively at minimizing or mitigating digestive issues. Additionally, eliminating and/or reducing common food allergens that can be commonly seen on food labels such as but not limited to, wheat (gluten), dairy, eggs, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, etc., may improve digestive function in others. The logic to these allergens is that if a person is sensitive to one of these or a combination there of, this may be hampering digestive function and efficiency. Ideally, seeking the assistance of a registered dietician would serve to educate and inform an individual on his/her nutritional needs as they may pertain to digestive health. Personally, I have seen a registered dietician and the help I received was astounding. I learned so much about myself and how some foods can enhance vitality while others may perpetuate undesirable results.Even though I can consume wheat without issues, I have found that my digestive function has improved dramatically when I started choosing more gluten-free breads and cereals. For instance, I experienced less bloating and subsequently, my abdomen remains flatter more often than not, even after a big meal! I've come to realize that gluten is a little harder on the digestive system, so by making an effort to avoid it, my digestive system does not have to deal with the added stress of dealing with gluten.
In essence, the foods we eat can play a role in waist circumference, although more of a diurnal role, a role nonetheless. For those looking to maximize results in waist control, it may be worthwhile to look at digestive function if it has been a problem or less than ideal. In fact, I have come to learn quite a bit about digestive function since I have had a few issues in the past myself. The key like many things in life seems to be having balance. A balanced diet that includes adequate fiber through fruit and vegetables appear to optimize digestive function. Too little or too much fiber can in some cases back fire. It is also important to drink plenty of water with fiber to facilitate fiber's wonderful effect's in the body. A typical issue I've heard from some is that traveling (via flights) can cause bloating or constipation. Interestingly, I've logically deducted that simply put, when one does not move for a prolonged period of time, digestion also does not move. This is why taking short activity breaks such as standing up to stretch or walk can be helpful in mitigating or alleviating any digestive issues that can occur with prolonged sitting or lack of movement. Yoga has also been known to facilitate digestion, and as mentioned earlier, stress can wreck havoc on digestion. Yoga emphasizes relaxation and with this relaxation response being induced, digestion will naturally improve and be optimized.
- Get the waist assessed. If we do not assess, we guess. A tape measure is great, but having a skinfold and tape measure both is ideal. These are two simple and convenient field tests that can tailor one's goals and exercise program.
- Incorporate cardio 3-5 days/wk for 30-60 minutes, 50-80% dependent on fitness level.
- Incorporate weights 2-3 days/wk working all major muscle groups at least once.
- Try not to do the same thing over and over expecting different results. Consider trying some new core moves and perhaps changing the sequence of exercises within a workout. On a cardio day, perhaps doing some core work beforehand and then doing cardio after could make a difference in results, simply because it may be something different.
- Test out the stress-craving theory and grab something healthy first. 9 out of 10 times the fast-food craving will dissipate and one will feel so good about having done one's body good by making that healthier choice!
- Use exercise as a stress-buster! While stress may be how one perceives a situation, one can still do something positive for oneself by incorporating daily exercise.
- If digestive function is less than ideal (i.e. bloating, constipation, etc.), consider seeking help from the appropriate medical staff. Perhaps seeking out a registered dietician and completing a dietary questionnaire may pry open some answers to the digestive problems.
The battle of the bulge does not have to be never-ending battle. While genetics can predispose and make it harder on many to whittle the waist, do not get discouraged if progress is slow. The more important thing is to be moving in the right direction and it will only be a matter of time before progress begins to add up into significant results!
The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not serve as a replacement to care provided by your own personal health care team or physician. The author does not render or provide medical advice, and no individual should make any medical decisions or change their health behavior based on information provided here. Reliance on any information provided by the author is solely at your own risk. The author accepts no responsibility for materials contained in the article and will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary, or other damages arising from the use of information contained in this or other publications. Copyright Ivan Blazquez, 2011. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder and author of this publication.
Oliver, GD, Stone, AJ, Wyman, JW, Blazquez, IN. (2012). Muscle activation of the torso during the modified razor curl hamstring exercise, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 49-57.