If a flatter tummy is your biggest priority, it’s easy to believe that working that area directly would be the best route to burning off that stubborn fat and going from flab to toned.

As with the other myths in this series of articles, the truth is almost completely the opposite of what seems intuitive.

The second someone gets it in their head they want to shift fat off their tummy, the first exercise that generally gets introduced is abdominal crunches.

But, let’s look at what you are trying to achieve and what this move does to help.

First off, you are aiming to burn off fat.

Your body doesn’t burn fat from the area you are working.

It may feel like it’s helping sometimes as the area gets firmer by working it out, but it’s not doing it the way you think.

For example, if you were to do a lot of bicep curls, your biceps may feel harder and tighter at the end of the workout. But in reality, your muscles are weaker at this point. The muscle fibers have been torn down and are now going to have to repair, which is ultimately where the improvements come from.

In the short term, however, your body has been pushing blood flow to this area in order to give you more energy to continue, more oxygen to the muscle and simply make you better able to cope with the stress you are delivering.

That added blood flow is causing a ‘pump’ to the area. It is swelling things up under the skin. The result being, your skin gets tighter and everything feels harder.

A couple of hours later and it will be gone.

Hopefully, once fully repaired, the muscle will be stronger and possibly a little fuller, but this has nothing to do with fat loss.

Where the fat loss element comes in is, there was energy expended working that muscle, plus further energy in repairing it. As such, you have created a potential calorie deficit (assuming you haven’t eaten more than usual because of the workout) and so your body must burn off stored energy to fuel these processes. Therefore, you burn fat (as you are unlikely to burn muscle when you’ve just told your body the muscles must be stronger).

What’s this got to do with flattening your tummy?

In the case above, the fat that will be used as fuel can come from anywhere on your body. It doesn’t have to come from the area being worked (biceps in this case).

And, although there have been a few studies shown you can minorly influence where fat is being burned from (I’ll cover this in future articles) it is extremely minor and still doesn’t allow you to work an area and directly burn fat from that area.

Fat is stubborn and belly fat can be more stubborn than most.

Your body will decide where it is most efficient to take the fat from.

Often fat around the centre of your body is going to hang around longer as it is doing more to keep you warm, protect vital organs and the like. So, you’ll often see fat coming off around the face, the arms and the legs before it comes off your tummy, hips, lower back or thighs.

Plus, if the reason you are carrying fat on your tummy is partly due to stress (lack of sleep, too much on at work etc) then it could be your hormones are working against you and exercise alone will not be able to do much about it.

Surely abs work would still have benefit to achieving a flatter tummy though, wouldn’t it?

Let’s have a look at how things are arranged in that area.

Diagram showing subcutaneous fat (under the skin) the abdominal muscles and the visceral fat underneath

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Under your skin, you have a layer of fat (Subcutaneous Fat).

This is the bit you are aware of and desperately want rid of. It’s the bit that jiggles.

Behind that are your abdominals (rectus abdominis).

Although there is often talk of your upper abs and lower abs, it’s really just one sheet and it’s impossible to work one without the other being involved. There are also your obliques and transverse abdominis crossing over in this area, with each doing a different job of supporting your ‘core’.

I’m not going to go into major detail, as it’s not important for the point I’m making, but you can see on the diagram where they are all located when looked at in profile.

Behind that you will find visceral fat.

This is the fat you ‘should’ be concerned about as an excess of this kind of fat is extremely dangerous and can be life threatening.

Let’s say you do focus on abdominal crunches in an attempt to burn off that fat.

Firstly, crunches are working a very thin sheet of muscle and not moving it terribly fat. It is a muscle area that recovers quite easily as a result and therefore does not cause much in the way of energy expenditure.

You may feel it is hard and that you are working hard, but the reality is, it’s uncomfortable, but not a large energy burner. Therefore, the number of calories burned will be tiny compared with working larger muscle groups.

The muscles being worked will get fuller.

So, have a look at the diagram. What would happen if your abdominal region got fuller?

It would push the fat out further.

So, we’ve not burned off much, if any fat, but we have pushed it out a bit.

Rather than getting a flatter tummy, you have now got a bigger one.

Add to that the fact that you now not only have a ‘load’ at the front that is likely affecting your posture somewhat (depending on the level), but you have now strengthened and tightened your abs in a way that, if not countered on the back end, will cause your posture to get worse.

It’s a no-win situation!

Nothing about this is good based on the goals you set out to achieve.

That doesn’t mean abdominal exercises are useless.

Even though doing crunches is making things worse and pushing you away from your goals, that doesn’t mean direct abdominal work is without merit.

So long as the goal is to strengthen your mid-section and improve your posture, as a supplement to a strong approach, working directly on your abs can be beneficial.

A stronger mid-section will allow you to do more energetic things in your day to day life, without the same level of injury risk.

By having a better connection between your lower and upper body, doing compound movements, such as squats or deadlifts, are going to be easier, more efficient and, again, allow you to do more.

Even if your approach involves elements of cardio, having a better posture is going to make those activities more beneficial, allow you to circulate oxygen more easily and be less prone to injuries.

As for crunches, they do have a place

If you are getting toward that lean stage, there isn’t much fat left and your abs are starting to show, you’ll have a lot more to show off if you have well worked abs.

Just keep in mind, this is going to have no impact until that layer of fat is gone and these exercises are not going to help do that. But, once you are at that stage, perhaps some cosmetic training is warranted. You will have worked hard to get there, so you should make the most of it.

Remember, however, your body is more than just aesthetics and there is no point looking good if you are in pain as a result. So be sure to keep your training in balance and if you are going to strengthen an area at the front, you must ensure the opposing muscles at the back are just as strong.

This may show that, direct crunches are not the solution to a flatter tummy, so what is?

In a nutshell, doing bigger movements, using more muscles and a complimentary diet is going to have a much more positive effect on your results.

Have a look at this article on the best way to tone up to get a full rundown of how to approach this.

In the meantime, if you want a solid start to your nutritional approach, if you don’t have it already…

download this free 30 day nutrition guide and get yourself off to the strongest start possible.

Crunches V Abs The myth
Sit Ups for a Flatter Tummy
Myths Demystified by Mark Tiffney

So, what do you think?

Are you someone who generally jumps straight for the crunches when trying to hit that belly fat?

Are you in the camp of “your abs get worked enough in other movements” and don’t work them at all?

And has any of the above changed your views on your approach.

Let me know in the comments below.

And if you missed the previous ‘Myth Demystified’ article on Eating Carbs in the Evening, be sure to check it out.

Until next time, have an awesome week.