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Identifying bulging abdominal muscles can be a bit tricky at first glance, especially since it’s easy to blame your belly pooch for bloating after eating a large meal.
However, there are key distinguishing factors between both conditions, as both belly bloat and bulging abs are caused by very different things.
For starters, belly bloat tends to be more of a gastrointestinal issue caused by a buildup of gas in the abdomen, according to Harvard Medical School. This, in turn, gives your abs a puffy or distended appearance.
Causes of bulging abs, on the other hand, tend to vary. For example, pregnancy and workout injuries are among some of the biggest influencing factors.
To identify and treat bulging abs accordingly, we tapped two licensed physical therapists and a personal trainer to break down everything you need to know about bloated abs before you proceed to book that doctor’s appointment.
From ab-flattening exercises you can try at home to when you should actually see a doctor, read their expert advice ahead.
Unlike belly bloat, which is usually caused by gastrointestinal distress, or underlying medical conditions, bulging abdominal muscles can be the result of a variety of different contributing factors, according to physical therapist Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, MS, CEIS.
- poor lifting practices
- tears in the abdominal muscles during pregnancy
- incorrect breathing techniques
Poor lifting practices
It’s true that exercise can cause the abdominal muscles to bulge. Geoff Tripp, head of fitness science at Trainiac, suggests that lifting heavy loads, with poor abdominal bracing, can cause this condition.
“Oftentimes, it’s not a single exercise that creates this, but rather a period of time where poor lifting practices lead to the development of the diastasis recti,” Tripp said. “Excessive weight gain also stretches the abdominal muscles and the linea alba.”
Diastasis recti during pregnancy
Tears in the diastasis rectus abdominis muscles (aka diastasis recti) can occur during pregnancy, as the abdomen expands to support the growing baby, Marko says.
And while women typically don’t feel these tears (they happen slowly as the baby grows), Marko explains that you may feel pressure in the abdominal area and that your belly is stretching out too much.
To avoid any unwanted discomfort, Marko recommends investing in a pregnancy belt to help hold you in throughout your pregnancy.
Diastasis recti in infancy
Diastasis recti can also occur in newborns. According to board certified physical therapist Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, infants can be born with the condition if they’re preterm and the abdominal muscles haven’t fully fused.
However, there’s no real need to worry, as this condition will generally correct itself with normal growth and development, she explains.
In order to flatten bulging abdominal abs safely, Tripp says that pelvic floor exercises, isometric exercise, and abdominal wall bracing drills are worth trying. These exercises engage the abdominal muscles and help strengthen and stabilize your core, he adds.
“A stable core is a strong core, just like a stable leg is able to handle more load,” he explained. “Without a stable core, it is harder to build strength across all of your lifts.”
To send that bulge packing, try three of Tripp’s safe core-strengthening exercises below:
1. Pelvic floor exercises, such as Kegels
Kegel exercises are a good pelvic floor exercise to add to your daily workout routine, Tripp says, as they can be done sitting (on a chair or exercise ball), lying down, or standing up.
To perform this exercise correctly, remember to engage and hold your deep pelvic floor muscles. Since your deep pelvic floor muscles need practice, Tripp suggests that high reps are usually required for Kegel exercises.
- Identify the pelvic floor muscles — the easiest way to do this is to stop peeing midstream.
- Contract your pelvic floor muscles and hold for 1 to 2 seconds.
- Do 10 to 20 reps each session, and repeat 2 to 3 times per day.
2. Isometric exercises, such as planks
Tripp says that planks (and their many variations) are a great example of isometric exercises, as they’re an easy way to help bring your abs together.
- A typical plank position is prone on your elbows and toes. If you’re a beginner and think this may be too difficult to start with, begin by performing planks on your knees and keeping your body in a straight line.
- To perform planks correctly, be sure to engage your transverse abdominal muscles and obliques. “The easiest way to think about this is to pull your rib cage down and then pull your pelvis up,” Tripp said.
- Aim to perform 2 to 3 reps, hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and repeat 1 to 3 times a day.
3. Abdominal wall bracing exercises, such as the dead bug
Abdominal wall bracing drills, such as the dead bug, are another good exercise. Tripp says they’re isometric in nature, but you can add small movements (with your arm or leg) to challenge your core strength and stability.
“The nice thing about these drills (which can be done standing alone or right before a lift in the gym) is that they also transfer into your lifts, so you know heading into a heavy lift how to properly brace your core,” he added.
- Start by lying flat on your back, pulling your knees to your chest, bending your knees to 90 degrees, and reaching your hands into the air.
- Next, begin to engage your core by pulling your rib cage down and pelvis up. This will push your back into the ground. Do your best not to arch your back off of the ground.
- Then, in a controlled manner, reach one arm down toward the ground, reaching up above your head, as you lower the opposite leg. Always be sure to alternate sides one at a time, as this helps maintain core stability.
- Aim to perform 2 sets of 6 to 10 repetitions, 1 to 3 times per day.
To keep your abs in tip-top shape this summer, Tripp suggests there are other flat-ab training tips to keep in mind, aside from working out. These include:
Although breathing is involuntarily fundamental to living, breathing properly during exercise is essential for growth and development, according to Tripp.
“When we’re working out, our muscles require a greater amount of oxygen to function effectively,” he said. “By breathing incorrectly, or holding your breath at the wrong times, you’re depleting your muscles and brain of oxygen, and upping your risk for potential injuries.”
To avoid any potential abdominal injuries while working out, Tripp recommends breathing out as you exert yourself, especially when you’re lifting something heavy.
Having a wide stance with your legs also helps ensure that your spine is neutral, as you don’t want your back to be arched. Otherwise, you’ll have a difficult time stabilizing your pelvis and spine, as your abdominals will expand and stretch out.
Stretching is another key component in abdominal growth and development, Tripp explains.
“Stretching lengthens muscle tissue and increases flexibility, allowing for both increased performance, and creating a greater range of motion and recovery,” he said.
Even staying hydrated is another key component to flattening your abs for several reasons, Tripp explains.
“Staying hydrated increases metabolism, decreases appetite, and in turn helps lose stomach fat,” he said.
To stay hydrated throughout your workouts, Tripp suggests that a good hydration rule to remember is to consume half of your body weight in fluid ounces per day.
When exercising, he advises increasing that amount by 12 to 24 ounces per hour depending on demands.
“A more demanding longer workout in the heat will require more fluid, as well as replacement of electrolytes, so muscle contraction can take place,” he added. “A drop of 1 to 3 percent hydration will drastically affect your performance, so it is important to stay hydrated throughout the day and during exercise, with moderate fluid replenishment.”
While exercise is crucial in maintaining adequate physical health, Marko says that there are times when situps and ab crunches aren’t enough.
Working out, and not making appropriate dietary changes, for example, can spell trouble for your waistline, she explains, as it allows muscle to be created on an already large abdominal area.
“If someone just did crunches, and didn’t do anything to lose weight, they can appear to increase their belly size and increase their pooch,” Marko explains. “To decrease the size of your abdomen, one would need to lose weight, as it works to reduce belly size in inches.”
Although Gasnick suggests that bulging abdominal muscles caused by incorrect breathing during exercise are usually more aesthetically unappealing rather than actually painful, there are instances when this condition can actually be something more serious.
For example, Marko suggests that you should see a medical doctor (or a doctor of physical therapy) if you:
- experience pain in your abdominal wall
- feel it hurts when moving or lifting something
- feel you can’t control your midsection during everyday activities
Similarly, Gasnick adds that you’ll also want to contact a doctor if the pain in your abdominal area is spreading to the areas of the lower back, groin, buttocks, and legs, and is accompanied by increased heart rate, lightheadedness, confusion, nausea, anxiety, and vomiting.
These could be warning signs of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, she adds, which is a very serious and potentially life threatening condition if rupture occurs.
To gain a further understanding of the causes behind bulging abs, it’s important to understand what the different kinds of abdominal muscles are and what role they play in the human body.
To start, abdominal muscles are a part of the body’s core or midsection. They typically feature a top and bottom, front and back, and two sides.
This makes it helpful to look at your abdominal muscles like a box, Marko explains, as it contains different sides of muscles that help secure the midsection.
At top of the box is the diaphragm, which is a huge muscle that has a lot of responsibility.
Although the diaphragm is technically not classified as an abdominal muscle, it does play an important role in core stabilization, by providing essential postural support.
“The abdominals and diaphragm work in synchronicity with the pelvic floor to keep an ideal level of intra-abdominal pressure, and to keep the lumbar spine adequately stabilized,” Gasnick explained.
Conversely, at the bottom of the box is your pelvic floor. These are the muscles that control urination, the vaginal wall, and some of the hip muscles (adductors and internal rotators).
Since the pelvic floor area is often neglected, Marko stresses the importance of addressing any dysfunction here with the help of a physical therapist. Otherwise, you won’t truly have power in your core, she warns.
“Ideally, you want all the sides of that box to be strong in order to give you the ultimate power to function at your best,” Marko said. “If sex is painful, or if you urinate when you laugh or sneeze, you may have an issue that you need to see a physical therapist for.”
Among one the most commonly known abdominal muscles in the core area are the rectus abdominis, which are the front abdominal muscles.
This group of muscles is also known as the area of the six-pack, and helps to flex and bend our midsection forward.
“The rectus abdominis (aka the six-pack) is one of the more common abdominal muscles that people are aware of,” Marko said. “They run vertically from the base of your chest bone (sternum) to the top of your pubic bone.”
“The internal and external obliques attach from the bottom of the rib cage to the top of the pelvis, and mesh together in an X-shaped fashion,” Gasnick explained. “When contracted, these muscles allow the torso to side bend, rotate, and twist, as well as assist the rectus abdominis in performing a forward bending or crunching movement.”
Then, there’s the transversus abdominis, which is a muscle that wraps from the back to the front in a circular motion.
This muscle also acts as a large stabilizer, as the hugging motion of this muscle helps to control our midsection and provides the spine with stability.
While belly bloat is caused by gastrointestinal distress or underlying medical conditions, bulging abdominal muscles can be the result of a variety of different factors, including diastasis recti, weightlifting, and incorrect breathing during exercise.
And while there are many things you can do to flatten your bulge (stretching and performing core-strengthening exercises) on your own, there are times when bulging abs can be the result of something more serious.
See a doctor if any pain in the abdominal area doesn’t resolve, spreads to other parts of the body, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as increased heart rate, nausea, and vomiting.