Bodybuilders, in general, focus on becoming as muscle-bound as possible. After all, muscularity is a huge part of the judging criteria. However, shape and aesthetics are just as important as muscularity. The muscle added to the frame must bring forth an impressive shape and be pleasing to the eye. The waistline is one key area that bodybuilders would want to keep as small as possible. I have seen many competitors forget all about their waistline in trying to become as muscular as possible and end up losing their aesthetics.
Before I lay out all the potential variables that can contribute to a larger waist and some strategies you can use to keep it small, it’s important to break down the anatomy of the waist. The main musculature surrounding the waist is the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae. When we talk about keeping the waist from being blocky, this has more to do with limiting growth of the oblique muscles, as they could widen the waist. An overly developed rectus abdominis may give a round look to the abdomen from the side, but this has more to do with controlling the transverse abdominis to avoid the round look. The transverse abdominis’ function is pulling in the waist, like when you see a bodybuilder perform a vacuum pose on stage. Waist size is also determined by the organs contained in the abdominal cavity such as the stomach, GI tract, liver, and kidneys. Adipose tissue will affect the waist with subcutaneous fat (under the skin) and visceral fat (around the organs). Then we just have genetic structure that largely determines waist size. These are aspects we will have difficulty changing--hip width, rib cage width, and torso length. Let’s look at what can affect all these areas.
Squats and Deadlifts
We often hear that we should avoid squats and deadlifts because they will make your waist wide. I’m not sure if this rumor came from looking at big waisted individuals who also squatted a lot, but it is far from fact. Squats and deadlifts do activate the rectus abdominis and obliques, but when looking at electromyography studies they actually do it to a smaller degree than direct abdominal work itself.1 So, your abdominal plank is going to cause greater oblique activation than your 3-repetition squat max. If you want to limit muscle activity in exercise, you would be better off limiting direct abdominal work instead of squats and deadlifts. If you’re still not convinced, wearing a belt during squats and deadlifts can potentially cause even less activation of the obliques. In a 2002 study that compared conventional and sumo deadlift with and without using a weight belt, using a weight belt caused significantly less muscle activation of the obliques in both lifts.2
How to Train the Abs
Just like any muscle, if you want to cause hypertrophy you need to train it. In the first point about the squat not activating the abdominals as much as an abdominal isolation movement, it is also important to note that in the squat the abdominals perform an isometric contraction. An isometric contraction will be inferior for muscle hypertrophy, as we know taking a muscle through the full range of motion allows for full development. This furthers the case for the squat not being a large contributor to abdominal development. This would be like trying to get a big chest by pushing against a wall hard. If you do need to develop some abdominal muscles, I would limit training to targeting the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis muscles. Stick to crunches and leg raises. Avoid side bends and wood chopper motions that target more obliques. Finally, performing vacuums, arguably one of the best moves for shrinking the waist, trains the transverse abdominis to pull in the abdominal wall as small as possible.
Keeping the Waist Streamlined
This is probably obvious. Adipose tissues stored subcutaneously and viscerally around the trunk will make your waist large. Keep body fat to a reasonable level and you will keep a small waist. Limiting body fat may also keep you more insulin sensitive, which is more productive for muscle gain and limiting body fat in a calorie surplus. Increasing subcutaneous abdominal fat may have an impact on increasing insulin resistance.3 We’ve all probably experienced this in the off-season. Body fat gets too high and soon it seems like you are gaining a greater proportion of fat over muscle when compared to when you are leaner.
Don’t Rush Growing
Trying to grow at a very fast rate will lead to everything growing at a fast rate, which lends itself to less waist control. There is one part of growing that is out of our control: overfeeding and physical training during a bulking period leads to increase in organ size.4 This means that a bigger vehicle needs a bigger engine. A bigger person is going to need bigger organs to support the size. Increasing organ size is one contributor to increasing waist size as you become bigger. This has nothing to do with performance enhancing drugs, as this will occur in anyone that is increasing their fat free mass.
Keep Digestion in Check
The transverse abdominis works like an internal weight belt, supporting all the organs in place. It can suck the waist in but it can also push it out. If we walk around all day long pushing out our gut and let that continue to happen year after year, it could potentially stretch out the abdomen and leave you with a gut you can push way out in front of you. Part of the issue is in the off-season some people force feed food and feel like their stomachs are going to pop all day long. This can stretch out the abdominal wall. So it is important in the off-season to make food choices that keep food volume within a reasonable amount and that limit gas and bloating. A meal of cauliflower, beans, and eggs might not be the best idea if you are trying to limit gas and keep your waist small.
The Magic Waist Trainer
We can trace back the use of a waist device to the days when ladies wore corsets to give them an hourglass figure. Corsets did work, but they had to wear them all day long and get them very tight. The modern-day waist trainer is typically not worn all day. They’re usually worn just during a workout, which in my opinion would be the worst time, since you do want to build some core strength for supporting your lifts. My main concern is the potential danger they can cause. You are compressing your organs with this type of system. If you do shrink your waist down, where are your organs going? Organs don’t shrink, so they’re getting displaced. This might be why waist trainers have been associated with incidences of bowel obstruction and acid reflux. Bottom line—this one is not worth the risk. Instead, follow the other tips in this article for a small waist.
Don’t Do Drugs
Many of us have seen distended bellies on the IFBB Olympia Stage. Like I said before, this is not from squats and deadlifts but likely a number of other factors. For one, we are seeing some of the biggest physiques ever and increasing fat free mass also increases organ size. We may also be seeing poor digestion at its worst. Bodybuilders often try to carb load with little water to fill out before stage time, but food ends up sitting and bloating the abdomen. Waists may also have been stretched out from pushing food hard in the off-season. A final possibility could very well be performance enhancing drugs. In a 2017 study, researchers conducted a cross sectional study of current and former anabolic steroid users investigating insulin sensitivity in relation to fat distribution and compared them with non-users of steroids. Both current and former steroid users displayed lower insulin sensitivity which may be mediated by higher visceral adipose tissue when compared to controls.5 Steroids can potentially increase visceral adipose tissue and would contribute to a large waist. You may have a six pack, but if you have fat all around your organs, a round belly is what you will see. In short, don't do drugs if your goal is to keep the waist as small as possible.
Bodybuilding is the creation of the most aesthetic physique possible. Always be mindful of your waist. I encourage you to measure it and track it over time to make sure you know when it is increasing in size and be able to identify the variables that might be causing it.
- Aspe RR, Swinton PA. Electromyographic and kinetic comparison of the back squat and overhead squat. 2014 Oct; 28(10): 2827-36.
- Escamilla RF, Fracisco AC, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Moorman CT. An electomyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Apr; 34(4): 682-8.
- Pavankumar P, Abata N. Body fat Distribution and Insulin Resistance. Nutrients. 2013 June; 5(6): 2019-2027.
- Miyauchi S, Oshima S, Asaka M, Kawano H, Torli S, Higuchi M. Organ size increases with weight gain in power-trained athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013 Dec; 23(6): 617-23.
- Rasmussen JJ, Schou M, Selmer C, Johansen ML, Gustafsson F, Grystyk J, Dela F, aber J, Kistorp C. Insulin sensitivity in relation to fat distribution and plasma adipocytokines among abusers of anabolic androgenic steroids. Clin Endocrinol. 2017 Sep; 87(3)249-256.