When beginning a fitness routine, your first goal may involve slimming your stomach and waistline with a bit of cardio and some abdominal exercises. During the first few weeks of your training, you may notice that all of your hard work seems to be resulting in the opposite of what you wanted. No matter how many crunches, leg lifts and treadmill sessions you do, your stomach seems to stick out more, not less. Though disconcerting, this is not unusual -- and it doesn't mean your hard work has all been wasted.
Your Abs Are Getting Bigger
When you start your new fitness regimen, you will likely notice relatively rapid growth of the muscle groups you're targeting. If you haven't been exercising regularly, you are more likely to experience a brief burst of increased muscle mass in the early stages of your regimen. Your abs, like any other muscle in your body, are not exempt from this type of growth. When you work out, your muscle fibers tear microscopically under the strain of exercise, and grow as they repair the damage in the following days of recovery. Even if the exercises you're performing only involve using your body weight, your abs will inevitably grow as they become stronger. Over time, your abs will reach a state of plateau, where increased growth is difficult unless you modify your existing routine substantially.
You're Not Losing Fat
While every form of exercise burns calories in one way or another, if you're not burning more calories than you're consuming, your body fat composition will remain the same. If you're performing abdominal exercises to strengthen your core muscles and tone your abs, your ab muscles will grow larger. If your fat levels remain the same, your expanding ab muscles will increase the size of your stomach.
To better visualize this process, think of your stomach as having two layers: your abdominal muscles and your stomach fat. Your stomach fat rests on top of your abdominal muscles, and if your abs are growing with exercise, your fat layer will, naturally, appear to be extending with it. It's important to remember that you are not gaining fat, but simply that your abdominal muscles are growing in mass underneath.
You're Using Too Much Weight
Although it may be tempting to try to perform weighted ab workouts in the beginning to speed up the process of developing toned abs, you may be causing your abs to pack on more muscle than you'd like. Be sure to only use your body weight when performing beginning ab exercises to ensure that your abs stay sleek and small, yet strong and toned. If you are adding weight, be sure that you can do at least 20 to 30 repetitions over three or more sets without failing in any set. It should burn, but you should be able to finish your workout. If you can only muster up six to eight reps per set, you're using too much weight, and your abs will become bigger, rather than smaller.
If you've reduced your caloric intake, reached an exercise plateau, and your abs are still protruding beyond your satisfaction, you may have to consider the possibility that you are genetically built that way. There's not much you can do to counter your body's natural DNA, but experimenting with different exercise routines can sometimes yield more satisfactory results. Try a few different workout plans, and your abs and other muscles may respond differently.
Adriaan Noordzij has been a writer since 2009, specializing in fitness, gaming and technology. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, he has contributed to IGN and various fitness and health websites. Noordzij serves as the production and IT director for "CHAOS Magazine."