I had this exchange with one of my favorite Twitter friends:
@bgg2wl addendum please: I’m too top heavy to do squats. Tips on how not to topple over. My leg & thigh muscle on fleek, tho. LOL
— DNLee (@DNLee5) May 16, 2017
@bgg2wl but for real tho…why us top heavy ladies got the bomb legs and thighs, tho?
— DNLee (@DNLee5) May 17, 2017
At which point, I thought to myself, why haven’t I specified tips for top-heavy women? Should be a no-brainer, right?
So, what do we mean by top-heavy? Top-heavy frequently means having a more round upper body, often characterized by a fuller tummy and arms. It doesn’t necessarily include what we think of as “large” breasts—proportionally speaking, they may be smaller than one’s tummy but still measure large when you put a tape measure around them.
What contributes to being top-heavy? For starters, genetics. Some of you Chesty McBreastersons have your parents to thank for you being Booby McTittytons with the whole alphabet after your band numbers (y’all are out here with 38Q breasts and I, with my jealousy because I’m losing my breastfeeding boobs, cannot even.) For many others, genetics play a role in other ways, like a disproportionate amount of body fat carried in your arms or belly.
What also contributes? Liver health concerns and a potentially high amount of sugar consumption, particularly the kinds of sugars found in processed foods like high fructose corn syrup. In a study literally titled “Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans,” it’s made abundantly clear in the first paragraph of the introduction:
Studies investigating the effects of fructose consumption in humans and animals have been comprehensively reviewed (1–4), and while strong evidence exists that consumption of diets high in fructose results in increased [making of fat cells], [fat in the blood, a cause for high blood pressure], insulin resistance (Erika’s note: this is a technical way of saying “causes diabetes”), and obesity in animals, direct experimental evidence that consumption of fructose promotes [fat storage], [excess fat in your blood stream, a cause for high blood pressure], insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and obesity in humans is lacking. Thus, we have investigated and compared the biological effects of the 2 major simple sugars in the diet, glucose and fructose, on BW and regional fat deposition and on indices of lipid and carbohydrate metabolism in older, overweight and obese men and women.
[…] Consumption of fructose-sweetened but not glucose-sweetened beverages for 10 weeks increased [fat storage], promoted [fat in your blood stream, a cause for high blood pressure], [diabetes], and increased [belly fat] in overweight/obese adults. [source]
A third thing that contributes? Excess stress. I know I haven’t talked about cortisol—the stress hormone—a lot before because, quite frankly, it was out of my range, but here’s the long and short of it:
A failure to manage your feelings of stress and anxiety results in it building up and needing to be alleviated in an ASAP fashion, and your body knows exactly what will make you feel better ASAP: junky food and couch+TV time.
There is a more hormonal explanation for cortisol that involves terms like “brown fat” and “viscera,” but the explanation above is more than enough to explain how stress contributes to that lovely round upper body.
And, having a disproportionately large upper body is what contributes to that leaner, stronger (and generally overdeveloped) lower body. When your life is centered around lots of sitting, standing, and walking instead of activity and movement that requires full body development, your legs get stronger from the activity while your upper body, well, doesn’t. What’s more, there’s a concept that most well-versed trainers know—when one part of the body is underdeveloped (like, say, your upper body), the muscles serving as a support for that part of the body will become overdeveloped in order to take over function for the underdeveloped part. (For my fellow nerds out there, the term you can google is “synergistic dominance.”)
So, if you have underdeveloped muscles in your back and stomach area—remember how I used to talk about needing to hold onto the top of the car door and the roof of the car in order to stand up while getting out? That’s a sign of a weak core—your legs work overtime to help you get the job done… hence the super-strong legs. We might look at them and think they’re awesome; from a trainer’s perspective, it looks like you probably have a harder time standing and sitting.
Hence, why she talked about toppling over when she tries to squat. It’s completely and utterly common. It’s also completely possible to fix.
For starters, crunches aren’t going to cut it. Honestly, floor crunches are quite possibly one of the most useless exercises you can do, especially if you’re top heavy—you’re likely to become demoralized long before you become stronger. If your upper body struggles through squatting, then crunches (or many other abs-specific exercises) are more likely to become the cause of an injury than the source of strength you need.
When it comes to squatting, assisted squats—squats where you hold onto something to prevent you from falling—are, to quote a prophet, major key. You have to train your upper body, of course, but you also have to change the way you think about the sitting and standing motion, which is basically what a squat is: sitting and standing repeatedly. You have you use your abdomen (in other words, squeeze your stomach) when you sit and stand, but since they’re not strong enough to support you properly, you might feel like you’re going to fall over. That’s why holding onto something helps—it helps you avoid falling over and injuring yourself. You can hold onto a barre, the arm of a chair, a banister, a counter top, anything that gives you a good grip and makes you feel comfortable lowering your body and lifting it back up.
Pay close attention to his posture—his back is straight, he’s not arching his back in any way,
You should also practice sitting and standing in an actual regular chair, something that allows your thighs to line up parallel to the ground when you’re sitting in it, so that you can practice using your core along with your lower body. You’ll want to teach yourself to use them together when you sit and stand outside of training. Start by practicing in a chair with arms, so that you can use your fingertips to balance on your way up as well as down. And, once you get the hang of it while using an armrest, then try it without the chair under you, like in the video above. And, when you’re feeling really fancy, try it while holding a broomstick at or above your shoulders as if it were a barbell.
Yes, I know it sounds silly, but it’s important. (This is the point in time where I wish I were still doing YouTube videos. Ugh.)
Using a broomstick as if it were a barbell will engage your back and upper body in a way that builds balance, strength, and agility—three things that are key to physical fitness, anyway.
If you do this for maybe 3-4 times a week for around 4 months, rest assured your core will be stronger, you will squat better, and your body will… what? Thank you for it!
For more on squatting:
- Q&A Wednesday: I’m Too Heavy to Do Squats!
- 5 Reasons Why Your Squats Aren’t Working, and 5 Tips to Guarantee Success
- Q&A Wednesday: Help, I’m Losing Weight but My Booty is Shrinking!
- Q&A Wednesday: Fitness Advice for Changing Body Shapes?
- How To Build A Fit Booty
- Q&A Wednesday: Why Can’t I Just Do Cardio?
And definitely check out my twitter friend (and real life sorority sister!) Danielle at @DNLee5 for her pro-science, pro-STEM tweets! If you’re wondering where I got the push to become more competent in learning the science behind fitness and nutrition… it’s definitely her!