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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I am trying to get into shape for summer, and the parts I really need to work on are my stomach, glutes and legs. I'm especially having a problem with my stomach - after having two children, I have a pooch I can't seem to get rid of. I'd also like to add some shape to my legs - I don't mind having a few muscles! Any suggestions would be appreciated!

(Article continued below.)

There are few women who are happy with themselves from the waist down. The way to fix that is twofold: exercise and acceptance. When it comes to the abdominals, both are especially important for women who have had children. The process of pregnancy and childbirth really does a number on a woman's midsection. Often, through diet and ab exercises - plus a hefty dose of patience - women can get their midsections back into shape (although few see a complete return to their pre-pregnancy abs, it has been accomplished by some). Keep in mind that diet is part of the equation when it comes to creating flat abs - if your diet is high in fat and sugar, you just won't get the results you are looking for. Go for quality - lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid consuming too many breads, pasta and refined grains such as white rice. This is true whether you need to lose weight or not - if you do need to drop a few pounds, you also need to cut down on your caloric intake. But even if you're happy with your weight, healthy eating will help you build muscle and increase your energy. This will go a long way to help change your body composition (in other words, your fat to lean muscle ratio).

Now for the exercise part - there are, literally, hundreds of different abdominal exercises out there. They're nearly all good, too. You can pretty much choose any group of abdominal exercises you want, provided you practice good form. Anyone who has a serious problem developing their midsection is either eating a poor diet, or practicing bad form in their exercises, or both. When you work your abs, make sure the contractions are coming from your midsection. If you are feeling neck or back strain, or you feel the effort in your hip flexors (where your legs meet your torso), then you are not giving your abs enough focus. The best way to put together a good ab workout is to consult a personal trainer - or you can pick up an exercise video that focuses on abs (just pay strict attention to the instructor's cues). One of the better videos around is Tamilee Webb's I Want Those Abs!.

If, after all this diligent work, you still have a bit of stomach sag, it's possible that your skin just never snapped back after the babies. This happens to some women and it's something that just can't be helped. If you really, really hate it, you're done bearing children and you have quite a bit of disposable cash, you could always get a tummy tuck to remove this excess skin. A better solution, however, would be to just accept it. Chances are that no one else really notices it much, if at all. And honestly, if you do have that much cash, wouldn't you be better off putting it towards your kids' college fund?

Shaping up your legs and glutes is an easier project to tackle, especially if you don't mind having muscle definition. Those women who are in awe of models' stem-like legs often don't realize that those legs are genetic. If you've never had slender legs, no matter how thin you've ever been, you just aren't going to have them, period. You can still have strong, shapely legs, however, if you train them properly. Classic, compound movements such as squats and lunges work wonders for your legs and glutes, especially if you hold dumbbells while performing them. The wider squats, with your legs past hip width, will focus more on your glutes, while the more narrow squats, with your feet just a few inches apart, will focus on your quads - the muscles at the front of your thighs. The key to squats and lunges is the form - knees shouldn't go over the toes, and in lunges, the knee and ankle should be in complete alignment. It's a good idea to meet with a personal trainer to make sure you are doing these exercises properly (he or she can also add some more exercises specific to your body type and needs). Good form will help you get the most out of these moves, and they'll help you avoid injury. If your knees are bothersome, you can still work your leg muscles with the help of the machines at the gym - they aren't as stressful on your knee joints. To get results quickly, go ahead and use as much weight as you can handle and still keep good form, and work your legs twice a week - just make sure you give yourself a couple days' recovery time in between leg workouts. Never work your legs two days in a row and don't work them when they are still sore from the last workout, even if it has been a couple of days. The legs contain very large muscle groups and it's necessary for them to rest between workouts to get optimum results. Women who don't want to build as much muscle mass can use lighter weights and higher reps, and they will also benefit by taking up running, which generally helps to keep the legs leaner looking. In any case, diet is important here, too - eat quality protein and carbs to give your developing muscles the nourishment they need.

If you take these suggestions to heart and put in an effort, you will have the best lower body you can create. This is not to say you will have the perfect lower body, or the type of legs and abs that would make the latest hot celebrity envious - once again, a lot relies on genetics. But you will have strong, firm legs, a flat (or flatter) stomach and you will look nice in a bathing suit - certainly a lot better than a woman who never works out! So be happy with the results you get, and realize that you're doing wonderful things for yourself by exercising and eating a healthy diet. In the long run, that's the most important part.

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