“No matter what I’ve done, I can’t seem to get my abs to show.”
Just about everyone has had this conversation with themselves. Some people view abs as the epitome of health and fitness. So when you have someone that has been working out for quite some time, but their abs aren’t developed as much as they want, it makes that person feel as they are lacking the title of being healthy and fit. Weird, right?
(Side Note: Having visible abs is NOT the epitome of health and fitness. Being healthy and fit can vary with each person’s unique biology, psychology, and personal goals. So don’t think you have to have visible abs to be considered healthy or fit)
I’m going to give you some background.
-Female, 49, 20% Bodyfat (yes she’s lean)
-Has been working out for 3 years.
-Works out 5xweek with weights with a bodybuilder split (Mon Chest, Tues Leg, Wed Back, etc.)
-Does HIIT cardio 1xweek and steady-state cardio 2xweek
-Eats reasonably well at about 1800 cals, give or take, with one cheat meal each weekend
-Does 10min of direct ab work after each weight training workout
-Currently, no known hormonal issues and is not premenopausal
Her stomach is flat, and you can see some abdominal lines on the sides and the outline of the upper abs.
But that’s not what she wanted; she wants her abs to show and pop more.
Now I asked her why she didn’t do MORE abs, but she talked about how, when she would do them more, they would sweal, and she didn’t’ like that look.
I knew exactly what she meant and what she needed to do next, but…
What would you tell her to do?
Think about that for a bit, and when your ready, scroll down for what we got her to do.
A quick hint before you scroll down; yes, diet is a large part of the answer, but it wasn’t her only answer, so don’t focus only on nutrition.
Answer: Do MORE focused ab work
Right off the bat, yes, diet is a factor, but she was already relatively lean, to begin with (she used a BodPod for bodyfat tracking, which measures more than just subconscious fat), and if you’re hitting 19-20% in a Bodpod your abs are going to show.
What was simply happening, in her case, is here abs were NOT developed enough.
She had well-developed legs and arms, but her abs were significantly underdeveloped and didn’t match the rest of her body.
To maybe give you a better idea, she had skinny abs, not lean fit abs.
In this context, Skinny abs are when you see a person who has abs but only because they are skinny, not because they are strong and athletic.
We had to get her to train her abs with the same intensity and frequency that she did with the rest of her body.
She would have TWO full days of training dedicated ONLY to her legs, and the same with her arms, combined with her healthy eating, explains why those muscles looked great.
With her abs, she would only do 10min after a workout, and it was not with the same intensity as her other body parts. (To help give you a better idea of intensity, when she would world legs and arms, you could see the visible strain in her body from working so hard, but with abs, it looked more like a warm-up for her) Again it wasn’t with the same effort.
NOW… you may remember that she didn’t’ want to do more because they would sweal up after harder ab workouts and she didn’t’ like that look.
They would sweal because she worked her abs enough in that workout they would sweal due to inflammation. The same kind of inflammation you get from a sore muscle following a hard workout. It always goes does after 1-2 days, but if you work a muscle hard enough, it will get sore and sweal for a few days. This is normal.
With her, she had to accept that for a few months, this would happen, but understand it would always go away after 1-2 days.
This is what we had her do
-Dedicated 30-40min twice a week ONLY to her abs
-Varied the exercises but kept track of her numbers (sets and reps)
-Strive to beat those numbers EACH workout.
-Added in weighted ab exercises
-She would do this in intervals ONLY on her cardio days to not take away from her other weight training days
A workout could look like this…
HIIT + Abs
20min EMOM (every min on the min)
Min 1: 10cals on air bike or treadmill sprint
Min 2: Weighted one knee cable crunch x 15
Min 3: 10cals on air bike or treadmill sprint
Min 4: Alt Leg V-ups x 10/leg
Min 5: Repeat for 20min
-We would record the number, and next time this workout popped up she would have to do 1 more rep on her abs or more weight
-Also, this was one part of the workout; she would have 2-3 parts in total.
Steady-state cardio + abs
(This is a sample of a workout we did last week here at RTC)
90sec of cardio keeping the HR at 70-75% of max followed by 60sec of abs from the list below
1. Zombie Ab Mat Sit-up on a Bench
2. Side Plank Hip Extension to Rotation w/weight (40sec R, 40sec L)
3. Alt Leg Shin Huggers
4. Hollow Body Lateral Rocks
5. Alt Toes to Bar (or toes to rings)
6. DB Twisting Toe Taps
7. Alt DB Overhead Sit-up
8. Leg Raise to Hip Thrust with Rotation
Complete 2 rounds
(Each time a workout like this popped up, we increased the time until she was doing 90sec of abs THEN we changed things up)
So you can see that she quickly when from 10min of ab work to twice a week of more focused decided ab work and focused on adding weight, reps, or time to each workout.
So what happened:
Gosh, I wish I had pics because showing the difference is always better than telling the difference. Long and short, after 2 weeks we noticed a difference then 2 months later, it was a night and day difference, and 6 months later, they were her most impressive body part. When she lay on a bench to do chest work, they would show through her shirt LOL!.
She got to the point that even at a higher BF, her abs were showing.
This is kinda cool because, FOR HER, she didn’t have to maintain a low body fat year-round; but instead, she allowed herself to get a bit higher and still felt good about her physique.
What to take away.
Your abs are like any other muscle in that a combination of healthy eating AND intense workouts will cause them to develop.
Many people don’t train their abs hard enough; they are a LARGE muscle and need more than 1-2 exercises of 12-20 reps. They need weights, volume, variety, and progressive overload (more reps, sets, weight). Treat them like you would with your legs and arms and work them hard.
If you’re in this situation, do MORE dedicated ab work (use the workouts that I listed above as a starting point) AND, of course, focus on healthy eating and getting your BF level lower.
In the beginning, it may not be fun because you won’t feel like your good at training your abs; it’s human nature not to like something you don’t feel good at, but just get passed that. Once you do, you’ll enjoy the results.
Travis Merritt, BS, CPT, (and other letters behind the name) is the Owner of Rowlett Transformation Center in Rowlett, TX.