If You Want Your Abs to Show, Losing Weight Isn't the Only Thing in the Equation, Experts Say
Everyone has abs. Rondel King, MS, CSCS, exercise physiologist at the NYU Langone Sports Performance Center, told POPSUGAR that if we didn't have abdominal muscles, we would be a lot less stable and wouldn't be able to do daily tasks (think carrying groceries up flights of stairs). But if you're trying to see them more, that means you have a "significant amount of adipose tissue," Rondel noted. Adipose tissue is what's commonly referred to as fat, he said. There are varying types of fat: subcutaneous fat, for example and put simply, is what you can pinch and visceral fat is located around your organs within the abdominal cavity. When fat accumulates inside your organs, that's referred to as ectopic.
It's important to note that everyone's body is different — everyone stores fat differently — and even if your abs aren't completely visible, that doesn't mean they aren't strong. Registered dietitian and NASM-certified personal trainer Alix Turoff, MS, CDN, told POPSUGAR that you could have very little body fat and a six-pack but actually be very weak. "Strength is a result of the type of training you're doing," she said. "Some people with great aesthetics will look ripped and don't have a ton of functional strength, meaning the type of strength that translates into everyday life."
Additionally, Alix said that you need a certain amount of body fat in order to really see abs, so losing weight overall would therefore help. It varies depending on the person, but in general, "women may begin to see abs show through at a body fat percentage below 24 percent and men might notice abdominal definition below 17 percent. For some people, this percentage might need to be even lower," she noted. This echos what we've reported on in the past. Here's what Alix, Rondel, and another expert said about the best ways to successfully lose weight and make your abs more visible.
Make Sure You're in a Caloric Deficit and You're Eating Enough Protein
Rondel said the first thing to target is your energy expenditure or energy balance. "Essentially that means watching your calories in and calories out," he told us, explaining that you need to expend more than you eat and create a negative balance with a caloric deficit, but you shouldn't be in too much of a deficit. Alix stood by what she said in a previous interview, that people looking to lose weight should start with a deficit of about 15 to 20 percent below their maintenance, or the calories they'd need to maintain their current weight. So, if your maintenance calories were 2,000 per day, your deficit would be 300 to 400 calories fewer than 2,000 (1,600-1,700 calories a day). A major deficit, she said, isn't sustainable.
If you're only looking to lose weight and also build your ab muscles, she said your protein intake needs to be higher. "It's always important to get adequate protein, but if you want to support the work you're doing in the gym, it's even more important to prioritize protein while in a caloric deficit," she explained. "By keeping protein adequate, you are ensuring that your muscles have the opportunity to repair after exercise."
Alix recommended a protein intake of about 30 percent of your total calories when in a caloric deficit. "For example, on a 1,500-calorie diet, if 30 percent of the calories are coming from protein, your goal would be about 113 grams of protein per day," she said. Note: one gram of protein equals four calories (you take 30 percent of 1,500 and divide that by four). Also, don't forget to eat well-balanced meals with healthy fats and complex carbs along with that protein.
Fat-Burning, Calorie-Burning Workouts and Core Strength
ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and head of fitness at Trainiac Geoff Tripp, CSCS, told POPSUGAR that keeping your body composition as lean as possible will enable your muscles to show more, abs included. Getting rid of fat in the abdomen will help, though you can't spot reduce, nor can you spot train. Spot reduction is the false belief that you can eliminate fat from a specific part of your body. Spot training, Rondel explained, is trying to target a specific muscle. "For instance, if you want to get bigger triceps, you will see some muscle gain when you target that specific muscle, but it will be very limited," he said. What you can do is take a global approach to weight loss and do workouts that are proven to shed fat and boost your metabolism — high-intensity interval training and strength training, for example — and incorporate ab workouts as well.
If you're just starting a workout routine, Rondel said that you should focus on more stability-based exercises that teach you how to engage your core. It's also important to work on core rotation with moves like ball throws. "Popular exercises would be crunches and sit-ups, but you need the necessary control of your core muscles and the necessary stability first before getting into any flexion," he said.
A general guideline for focused core work, Geoff said, is three to four days per week. (We've interviewed trainers in the past who've stressed the importance of giving your abs the proper time to recover, so training your abs every day wouldn't be recommended by some.) Geoff noted the following exercises:
Check out even more moves to increase your core strength here as well as some quick YouTube ab workouts. And, if you're really up for a challenge, you can try Halle Berry's five-move ab routine. Using weights isn't needed all of the time, but is necessary to develop your muscles, Geoff said. This concept is called progressive overload, where you continue to challenge your muscles to see growth.
Geoff and Rondel both said you should also be doing compound movements that use your core and target large muscle groups, such as squats and lunges, because they "tax your system more" and promote more muscle development. Rondel explained that these exercises promote muscle hypertrophy, where you increase your overall muscle mass and, as a result, your resting metabolic rate, or the rate at which you burn calories at rest. A higher resting metabolic rate can aid with weight loss. Geoff advised, "A basic rule of thumb I like to follow is being efficient with the time you have to work out. Don't waste your time doing a bunch of isolation moves because they look cool. Instead, focus on compound, large movements to get the hard work done. Your muscles will thank you for it!"