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Can't get abs to show after two years of training


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I've been doing strength training for nearly two years now and for over a year I've pretty much consistently trained my abs for five days a week (around 30 - 50 minutes per session), alongside strength training, but I've gained no ab definition at all. I don't know what my body fat percentage is, but I'm not overweight (slightly under in fact - trying to gain a bit) so it could be a layer of fat covering them. I do a wide variety of exercises, some using a dumbbell, to target all areas. But I still have absolutely no definition and I don't know why. I think my diet is pretty good and I eat plenty of protein, so I wouldn't think it's that. Any thoughts?

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2 hours ago, Firecrest said:

I've been doing strength training for nearly two years now and for over a year I've pretty much consistently trained my abs for five days a week (around 30 - 50 minutes per session), alongside strength training, but I've gained no ab definition at all. I don't know what my body fat percentage is, but I'm not overweight (slightly under in fact - trying to gain a bit) so it could be a layer of fat covering them. I do a wide variety of exercises, some using a dumbbell, to target all areas. But I still have absolutely no definition and I don't know why. I think my diet is pretty good and I eat plenty of protein, so I wouldn't think it's that. Any thoughts?


Hmmm. Do you have muscle definition elsewhere? Whether or not the abs are visible is usually down to bodyfat percentage (just google "illustrated bodyfat percentage men/women" and you'll get a rough idea of what percentage you have to be for them to show up). That said, big muscles become visible at a higher bodyfat percentage than tiny muscles. If you're underweight, you may not have been increasing your muscle size despite your strength training--with some exceptions (e.g. beginners and overweight lifters) you have to gain weight to gain muscle size. If you're underweight, I wouldn't focus on cutting bodyfat percentage right now--I'd be aiming to gain weight slowly while lifting reasonably heavy weights. When you're a healthy weight and have a bit more muscle, you can decide if you want to try to cut bodyfat percentage. Keep in mind though, some people see abs at a higher bodyfat percentage if they store fat in the hips and thighs, or evenly across the whole body. Those who preferentially store fat in the torso will find it super hard to maintain a low enough bodyfat percentage to see clearly defined abs and it may not be worth it for them.

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17 hours ago, Harriet said:


Hmmm. Do you have muscle definition elsewhere? Whether or not the abs are visible is usually down to bodyfat percentage (just google "illustrated bodyfat percentage men/women" and you'll get a rough idea of what percentage you have to be for them to show up). That said, big muscles become visible at a higher bodyfat percentage than tiny muscles. If you're underweight, you may not have been increasing your muscle size despite your strength training--with some exceptions (e.g. beginners and overweight lifters) you have to gain weight to gain muscle size. If you're underweight, I wouldn't focus on cutting bodyfat percentage right now--I'd be aiming to gain weight slowly while lifting reasonably heavy weights. When you're a healthy weight and have a bit more muscle, you can decide if you want to try to cut bodyfat percentage. Keep in mind though, some people see abs at a higher bodyfat percentage if they store fat in the hips and thighs, or evenly across the whole body. Those who preferentially store fat in the torso will find it super hard to maintain a low enough bodyfat percentage to see clearly defined abs and it may not be worth it for them.

Thanks for your reply. I do have some muscle definition, mostly in my arms, back, and some in my calves and quads (though it's not so noticeable in my legs because I hold a lot of fat in my thighs), but none in my stomach area. I do get bloated quite a lot (partly because I'm vegan and eat lots of fibre I think), especially in my lower belly area, but even when I'm not very bloated I still have no definition whatsoever. It's strange because I have some muscle definition elsewhere like I said, but no ab definition, yet I train both relatively equally. So I'm obviously gaining some muscle somehow. Is there any way I can measure my body fat percentage without any expensive gadgets?

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19 minutes ago, Firecrest said:

Thanks for your reply. I do have some muscle definition, mostly in my arms, back, and some in my calves and quads (though it's not so noticeable in my legs because I hold a lot of fat in my thighs), but none in my stomach area. I do get bloated quite a lot (partly because I'm vegan and eat lots of fibre I think), especially in my lower belly area, but even when I'm not very bloated I still have no definition whatsoever. It's strange because I have some muscle definition elsewhere like I said, but no ab definition, yet I train both relatively equally. So I'm obviously gaining some muscle somehow. Is there any way I can measure my body fat percentage without any expensive gadgets?

 

These techniques aren't perfect, but you could try calipers, ask a trainer, or just visually compare to illustrated charts. If you've got definition elsewhere, it seems like it could be bloat, as you say--keep in mind that fitness models and bodybuilders get temporarily dehydrated for their shoots and competitions. Or it could just be the spot where you keep what little bodyfat you have. I have a tiny bit of definition on my upper body (at a moderately high BF%), but none in my legs. My spouse has really defined legs and a bit of a belly, lol. That's just how she made us. Defined abs will probably never be in his future, and I'd probably have to get underweight to see defined legs. If you already have low BF%, I would let go of the goal of getting clearly defined lower abs, to be honest, and maybe choose a different goal.

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Hey firecrest, abs are the single most difficult area for both men and women to define.  For most people, abs won't show until about 10% for men and 20% for women and if you want lower abs, you have to get even lower and that requires an extremely perfect diet routine

 

How tall are you and how much do you weigh?

 

 

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6 hours ago, FSchmieder said:

Hey firecrest, abs are the single most difficult area for both men and women to define.  For most people, abs won't show until about 10% for men and 20% for women and if you want lower abs, you have to get even lower and that requires an extremely perfect diet routine

 

How tall are you and how much do you weigh?

 

 

If I knew my rough body fat percentage that would probably give me a few hints but I don't think I can accurately find out. It's hard to use visual guides as well because I do get quite bloated (at least I think it's bloat) in my lower abdomen and sometimes I look rounder than others. I'm vegan so I just presume it's the large amounts of fibre I consume that causes it (even though I've been vegan nearly two years?) Anyway, I digress.

 

I'm not sure how tall I am but I'd estimate around 5'5" or 5'6" and I currently weigh around 49kg (fluctuates quite a bit), which, as I've mentioned, I'm trying to gain a bit.

 

Also how often would you recommend training abs? Am I training them enough (i.e. around five days a week for 30-50 minutes)? Do I need to add some more resistance somehow?

 

I do have a personal trainer but she absolutely hates training abs so we don't talk about it 😆

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On 4/16/2021 at 11:22 PM, Firecrest said:

Also how often would you recommend training abs? Am I training them enough (i.e. around five days a week for 30-50 minutes)? Do I need to add some more resistance somehow?

 

2.5+ hrs of training abs/week is a lot. How much time do you spend training/week in total?

 

How is your sleep and recovery? If you're holding on to some abdominal fat, dialling in these aspects - rather than spending more time exercising - may be more fruitful.

 

You do need to progressively increase your exercise difficulty if you want a strong core. There are some great suggestions in this thread: 

I'd actually recommend decreasing the amount of time you spend on abs and instead spending ~10 minutes ~3x/week on some difficult exercises, dialing in your sleep/nutrition (i.e., making sure you're eating enough and getting enough protein), and seeing if you notice any physical changes. If you like your long core sessions for the sake of them (rather than as a means towards the abs goal), though, that's a different story. I agree with Harriet that visible abs may just not be feasible for your body type, and even if they are, you may need extra prep (such as dehydration/fasting) to achieve the results you want. Alternatively, you may notice more physical changes and ab definition by focusing on overall body composition through whole-body strength training and gaining weight. 

 

This overview of the amount of effort it takes to reach certain physiques may also be helpful (keeping in mind these are averages and will vary depending on age, health status, fat distribution, etc.): https://www.precisionnutrition.com/cost-of-getting-lean In particular, there is a lot that goes into being lean besides low weight and exercise.

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18 hours ago, Alanna said:

 

2.5+ hrs of training abs/week is a lot. How much time do you spend training/week in total?

 

How is your sleep and recovery? If you're holding on to some abdominal fat, dialling in these aspects - rather than spending more time exercising - may be more fruitful.

 

You do need to progressively increase your exercise difficulty if you want a strong core. There are some great suggestions in this thread: 

I'd actually recommend decreasing the amount of time you spend on abs and instead spending ~10 minutes ~3x/week on some difficult exercises, dialing in your sleep/nutrition (i.e., making sure you're eating enough and getting enough protein), and seeing if you notice any physical changes. If you like your long core sessions for the sake of them (rather than as a means towards the abs goal), though, that's a different story. I agree with Harriet that visible abs may just not be feasible for your body type, and even if they are, you may need extra prep (such as dehydration/fasting) to achieve the results you want. Alternatively, you may notice more physical changes and ab definition by focusing on overall body composition through whole-body strength training and gaining weight. 

 

This overview of the amount of effort it takes to reach certain physiques may also be helpful (keeping in mind these are averages and will vary depending on age, health status, fat distribution, etc.): In particular, there is a lot that goes into being lean besides low weight and exercise.

Just had a read of that article - really insightful.

 

The abs work I do is a bit of a mixture of cardio and abs, but mostly abs. I probably do around three hours or slightly more of abs per week. Since my trainer doesn't really do much for abs, I don't really know what a good amount is. My main focus (and what I've been doing for coming up to two years now) is strength training (with my PT). I currently do this usually six days a week (generally having Sunday off) for an hour per session, usually training lower body three times a week and upper body three times a week. I haven't really improved much and I still can't lift very much weight but I'm consistent and I do what I can. I'm trying to change my body composition but I don't seem to put on much muscle no matter how hard I train. I've gained some obviously, just not what I would have expected after two years of training.

 

The amount of sleep I get varies a lot. I have quite a few commitments (uni, bird ringing (once a week), gym etc.) so the hours of sleep I get can vary from around six hours to eight hours (sometimes only four or five on the bird ringing day). I have a nap most days, which could be 20 minutes or over an hour (I know that's a bit too long). So although my sleeping schedule is quite varied, I don't think I'm severely lacking in sleep.

 

The problem is, for quite a few people who ask questions like this (not necessarily overweight by any means), it's OK for them to just lose a bit of weight (hence losing fat) and they'll probably get results. But because I'm a little bit underweight, I can't do that so technically I can't lose any fat (if I'm getting that right - correct me if I'm wrong).

 

I think I'll try increasing my protein a bit even if that means adding more protein powder - I'm not sure how much more beans and pulses my body can take if you know what I mean 😉.

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25 minutes ago, Firecrest said:

Just had a read of that article - really insightful.

 

The abs work I do is a bit of a mixture of cardio and abs, but mostly abs. I probably do around three hours or slightly more of abs per week. Since my trainer doesn't really do much for abs, I don't really know what a good amount is. My main focus (and what I've been doing for coming up to two years now) is strength training (with my PT). I currently do this usually six days a week (generally having Sunday off) for an hour per session, usually training lower body three times a week and upper body three times a week. I haven't really improved much and I still can't lift very much weight but I'm consistent and I do what I can. I'm trying to change my body composition but I don't seem to put on much muscle no matter how hard I train. I've gained some obviously, just not what I would have expected after two years of training.

 

The amount of sleep I get varies a lot. I have quite a few commitments (uni, bird ringing (once a week), gym etc.) so the hours of sleep I get can vary from around six hours to eight hours (sometimes only four or five on the bird ringing day). I have a nap most days, which could be 20 minutes or over an hour (I know that's a bit too long). So although my sleeping schedule is quite varied, I don't think I'm severely lacking in sleep.

 

The problem is, for quite a few people who ask questions like this (not necessarily overweight by any means), it's OK for them to just lose a bit of weight (hence losing fat) and they'll probably get results. But because I'm a little bit underweight, I can't do that so technically I can't lose any fat (if I'm getting that right - correct me if I'm wrong).

 

I think I'll try increasing my protein a bit even if that means adding more protein powder - I'm not sure how much more beans and pulses my body can take if you know what I mean 😉.

 

9+ hrs/week of training and not seeing much results sounds really frustrating. Is your main goal aesthetics (e.g., like bodybuilding), strength, cardio fitness/conditioning, or some combination/something else?

 

If your strength and body composition aren't improving much with that level of time investment, I suspect your programming (e.g., rep ranges and progressive increase in difficulty) and/or nutrition needs to be modified to reach your goals. If you are short on time, you can probably reduce the number of sessions and still see better results with these tweaks. Regularly getting <8 hrs of sleep could be hurting you too. I'm not sure how to factor in the naps, as that probably depends on the sleep quality as well (and I won't judge you for taking longer naps! Rest is important for health, too - do what you need to to get it). 

 

Nutriton-wise I completely agree that you shouldn't be losing weight - I'd suggest gaining and making sure you get enough protein, which can be tricky on a vegan diet. Protein powder is a great way to get more protein if you're struggling to get enough from dietary sources! 

 

As far as how much time you need to spend on core, it depends on your other programming. You can get a lot of core strength (and core muscle mass) already from full-body exercises like heavy squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, etc., without targeting your core separately. That said, some supplementary core exercises like the ones in jdanger's post can be helpful regardless, but those can be done in ~10 minutes a few times a week at the end of your workouts. 

 

To accentuate the above suggestions - Staci's transformation is a great example of how putting on mass can result in more ab definition. Compare her 2010 photo to her later ones in 2011, 2013, and 2019: https://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/female-powerlifters-meet-staci-ardison/ She will have had periods of weight loss and maintenance during this time, too, not just gaining, but overall she's gotten leaner and has more definition after substantially increasing her weight. Her main changes were doing heavy, full-body strength training while eating at a calorie surplus.

 

The bird work sounds fun, by the way - I did some undergraduate research with wild goldfinches. Uni provides a lot of cool opportunities, and in my personal experience it isn't worth sacrificing those experiences for fitness extremes. That said, I suspect you might be able to make progress towards your goals with less time investment (i.e., by "working smarter, not harder"). Again, though, that depends on if you like your current workouts, even if they aren't optimal for your strength and/or aesthetic goals - if they keep you fit and happy and you enjoy them, they are still very beneficial!

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Hey so 5'5''-5'6'' at 49kg I think 100% the thing you need to focus on is gaining muscle.  I would in fact suggest you cut down on the amount of exercise you do as you just need to grow muscle and working out so much is basically leeching away any progress you can make, especially being vegan as that makes it difficult to take in enough calories and protein in a day. 

 

In short, you don't have enough muscle on your frame.  I know plenty of females who are 5'4''-5'6'' who weigh anywhere from 130-150lbs who are in great shape.

This is what I would focus on:

1 - eat more food and more protein.  I'd aim to get at least 100 grams of protein a day.  I don't know if you're tracking calories or your feelings on that, but, again, 49kg at your height is very light and you can look to slowly gain weight

2 - cut down on the exercise.  You're exercising a TON in order to get smaller and reveal your abs.  You in fact need to exercise less and give your muscles time and energy to recover and grow larger

3- get progressively stronger each week - you should be able to do more reps or more weight pretty much every week

As you add muscle to your body, your metabolism will increase and it'll be easier to show off your abs as your body drops body fat.  You're in a really great position actually to get abs as you are really small and can easily add lean muscle to your body which will help you show them off

Just to give you an idea this woman is 130lbs in both pictures and is about 5'5''

 

37235664_296951087708258_7535754235204337664_n (1).jpg

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