Having perfectly sculpted abs is a dream many people have.
Toned abs are portrayed as a sign of beauty and strength on the covers of magazines as well as on social media feeds. Yet, for the average person, they feel elusive and something that can only be achieved in dreams – or with the help of cosmetic interventions.
In fact, a recent survey found that 55% of people who exercise (two or more times per week) would be willing to undergo nonsurgical interventions (e.g., abdominal contouring, cool sculpting) to help them achieve a visible six-pack (
The obsession with achieving the perfect, flat stomach can take its toll mentally, physically, emotionally, and in some cases, financially.
Instead, shifting the focus to what the abs can do — rather than what they look like — can help in seeing and appreciating the value and strength of the human body.
To understand why your abs may or may not be visible, let’s take a quick look at anatomy.
Your abs consist of four main muscles (
- rectus abdominis (known as the “six-pack”)
- transverse abdominis (the corset-like muscle that wraps around your core)
- internal and external obliques (your muscles along the sides of your core)
Your abdominal muscles are located below the skin’s three layers: epidermis, dermis, and the hypodermis (also known as the subcutaneous layer) (
In particular, the hypodermis is the fatty portion of skin that stores energy (i.e., fat), provides protection and insulation, and attaches the upper layers of skin to muscle and fascia (
Since the hypodermis sits above the abdominal muscles, it may be thick enough to “hide” your abdominal muscles from clear sight. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as having sufficient body fat is important for your health.
In fact, having enough body fat — especially for women — is crucial for many physiological functions, such as fertility, hormone production, vitamin absorption and storage, and temperature regulation (
Having visible abs means that you have a low enough body fat percentage to make the muscles underneath show. Those who are also physically strong may have more pronounced abdominal muscles.
What’s more, where your body stores most of its fat is largely up to genetics and hormones. For example, women tend to store more fat in their hips and buttocks, while men tend to store most of their fat in the belly area, which is largely due to hormonal differences (
Further, as estrogen levels naturally decline in women as they age, there’s a greater tendency for their bodies to store fat in the stomach area, making it more difficult to have visible abs (
Finally, any excess skin — such as from above-average weight loss — may also be thick enough to cover your abs.
Ultimately, there are many factors that can determine whether you have visible abs.
A layer of fat known as subcutaneous fat, which is found in the hypodermis of the skin, covers the abs. Depending on the thickness of this layer, your abs may not be visible. Age, genetics, hormones, and whether there’s excess skin covering the abs can play a role.
An obsession with perfect abs can lead to problematic behaviors and thoughts, such as extreme dieting or an unhealthy fixation with “healthy” eating, over-exercising, and negative self-talk and self-worth (
As mentioned, there are many reasons as to whether or not you may have visible abs, many of which you cannot control.
What’s interesting about society is its ability to pick and choose which parts of the body are a person’s fault or purely based on the cards they’re dealt.
For example, there’s acceptance of the fact that one person can be 5’2″ (157 cm), while another can be 6’4″ (193 cm), it’s labeled as genetics. But, people without washboard abs can somehow be seen as “less healthy,” and society ignores the genetic component of ab presentation.
By coming to terms with the unique — and incredible — differences among people, it can help in shifting the focus to what truly matters, which is people enjoying the bodies they’re in and reaching and maintaining their personal peak levels of health in those bodies.
That said, this is not something that can simply be “switched on.” It takes years of dismantling the social norms and viewpoints surrounding body image and what “healthy” actually looks like.
If you have challenges with body image and believe that you have or may develop disordered eating or exercise behaviors, it’s important to reach out to qualified healthcare professionals, such as therapists or registered dietitians who specialize in disordered behaviors.
The pursuit of having perfect abs can come at a cost to both your physical and mental health. A person is not automatically healthier because they have visible abs.
Having strong abs has many purposes, such as (
- moving and supporting our spine (e.g., bending, lifting, rotating)
- increasing abdominal pressure (e.g., during defecation, urination, or sneezing)
- supporting breathing
- protecting and holding your internal organs in place
- maintaining posture
Our abs are designed to help us move throughout life without putting excess strain on our back and spine. By having strong abs, you’re more likely to be able to perform daily tasks and exercises with greater control and ease (
What’s more, creating goals based on performance and function can be more realistic and noticeable for you. For example, being able to achieve a 1-minute plank is a great accomplishment and one that you might choose to work toward.
Setting realistic goals that you’re comfortable with can help you stay motivated in your fitness journey and relieve any ongoing stress, obsession, or frustration you may be experiencing from the pursuit of perfect abs.
Therefore, try to focus more on the importance of building strong abs for function, rather than aesthetics which typically has a lesser purposeful impact in our daily lives.
Creating goals based on function and performance is measurable and noticeable, which can help keep you motivated in your fitness journey.
If you’re looking to strengthen your abs, here are some helpful tips (
- Include variety. Ab exercises target different abdominal muscles. For example, wood chops target the obliques, while the dead bug exercise targets the transversus abdominis.
- Prioritize isometric (static) exercises. Isometric exercise involves bracing the abdominals and holding them for a period of time (e.g., a plank). This can help develop better stability and posture. Further, they’re the best at targeting all your ab muscles at once.
- Brace your core during other exercises. Your abs are involved in most exercises, especially compound moves such as squats and deadlifts. They’re also involved in walking and running. Bracing your core not only protects your spine but will also help strengthen it.
- Do not overdo it. It may be tempting to do hundreds of crunches a day, but like your other muscles, overworking them can lead to injury and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
- Take it slow. Slow down your ab exercises and focus on contracting your abs. This will help you better target your muscles and reduce the risk of injury.
If you would like to reduce belly fat, keep in mind that ab exercises will not target belly fat. Instead, you’re only able to reduce your overall body fat, which will be where your body decides to lose it.
The best way to achieve meaningful fat loss is to achieve a small calorie deficit of no more than 10–20% of your calorie needs through increasing exercise and eating a minimally processed diet that includes lean proteins, fiber, and healthy fats (
While ab exercises won’t target fat loss, they can help you build abdominal strength. Incorporate a variety of ab exercises to your routine for the best results.
An obsession with perfect abs is not a productive or healthy behavior.
Whether you have visible abs is determined by a variety of factors, such as your body fat percentage, genetics, age, and any excess skin. While some people may have visible abs and have limited, if any, health concerns, others may not.
For many people, the pursuit of perfect abs may come at a cost to both their physical and mental health. Instead, it can be better to focus your efforts on building core strength, which can help increase your performance and help you better function in your daily life.
Though it may take time to dismantle societal pressure to have a flat stomach, you can start feeling more empowered by what your body can do, rather than what it looks like.
Just one thing
As you go about your week, take notice of what your abs can do for you, such as helping you bend and lift a heavy box, hold a plank, and support your daily movement.