How hard will you work for the abs of your dreams?
While some may see the journey to a six-pack as a superficial chase, they’re really much more than that. Flat abs aren’t just for athletes, models, and the genetically blessed — they’re a result of head-to-toe body care and love.
You may know some who have them as a result of good genes while others have them because of the many health choices they make. But as you age, especially as you enter your 40s, the paths to abs become more and more a result of commitment and hard work.
We spoke to nine women, from the ages of 29 to 62, about their journey to their “ideal abs.” No matter what motivation they started with, they all end up here: healthier, stronger, and loving life.
After Katrina Pilkington, 38, gave birth to her daughter one-and-a-half years ago, she stared at the mirror and wondered what in the world she should do to get back into shape.
“For me, it was about being patient. Your body goes through so much. It’s not just a matter of how hard you work or what you eat but letting your body get back to where you were,” she says.
In addition to slowly working on her mobility and strength, Pilkington also began to change her diet. For example, she switched to a primarily plant-based diet.
She also eliminated dairy because she noticed it made her breastfeeding daughter gassy. Without dairy, her daughter was less fussy, but Pilkington also noticed she herself was feeling less bloated too.
Now, 18 months after giving birth, she’s leaner than she was before she became a mother.
Pilkington credits her current success to her daughter.
“Before, it was about fitting into a bikini or a midriff dress. Abs were a great side effect of what I was doing,” she says. “Now, I want to be healthy for my daughter.”
The other key factor? Time, or lack of it. Pilkington fits her workouts in when and where she can. “My workouts need to be efficient and effective,” she says. Her sessions typically include a mix of cardio, intervals, plyometrics, strength, mobility, and flexibility. “It’s made me a better athlete.”
Two years ago, Dawn Moore decided to challenge herself. “As you get older, it’s more about longevity and having the sustainability to do these things, not just when you’re 40 but when you’re 60 and 70,” she says.
While the 48-year-old nurse from Los Angeles ate healthy foods and enjoyed endurance sports and yoga, she wanted to step it up.
So she joined a local gym and began taking boot camp classes and lifting weights. As she started seeing gains in her strength, she finally decided to work toward her goal of strong abs with visible muscle definition.
She knew it would require a higher level of commitment — both in the gym and in the kitchen — and she was ready to go all-in.
This spring, Moore signed up for a two-month challenge at her gym. With the help of her coaches and a supportive community, she took on an intense training, clean eating (think lots of lean protein and vegetables, but no processed food or sugar), and carb-cycling program.
It was a lot of hard work, and Moore made sacrifices to achieve her abs goal — waking up early, working out late, saying no to happy hours, prepping meals, and bringing her own food while she traveled.
Her workouts easily spanned two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. But she says it was worth it.
Not only is she the leanest she’s been (her body fat percentage went down from 18.5 percent to 15.8 percent), but also her posture and gait have improved. She’s also grown mentally stronger. “I rediscovered that youthful fire to push my potential,” she reflects.
Don’t stress about abs “The more pressure you put on yourself to have this perfect body, the more your cortisol levels [your body’s stress hormone] increases. You’re literally stressing yourself out instead of just focusing on doing the work.” — Katrina Pilkington, 37, mother
Now that she’s achieved her goal, Moore intends to keep cardio workouts and rock climbing in her schedule and scale back her strength training to three days a week. And she’ll loosen the reins on her diet, too, opting to count her macros and allowing herself some cheat meals.
“I want to know that each year is a celebration of the best health I can possibly achieve for myself,” she says.
As an Instagram fitness megastar with 1.3 million followers, you’d assume that Anna Victoria would be all about her abs. But her physical transformation has been more focused on improving her health than changing how she looks or losing weight.
Victoria grew up eating fast food. In her early 20s, she says it took a toll on her health, forcing her to change her habits. In 2012, she decided to commit to a healthier diet and lifestyle along with exercise. Overall, she says that it took about nine months to see her body change to the one you see today.
But even with enviable abs, Victoria says her belly pooch is still there.
“It’s just my body type!” she acknowledges. “I’ve had to accept that everyone has a different body type and holds fat in different places.”
She also wants to send a clear message to her community: there’s a lot to posing on Instagram; don’t compare yourself to others.
“Typically, the images you see are very curated, intentional, posed, and perfect. They’re the 1 percent of someone’s life, if that! I wanted to show the “99 percent” and show a photo where I wasn’t posed and done up,” she reminds us.
This body love philosophy has shot her to social media fame. As the founder of the Body Love app, Victoria follows her own HIIT strength workouts and meal plan, tracking macros and following the 80/20 rule. While she likes to push herself, maintaining a balanced lifestyle is her priority.
“As I’ve gone through my fitness journey, lost body fat, [and] strengthened my core and abdominal muscles, I am definitely proud, not so much of the lean tummy, but of the strength in my core,” she says. Abs aren’t just there for looks. They’re crucial for body support through daily life and can give you the confidence to carry yourself with purpose.
Your body doesn’t have to look “perfect” to love it.
Alison Feller doesn’t want to see her abs. That’s because it means that she’s in the middle of a Crohn’s disease flare.
“It’s the only time in my life I have visible abs muscles, but only because I’m so malnourished and dehydrated,” the 33-year old freelance writer from West New York, New Jersey says.
“People who don’t know I’m sick always tell me how great I look. What they don’t know is that I feel like I’m dying inside. I don’t have a six-pack because I’m working my butt off for it and planking ‘round the clock — I only look that way because of my disease.”
Feller was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of seven, so she’s acutely aware of the constant shifts in her body. As an adult, she tends to carry weight around her midsection. The ever-changing numbers on the scale bring on conflicting feelings of wanting to look a certain way and what it means for her health.
“When I start to regain the weight I lost, it does something weird to me mentally. I’m thrilled to feel well, eat, and not run to the bathroom 30+ times a day. But it’s weird that, at the same time, clothes that looked great are tight again. The compliments stop,” she says.
She no longer expects her body to look a certain way. Her “ideal abs” are more about her insides than how she looks on the outside. On her healthy days, she takes advantage to do the best she can —whether that’s a run, a class, or a hike.
“I hope that no struggle or disease ever fully robs me of my motivation and the joy I get from a great sweat,” she says. “While yes, a flat stomach does make me feel strong and confident, nothing compares to how great I feel when I’m healthy.”
When Jamie Bergin started working with a health coach in March 2018, it wasn’t to reveal her abs or lose weight. She wanted to figure out why she was tired all the time.
“I know I run, have kids, and work, but I was always exhausted. I never seemed to bounce back like all those other mother runners,” says the 39-year old mother of two from New Brunswick, Canada.
Bergin tweaked her diet and discovered that she was sensitive to gluten and that caffeine was causing her inflammation.
She also learned to make smarter, quality food choices while she continued to train for a spring half marathon. The mother runner added strength training to her routine too, complementing her weekly Pilates sessions.
By the end of 28 days, Bergin lost seven pounds and regained her energy. “I was shocked by the weight loss. I thought I was in pretty good shape. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon and was training for a half marathon,” she says.
Plus, her abs started to become more defined. “I’ve never had visible abs muscles. I just wanted to be strong,” says Bergin. She plans to continue what she’s started and maybe see if she can reach her abs goals.
“It would be amazing to see [more muscle definition] especially because I’ve had two kids,” she says. Each week Bergin runs 35 to 40 miles, does two Pilates sessions, and aims for two strength training workouts. “I know I’m stronger than I have ever been in my life, and that’s very important to me,” she says.
Jody Goldenfield worked hard for her abs. Really hard.
As a child, she was heavy and teased for it. And so most of her life, Goldenfield thought that if she just looked a certain way, she would be happier and feel better about herself. “Right from the beginning, I never learned to like or love myself. I didn’t like the way I looked,” she says.
In her 20s, she got hooked on exercising, opting for cardio workouts and lifting weights. In her late 30s, she discovered bodybuilding and competed in two competitions. She also watched her diet, sticking with what she describes as a fairly restrictive, clean eating plan.
Even into her late 50s, Goldenfield still tried to keep her sculpted abs very defined and show them off on social media, but her muscular midsection still wasn’t the golden ticket to happiness.
“I’m conflicted because I really do like how they look. I like bigger muscles and a tighter stomach,” she says. But she also recognizes the mental toll her quest for toned abs has taken. “Don’t do it to make yourself feel better about you. Just having abs does nothing to correct the internal dialogue in your head.”
Right now, Goldenfield feels OK with where she is in her fitness journey, but she also wants other women to know that the lean, cut physique, while possible even as you get older, doesn’t come without a cost.
“It’s great to look good too, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that. But having physical goals as your primary goal very rarely brings you to a healthy place, mentally, and emotionally.” — Anna Victoria, 29, trainer
“I’m going to do what I can to look decent but not eat super restrictive. If I wanted the abs that I had a year ago, I would have to cut out so much,” she mentions.
To maintain her trim, muscular build, she knew she was going to have to eat better and exercise for the rest of her life — but now abs are not the only reason she wants to stay healthy.
“For me, staying healthy is about aging healthy and being injury-free so that I can have fun with my grandkids and be able to do things until I die.”
When Denise Harris first started working out consistently in college, she was convinced she had a hernia. The pain in her abdomen was so bad that she made an appointment with her doctor. Her doctor’s response after examining her?
“Those are your obliques, Denise,” Harris recounts.
From those early days of struggling to work out, Harris never imagined she’d eventually fall in love with fitness or make a career of it. The truth is, she just likes to move. She says that it’s this joy that keeps her motivated to sweat and to stay consistent.
“It’s the one time I’m truly in control and my mind isn’t racing. Afterward, for a solid hour or two, I have this joy,” she says. “Now I get to spread my love of fitness. I just want you to move. It doesn’t have to be fancy.”
Harris, who turns 50 later this year, didn’t start exercising to lose weight but admits that seeing definition in her arms and abs is a nice perk. While she says that it’s not as challenging for her to stay trim from the waist up (thanks to her build and genetics), she doesn’t do crunches all day.
Abs are inner strength“When you think about the word ‘core,’ core of your inner strength, from within. You’re actually training the inside of yourself to be strong first. If you focus less on the physical and focus more on the mental game, the physical part just happens.” — Dawn Moore, 48, nurse
“I’m not doing ab-centric work. Running or HIIT will lean out your abs,” she says, increasing muscle definition. She also works with a trainer. “Yes, I do enjoy the way it looks, but my core is literally my powerhouse,” she says.
Harris’s secret? Just move.
“It doesn’t matter what it is you’re doing. Just moving in some way is important,” she says. “I’m probably the most comfortable with myself that I’ve ever been. I’m healthy, strong, and able.”
If you looked at Amanda Brooks’s running blog and fitness posts, you’d think that the 36-year old Denver, Colorado, resident always sported a flat stomach. But in fact, she described her younger self as “definitely chubby.”
Growing up, Brooks didn’t know a lot of nutrition, and she ended up developing a “good food, bad food” mentality. She prioritized fat-free, low-calorie choices, thinking that was the best way to lose weight. But she never really slimmed down.
In college, Brooks picked up running. “Running gave me a different feeling about my body. It was hard, but I was choosing to do it, so for me, it was empowering,” she says.
But the real turning point came when she focused on what she ate. She started with eating seven to nine servings of fruits and veggies a day and shifted toward thinking about what she could eat. And that made all the difference.
Brooks continued to look for different ways to slip fruits and veggies into her diet— like adding zucchini in her bread and greens in her morning smoothie. “That alone made me feel so much better and made it easier to lose the weight and keep it off,” she says.
She lost 35 pounds and has kept it off for the past 15 years.
Today, Brooks runs roughly 35 miles a week and fits in two to three runner-specific strength training sessions, mixing in TRX, and bodyweight moves. She says that she’ll never have a six-pack and that’s OK. She loves her body for all that it allows her to do.
Do ab workouts burn belly fat? Ab-centric workouts can help build your core muscles and help you obtain more defined abs, but whether or not your abs show is a matter of body fat. While it’s impossible to target body fat, an active and healthy lifestyle may help you reach your goal.
To describe Cathy Balogh, 62, as active is an understatement. She runs, walks long distances, hikes (to elevations of 11,000 to 12,000 feet no less!), downhill skis, cross-country skis, practices yoga, runs, and golfs.
Spending time outdoors in Colorado and using her body is just part of her DNA. And she wants to keep it that way.
Committing to a healthy and fit life has become more important as Balogh ages. She’s witnessed people around her slow down, and she’s determined to keep going. “I want to remain strong, not to be vain but physically strong. If I lose that strength, everything that I love will be taken away from me.”
Weight lifting, which she took up five years ago, has really changed how her body looks and feels.
“Being healthy and active allows you to enjoy life,” she says. “You have to keep lifting weights, doing yoga, walking, and doing it all or else, when you’re 75, you’re not going to be able to do it.”
You may think that achieving abs is impossible, but the real story is that it can happen at any age, anytime. But more important is what these women realized on their journey: abs, while often a visual sign of physical health, don’t represent the total effort a person puts into their body.
Health is more than achieving a lean stomach and visible muscle definition.
“Whether it’s belly rolls, cellulite, stretch marks, and more, these things make us beautiful, they make us human, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. It’s great to look good too, of course,” Victoria reminds us. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But having physical goals as your primary goal very rarely brings you to a healthy place, mentally, and emotionally.”
Christine Yu is a freelance writer, covering health and fitness. Her work has appeared in Outside, the Washington Post, and Family Circle, among others. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at christinemyu.com.