How Do I Get Abs?

Photo: Maman Voyage

Before we get to this week’s question I must draw everyone’s attention to this tweet about the general swoleness of the USA Olympic gymnastics team:

How do I get abs? I can kind of see the outline of abs sometimes so I feel like it’s attainable, but no idea what to do other than A Lot of Sit-ups, which the internet tells you not to do. Do I have to starve myself and eat protein? Is this an unhealthy fitness goal that I should just give up on? — Adrianne

Sit-ups or other core work aren’t going to give you abs, or at least doing ~only~ that won’t give you abs. You do need to have some muscles there, but you don’t have to do anything in particular to get them. And what kind of column about swoleness would this be without a plug for heavy lifting, which follows: squats, deadlifts, and so forth require a lot of core stabilization and will likely give you more abs than any number of crunches you can do! I will personally bet everyone that even if you try to be as ripped as you can possibly be, you still won’t look ripped enough.

A more general note on “a lot of situps”: some trainers will tell you a large volume of direct core work (planks, side bends, sit-ups, v-ups, etc etc etc) can actually thicken your midsection a bit. This isn’t something I’d worry about too much, but if you are so tired of doing this stuff and seeing no results, then here is my gift-advice to you: stop doing that garbage and try something else. Those exercises have their place, but a full-body workout will be so much less annoying and work so much better. People love to talk about core work (e.g., Bella Thorne), and we all know intellectually that you cannot spot-reduce body fat, yet we all at some point we have fallen into the trap of doing planks for eternity hoping by some miracle it will give us a sixpack. Nope.

There is an old fitness/bodybuilding/etc adage that goes “abs are made in the gym but revealed in the kitchen.” Point being, you’re not going to have visible abs in most cases without also having pretty low body fat. If you’re around 20% BF, as a woman, you’ll have some definition, but to have like, washboard abs you probably need to be at 15% or lower. As a point of reference, you are considered to be a healthy woman as long as you’re below about 32% body fat.

Here are some pictures that roughly illustrate this point:

Source: Simon Krastev Fitness

I obviously can’t fact check the numbers there but the overall relationship holds: less body fat = more visible abs. Which of these pictures you’re really talking about when you say you want abs, I can’t really be sure, but I think most women idealize that 15–18 percent range. That second photo shows you can have a little definition well above that.

To the point of overall muscle building, it’s much easier to lose body fat with more muscle mass because your resting metabolism will be higher, so again, full-body strength training is great for this.

Do you need to starve yourself? No; if you are new to this and don’t have a lot of body fat to begin with, you can build up some muscle by lifting and eating at maintenance calories (which you should figure out using a calculator like this one) or even a little more. Please do eat your protein. Then after a few months you can switch to “cutting” (eating 10–20% below maintenance calories while continuing to lift weights, in order to maintain as much muscle mass as possible). And then boom, you’ll have abs!

One thing you’ve heard that is true — you can’t safely/sustainably lose more than a pound a week, as a woman, in the vast majority of cases. If you work out in a way that is designed to build muscle, such as lifting heavy, and eat enough, you will give your body the best chance of making that pound mostly fat, rather than a combination of fat and muscle, which is what can happen if you run yourself ragged working out and try to subsist on a meager 1200 calories per day. If you want to lose more fat than you reasonably could in a few months, you should probably plan a break for yourself, since cutting calories can get kind of psychologically tedious and returning to maintenance calories for a bit shouldn’t affect your progress.

At this point you may be like, how I even find out what my body fat percentage is? And there’s no good answer there, in my opinion — even the most accurate methods out there for calculating it, like Dexa scans, can vary by a few percentage points. There is not even really a good reason for trying to measure it — again, in my opinion — since if it’s high and you love how you look, or it’s low and you wish you had more definition, knowing your exact percentage doesn’t help you at all. If you want more definition, you will have to take the same approach, regardless of having a number — lift and eat at a modest deficit to maintain muscle while slowly losing fat. There is a lower limit to how much fat you can lose — when women in particular get down to very low body fat percentages (12% or less) they can start having health problems, hormone imbalances, miss their period, etc. If those things start happening to you, even if you’re not super-low body fat, see a doctor.

Now for the real talk — I will say, personally, it is tough to cut below and maintain much less than about 20% BF. Most people you see with abs, like models, bodybuilders, or bikini competitors are likely cycling through a process of “bulking” (eating at a caloric surplus to build muscle, a time during which they will inevitably gain a bit of fat) and then cutting, per above. Maybe fitness models with an intense schedule maintain washboard abs year-round, but most stage competitors/bodybuilders do it just for the competition seasons; the rest of the year they’re quite a bit thicker. (*whispers* theoretically, as a reputationally fit person, you can just take a shit-ton of photos and videos when you are in fighting form and be thicker the rest of the year. I’m not saying they’re all tricking you, but most of them are maybe tricking you).

And now for the realest talk — very few people look like they have abs when they are just standing around. Generally, they are flexing. Peruse this thread of people showing their midsections flexed and unflexed. Look at Kayla Itsines of the BBG empire doing an actual workout, where her abs are not really visible, vs. one of her posed pictures. Take a scroll through and you will see she is not only flexing but she basically always cranks her body to the side in good lighting to emphasize the definition. Which is fine! But know what you’re looking at: a good solid flex plus chiaroscuro lighting dramatically improves the appearance of abs. Unfortunately none of us walk around like that, so take any posed shots you see with a grain of salt and do not compare yourself to them.

So is this a healthy goal? You would be far from the first person working out to try and look a particular way, and it kind of depends where you are in life — I would be less concerned about someone pursuing this who already has all the fitness building blocks down and just wants to try something, versus someone trying to fall backwards into a healthy lifestyle using abs as a carrot. If you’re the latter, maybe focus on getting your food and exercise schedule right, knowing that it will put you on the path to abs if you decide later that’s what you want. There is just no shortcut.

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