I’m going to try and do something a little different with this blog post. I want to explore the topic of abdominal muscles and their visibility in a much greater detail. It’s something I get asked about a lot, so it’s going to be a longer piece than usual, so if you want to go make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, now might be the time. I promise you it will be worth it.
I don’t think any aspect of the human body has come to symbolise the perception of peak physical fitness as much as the image of some perfectly defined abdominal muscles, commonly known as ‘abs’. That rippled area of the stomach says so much about the commitment someone has placed in body composition and has come to define what it means to be ‘fit’. Of course, the reality is that it’s not quite that straight-forward, but you’d be hard-pressed not to pass a picture advertising any sort of fitness equipment or supplement that didn’t show some chiseled abs in one form or another. Marketing departments around the world are determined to make sure people see abs as the must-have accessory for anyone.
If you’re wanting a quick answer to ‘how long will it take to see my abs’ then I can’t give you that, and I hope that if you’ve landed on my website looking for one, then you wouldn’t expect it. What I can give you is a greater understanding that will provide a firm foundation for your own fitness journey. Ready? Let’s go.
Let’s start with a question or two. Are rock-hard abs for everyone? Is it even possible to achieve them? SPOILER-ALERT: It is! So the question then becomes, if that IS the case, how long will it take to see them?
Before we get to the question in hand, I thought it would be useful to understand the basics of the abdominal muscles. If you’re one of the millions of people who are wanting some killer abs, then I’m going to let you into a little secret. You already have them! You already have some beautifully rippled abs under that shirt. You do, you REALLY do. The problem is, for many people, they remain largely hidden under a layer of body fat. Sometimes, too many layers and simply too much body fat.
One term I’m sure you’ve heard many times in relation to the body is ‘the core’. Fitness professionals, myself included, will often talk about have a strong core on which you build the body you want. In basic terms, your ‘core’ is a strong column that connects your lower and upper body and helps them to work together. It’s essential because it provides a firm foundation for many other day-to-day activities. All our movements, from sitting, standing up, picking things up and of course exercise, are all powered by our torso. This means that your abdominal muscles will be working harmoniously to some degree with your pelvis and spine for almost every move you make. It’s easy to see why it’s so important.
For some people, abs are literally defined by that quintessential ‘washboard’ stomach, but that is only one of the four muscle groups that collectively make up your abdominals. Together, the four of them completely cover your mid-section’s internal organs. The four groups are known, technically, as the rectus abdominis, the external oblique muscles, the internal oblique muscles and finally the traverses abdominis. I want to talk a little about each one in more detail, so you can understand how to get the most from them.
As I’ve said, most people think abs and see the classic, rippled ‘six pack’ and for that it’s the rectus abdominis that has the characteristic ‘bumps’ that we all think of. This is a long, flat muscle that extends vertically between the ribs (the 5th, 6th and 7th if you’re interested) and the pubis. It’s made up of a strong tendon that runs down the middle, with three more that run horizontally. It’s this intersection that gives the washboard effect. I did tell you that you already had a six-pack! It’s not there just to look good, it actually helps you to flex your spinal column and narrows the space between your ribs and pelvis. If you’re doing side-bending exercises, it also helps to stabilise your body during these kind of movements.
On either side of the rectus abdominis are the two external oblique muscles. If you were to simulate putting your hands in your coat pocket, then you get the idea of their position. This pair of muscles run diagonally down and in from your lower ribs towards the pelvis, forming the ‘V’ shape you see when body fat is low. They allow the flexing of the spine, especially when rotating from your hips, and the compression of the abdomen.
Obviously, you can’t have external obliques without internal ones! Well you probably can, but we don’t. These are another pair of muscles that sit just below their external biological cousins at a right angle. Again, because of this positional relationship to each other, both the internal and external obliques are referred to as ‘opposite-side rotators’, as they actually work opposite to your movement. In other words, the left oblique muscles contract when you move or turn to the right (and vice-versa).
Finally, we have the transversus abdominis. This is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles which wraps around the torso, from front to back, from the ribs to the pelvis. The muscles run horizontally, think of it like an internal weight-lifting belt. Unlike the other muscle groups of the abdomen, the transversus doesn’t help with movement as such, although it does help maintain abdominal pressure by compressing the internal organs. What it does do , is assist with breathing and the respiratory system as a whole. Which is also quite important.
I hope that basic biology lesson helps you to understand how the abdominal muscles work together. Now it’s time to take a look at the biggest problem in getting those abs on display. As I touched on at the beginning, it’s usually down to belly fat, so let’s talk a little about that.
Belly fat, in fact fat in general, comes in three varieties; ‘subcutaneous’ which is the fat that sits under the skin, ‘intramuscular’ fat which is found within the skeletal muscle fibres and ‘visceral’ fat which surrounds your organs.
Subcutaneous describes the looser fat near the surface that you can ‘pinch’ with your fingers. Intramuscular fat is the energy store used during exercising. Belly fat, which we’re looking at here, is visceral. It sits around your stomach and it’s that fat which can, in extreme cases, create the ‘beer belly’ or at least cause it to stick out too far if left unchecked and certainly stops those abs from being seen. Not only can it be unsightly, it can also cause some serious health concerns including insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes and, in some cases, even cancer.
I don’t want you thinking immediately that visceral fat is bad. It can be of course, especially in large quantities, but your body actually needs some fat to protect your organs and cushion them from impact. The problem with visceral fat isn’t the fat itself, but more the harmful substances that it excretes. The more fat you have, the more of these substances your body will see, which can lead to a number of serious conditions I’ve already touched on. If you have too much belly fat, what can you do about it? I’m glad you asked.
Before we get to that, let’s look at why it’s there in the first place. As I said, everyone will have some belly fat and it’s that which causes your washboard stomach to be hidden, but what causes it? Generally, the cause of excess belly fat can be attributed to 4 main factors, or any combination of them. Obviously people are different, so the causes of your particular troublesome belly fat will also determined by your own lifestyle, but some of these might surprise you. I’ve tried to list them in order, but again, that will differ for each of you, but targeting sugar is a great place to start, so let’s begin with…
Let’s start with some good news. In terms of reducing overall body fat, it’s usually the reduction in fat around the belly that is the most obvious sign that you’re doing the right thing. For many people the most common cause of belly fat is a poor diet. Too much high-sugar food and drink will cause a multitude of sins that can, invariably, lead to excess belly fat. Over-reliance on a diet comprising of too much sugar will cause weight gain if you’re not working those calories off. It can also slow down your metabolism, which will reduce your body’s ability to burn fat away. That said, research has shown that people who eat 10 grams of soluble fibre a day build up less belly fat over time. That can be anything from a couple of apples, a cup of green peas or half-a-cup of other beans, like pinto. Even switching to a higher-fibre bread can help with that.
In terms of carbohydrates, I’m conscious that many of you control your carb intake, so I’m not talking about cutting them out completely, but thinking of healthy alternatives can go a long way. Don’t forget about alcohol, which often goes overlooked in terms of its sugar content.
If you’re confident that your sugar content is under control, then you may need to look at your protein intake. Protein, as I’m sure you know, is great for fat loss as it helps to build and preserve lean muscle tissue and can increase the rate at which you can burn calories. In terms of nutrition, it’s a great source of energy which keeps you feeling fuller for longer. If you feel full, you’re less likely to snack on foods which may be derailing your efforts to reduce belly fat. Ideally you want to be going for lean sources of protein as some foods that aren’t so lean can have a much higher amount of saturated fats.
Finally, in terms of creating that six-pack you’re after, other websites are awash with articles and techniques promising you a quick fix and ‘instant’ abs. These websites may promise instant results, but they only have one goal; to make money for the people behind them, not to give you a six-pack. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that there simply isn’t a viable option when it comes to achieving the body you want. It would be great if there were, but there simply isn’t one.
Whatever promises they make and whichever ‘stunning’ results they evangelise towards, it’s going to take time and effort. No crash-diet will work long-term and you will probably end up doing yourself more harm than good. Be patient, eat the right foods, train the right way and you will get there. Leave the crash diets to those unwilling to make the long-term changes they need to.
Speaking of ‘quick-fixes’, when it comes to abdominal muscles, most people think that the way to get a washboard stomach is to do more sit-ups and crunches than is probably legal. I understand why most people think that. If you want to shift belly fat, then you need to do exercises that affect the belly. Makes sense right? Yes… and no…. but mainly no, at least for most people.
If you are overweight, doing hundreds of sit-ups isn’t going to make a great deal of difference. You can’t reduce fat from one specific area by exercising that area. The body simply doesn’t work that way. As I mentioned right at the beginning, we all have those rippled abs already. The muscles themselves are naturally that shape. What many of us don’t have it a clear window that shows them off. The belly fat is spoiling the view and doing hundreds of sit-ups won’t make that belly fat disappear any more quickly than doing other training.
If you’re in relatively good shape already, then doing regular abdominal exercises with the right form (that’s the important bit) will make you look more toned, but focussing on one area won’t make that area suddenly look chiseled. Instead, keep your training balanced utilising a mixture of both cardio and resistance (or weight) training with some high-intensity workouts to give a full-body workout and shift that fat.
Sleep might not be top of your list of things to concentrate on to help reduce belly fat, but bear with me. Sleep plays a massive part of any healthy lifestyle. It gives the body the chance to repair itself. Again, people and their lifestyles are different, but aiming for at least 6 to 7 hours of good quality sleep per night can help. That isn’t just my opinion, research has shown that those who only manage 5 hours (or less) per night will gain more visceral fat over time than those who enjoy more time in bed.
How your body reacts to a lack of sleep goes way beyond just feeling at bit groggy at work. Sleep deprivation throws off your hormone balance and, when that happens, it impacts on our hunger levels. When it comes to appetite, it is at the mercy of two hormones in particular; ghrelin (which makes us feel hungry) and leptin (which makes us feel full). A lack of sleep throws this equilibrium off, i.e. it means that ghrelin rises whilst leptin drops. In reality, this can mean that we eat more, but conversely feel less satisfied, so we eat even more to feel full.
Sleeping is one thing, but good quality sleep is another. When it is time for you to go to bed, sleep hygiene is key to a good night’s kip. Try and avoid staring at your smartphone or tablet screen for too long just before you go to sleep. Keep the room cool and aired if you can, and avoid any caffeine-based drinks just before you retire. These simple changes will help you to have good quality rest and make small steps towards those abs you’re looking for.
Stress is another aspect of body fat reduction that might not seem too obvious. How stress relates to your abs is also connected to hormones. Modern life is incredibly stressful. The pressures we all face when it comes to juggling family, work, finances, training and a multitude of other things we have to deal with, means we have to address it.
I’m sure everyone of you reading this feels stress to some degree. When we get stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Many people actually refer to it as ‘the stress hormone’. When cortisol is high, we tend to crave high-calorie, high-sugar foods. It’s the quintessential ‘comfort food’ we go for when we know we shouldn’t.
Cortisol can help us in certain circumstances. If we’re in peril or faced with an immediate danger, cortisol kicks in to give us the ‘fight or flight’ response we need to deal with it. The problem occurs when cortisol levels are high for prolonged periods of time (like when we’re stressed), it can increase the amount of fat the body holds on too.
Stress obviously isn’t something we can just wave a magic wand at and it disappears, but learning to manage it will help you get the stomach you’re after. Doing activities to bring your stress levels down are going to help, whether that’s meditation, walking, listening to music or playing with the kids, there are ways to find some calm in all the chaos and get one step closer to reducing your belly fat.
The title of this blog is ‘How Long Will It Take To See My Abs’. I hope that I’ve shown you that it’s not a question that can be answered easily. I also hope that you now understand why. Forget the quick fixes and ‘one trick’ articles that will be all over the web. Getting a set of toned abs actually takes two things, both of which you have right now.
The first thing is a starting point. We all have one of those in common, even though it’s different for each of us. Whether you have an excessive amount of fat to lose, or you just want to eliminate those last few stubborn pounds, we all have to start somewhere, so where better than here.
The second thing you’ll need is something you also have, but for many it’s something you might need to work on. Adherence. Having a plan to get what you want is one thing, but without the discipline to stick to it, it’s nothing more than that. Decide where you want to go, realistically plan how you’re going to get there, and stick to it. Don’t let anyone or anything knock you off course. The abs you want, the arms you want, the legs you want, even the mindset you want are achievable if you just adhere to a determined plan. Nothing I can do or say, or anyone for that matter, will help you to get shredded abs overnight. It’s impossible, so don’t waste any time in looking for it. Whether it’s what you want next month or next year, you can get there. It’s absolutely achievable with just those two facets.
It’s also important to say that having a six-pack isn’t compulsory. It doesn’t change you as a person and doesn’t make you any better than anyone else, but that’s not to demean those who work hard for it. If it makes you feel better which in turn makes you feel more confident and happier, then who is anyone to say it’s not important in the great scheme of things. As I say all the time, a healthier lifestyle is the goal here. If that journey towards that means you get a stomach you could wash clothes on, then it’s a bonus.