Why can’t I see my abs?One of the most common, if not the most asked, questions that fitness professionals get is how to make the abs show. Along those lines is the question of: “Why can’t I see my abs?” followed by the frustrated individual’s litany of exercises that he’s been doing to achieve this goal.
Usually, that list of exercises consists of ab targeting routines like crunches, side bends and rotary motions, topped off with endless hours of jogging or pedaling on some machine. The answer to why you still can’t see your abs is simple: You have too much fat between the abdominal muscles and the skin. This then begs the next question: Why is that #%$# fat still there?
Sissy muscles don’t burn much fat.Your abdominal muscles’ job is to stabilize the spinal column. Upon microscopic analysis, one sees that the muscle fiber cross-sectional area of these muscles reveals a horizontal pattern. This is significant, and you’ll find out why in just a moment.
Stabilizer muscles are not designed for force production or power. There are other muscles for that, such as the ones in the legs, back and chest. A person cannot lift hundreds of pounds with just the abdominal muscles, but he can lift hundreds with his legs, back and chest.
Which muscles burn more fat?Those whose job it is to stabilize (abs, lower back), or those whose job it is to generate power (e.g., legs, buttocks, middle back)? This is a no-brainer.
Abdominal muscles are sissy muscles in that they’re weak and will always be weak. For those guys who think their abdominal muscles are lifting that pile of weights on the crunch machine, it’s your shoulders and arms doing all the yanking!
As for that horizontal cross-section of muscle fibers, this is a telltale sign of non-power-producing muscles. A cross-section of the body’s bigger muscle groups reveals a diagonal pattern of muscle fiber. When fibers are aligned diagonally, this allows more fiber to be crammed into any given space.
The more fiber that can be crammed into any given space, the more naturally stronger the muscle. This means the greater potential for it to burn fat when exercised! To shrink the fat cells in your stomach that are hiding your abs, you need to focus on training the bigger, power-producing muscles – which are anything but the abs!
This means to get a six-pack, work primarily the legs, middle/upper back and chest (along, of course, with proper eating). Many people at first don’t get this. They believe that to shrink fat in a specific area, that specific area should be exercised. This is wrong.
No matter how hard you blast your abdominals and obliques with exhausting crunches, leg lifts and trunk twists, these sissy muscles will not require enough energy to melt the fat that’s hiding them.
You can’t see your abs because your body’s energy needs aren’t high enough to burn away at this fat. The solution is to increase the body’s energy needs to force it to ransack the fat depots in your belly and waistline. This is done by hammering the major muscle groups.
Slam the big muscle groups and the body will end up in a state of severe oxygen debt, which will require loads of energy for recovery. Where will this energy come from? Fat depots. If you have fat depots in your stomach, your body will raid them for post-workout recovery. This post-workout recovery process can last for many hours.
If you think you’ve been doing everything right but still can’t see any abs, ask yourself if you’ve been sticking to this formula:
• Hitting the biggest muscle groups with compound exercises using heavy weights
• Including high intensity interval training for cardio
• Sticking to clean eating
Don’t stop doing ab-specific exercises altogether, though, because they do strengthen the abs and lower back, making these muscles tougher, tighter and harder. But you won’t see this development unless you shear off the fat.
How low does body fat percentage have to get for men and women to see their abs?This varies if all you’re talking about is that vertical line down the abs, or that “arch” that begins appearing as excess fat starts disappearing. The more you want to see, the more fat you must lose.
The range for men can be anywhere from 6-8 percent to 11 percent body fat. For women, the range is even greater, because women, more so than men, are genetically programmed to carry extra fat in their thigh and hip area.
Thus, it’s not uncommon for a woman who has good abdominal definition to also have “saddlebags” or solid, undefined thighs. A woman can start showing abdominal definition at around 18 percent body fat (depending on her natural fat distribution), but not a six-pack. A six-pack can start showing at around 13 or 14 percent body fat.
How many sites that the skin-fold test is taken influences the calculation of body fat percentage. The fewer the sites taken, the higher it tends to be. A woman may be lean in her middle but have thunder thighs.
The thunder in her thighs will drive up the body fat percentage calculation unless enough sites are measured to offset that, such as off of her lean back. If a woman with a six-pack announces she has 21 percent body fat, chances are, only three sites were measured.
Body fat charts for people vary from one source to the next, so here’s one chart that gives a fair categorization of what body fat percentages mean.
Competition shape (“ripped”): 8-12%
Very lean (excellent): < 15%
Lean (good): 16-20%
Satisfactory (fair): 21-25%
Improvement needed (poor): 26-30%
Major improvement needed (very poor): 31-40+%
Competition shape (“ripped”): 3-6%
Very lean (excellent): < 9%
Lean (good): 10-14%
Satisfactory (fair): 15-19%
Improvement needed (poor): 20-25%
Major improvement needed (very poor): 26-30+%
According to the American Council on Exercise:
Physically fit: 21-24%
Physically fit: 14-17%
As you can see, ACE’s chart is much more forgiving. It’s not easy to believe that a “physically fit” woman can have a BFof 24 percent, but then again, it depends on how you define physical fitness. And the “athletic” range for men is quite variable. A man should be shredded at 6 percent, yet at 13 percent he may still appear to have a soft midsection, yet both men are in the same category.
Remember that body fat percentage calculations are prone to human error, and one has to consider this when a man (who, in all fairness, looks ripped) announces that he maintains 6 percent body fat year-round and it took him two weeks to get down to 2 percent. He’s probably closer to 8 percent year-round and may be fudging about his eating habits to impress people, unless he’s some genetic anomaly.
Very few women look “ripped” year-round. When body fat in a woman drops below 12 percent, she runs the risk of ceasing menstruation. If such a low body fat is chronic, this can lead to brittle bones.
Both genders get ripped (super low body fats) for contests and photo shoots, but after the events, their body fat raises as they resume eating more normally. Most stay in the very lean or lean category during the off-season of competition, so that when it’s time to start cutting up, they’re not too far from that goal.
It’s not recommended that you obsess about a particular body fat number. Instead, use the mirror as your guideline. Do you see your abs beginning to show? Is there a progression? Then keep doing what you’re doing as long as it’s not unsafe.
Why hassle with repeated skin fold tests when you can just look in a mirror? There’s no one magic number that applies to every person when it comes to how low body fat must be to show a six-pack. It may be 10 percent for one man (to simply start showing the six-pack), and 8 percent for another—while more body fat for both are needed to show a chiseled six-pack.
Someone can measure your body fat at 8 percent, while next day, a different person might come up with 10 percent. Who’s right? Only the mirror is right.
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