Fact or fiction? Ab definition workouts exist

high angle view of young sportsman with bare chest doing abs exercise on fitness ball at gym
(Image credit: Shutterstock/ Light Field Studios)

We see a lot of talk around what an ab definition workout can do for your midsection, but how much is true, and what’s all talk? Below, we delve into the topic to help answer those questions.

First, when clarifying what an ab definition workout is, this typically means working your abs — the rectus abdominis or “six-pack” muscles that run down the front of your body. But many "ab workouts" attempt to work multiple groups at once. So what appears to be an ab workout might only briefly hit these muscles.

Regardless of the muscles you target, the definition doesn’t magically appear by doing ab workouts alone, and there’s far more going on behind the scenes. So, check out some of these TG-approved best ab workouts and read on for more.  

Core muscles: 101

Workouts claim to be all about the ab definition while targeting most other core muscles instead. So here’s what to look for from a dedicated ab workout.

As we mentioned, your core is more complex than just the rectus abdominal muscles. You have superficial muscles like the abs, then deeper, stabilizing muscles like the transverse abdominis — a belt of muscles similar to a corset — and the internal obliques that sit underneath the external obliques. And that's just to name a few. 

There are a whole bunch of muscles working together to keep your torso stable, allowing you to move safely and helping you hit those PBs in the gym. They support flexion, extension and rotation.

Image of core anatomy

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Ab definition workouts predominately hit the ab muscles, but (of course) they can naturally target other muscles too. As a general rule of thumb, you’re looking for mostly flexion and extension exercises that occur in the sagittal plane — think sit-ups, crunches or leg raises. And also work the front of your stomach using isometric contraction, like planks or hollow holds.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of the six-pack muscles, or you’re lucky enough to have popping abs yourself, they’re big, spanning the length of your stomach from the ribs to the pubic bone. Therefore, ab exercises that strengthen and build muscle in the upper, mid and lower abs are a must.

Your abs are still active during compound exercises outside of ab workouts. When your trainer says, “Brace your core,” that means engaging your stomach during moves like deadlifts and squats, naturally activating these muscles among other core muscles to safely drive a movement. Specific ab workouts just isolate them more.  

Do ab workouts reduce belly fat?

Building strength and muscle in the area helps increase definition, but body fat percentage plays a role too. You can do all the crunches and sit-ups in the world, but if you have excess abdominal fat, you’re unlikely to see them. 

There are various factors responsible for sculpting a rock-solid midsection. Building a strong core has benefits beyond definition, translating to better posture, decreased injury and a robust upper body, helping you move better, lift heavier and run faster. 

If high-definition abs are your goal, find out why you can’t see your abs yet, despite working out — stress levels, diet (it’s no secret abs are made in the kitchen, as much as we hate saying it, though we don’t recommend counting calories), hormones, genetics and gut health all play a role to varying degrees.

So no, an ab workout alone is unlikely to shred fat.

Verdict: Ab definition workouts exist

Ab workouts can strengthen and build muscle and increase midsection definition, but you’ve basically done the groundwork. How well you can see your abs heavily relies on a low body fat percentage, and you can’t spot-reduce fat from your stomach.

To combat body fat percentage, take a look at some of the lifestyle factors above. For example, one study into the relationship between abdominal fat and stress found subjects with high cortisol levels stored excess amounts of abdominal fat (unfair, right?)

Woman standing against grey backdrop in activewear looking down at her stomach

(Image credit: Shutterstock images)

Everyone’s different, but as a start, increase your daily energy expenditure (how many calories you burn in total) by learning more about NEAT here. That could include taking more walks or using the stairs more often. We also recommend high-intensity exercises like metcons several times a week, which teach the body to switch between high and low intensities, improving metabolic fitness.

Compound moves still strengthen your core and complement core workouts well. They target more muscles in one go and build leaner muscle mass, which is more metabolically active and requires more energy than isolation exercises, burning more calories overall. 

We recommend a good mix in your exercise routine to keep challenging your body to stimulate, build and grow muscle and improve body composition. And don’t forget your diet. But most importantly, train consistently in whatever you enjoy.

5-move six-pack ab workout to try

Ab workouts are great for isolating the ab muscles and strengthening your core. But a combination of workout styles and sustainable fat loss help reveal sculpted abs underneath.

This six-pack workout sculpts a strong core in 10 minutes (as part of a wider routine) and we also love this lower abs workout for getting started. Fancy something else? 

Here are five exercises to target your six-pack muscles below.

As mentioned, the moves mostly work in the sagittal plane — meaning flexion and extension movements. Even running or climbing the stairs happen in that plane. 

Remember to engage your core and move with control. If you suffer from lower back pain, always clear exercise with a qualified medical professional and stop if you experience pain.  

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.