5 reasons you can’t see your abs yet, despite working out

a photo of a woman with abs holding a medicine ball
(Image credit: Getty/Ridofranz)

If you’ve been spending hours in the gym doing some of the best ab exercises, but you’re still not seeing any difference in your mid-section, do not panic! Strong abs are far more than just an aesthetic goal — they can help you sit with better posture, reduce lower back pain, lift heavier weights, and run faster. Yet if visible abs are your goal, you might be disheartened if your time in the gym hasn't given you the results you were hoping for.

Again, it’s worth noting that getting a six-pack or losing weight doesn’t have to be the main reason you work out. Exercise has a number of physical and mental benefits — staying active can improve your brain health, protect you against chronic diseases, help you keep your heart healthy, and lower your blood pressure. That said, if getting a six-pack is your goal, here’s where you might be going wrong:

1. You’re not fueling correctly

You’ve probably heard that abs are made in the kitchen, and there’s a lot of truth in this. In order for your abs to be visible, you’ll need to have a body fat percentage of 10 to 14 percent. In order to achieve a low body fat percentage, you’ll need to eat a balanced diet, packed with protein, fiber, and good fats. You should also be spreading your calories across carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, which is why a lot of people opt to count their macros, not calories when trying to get visible results. Here's why our resident personal trainer doesn't recommend counting calories. You should also avoid overly sugary and processed foods, and be mindful of your alcohol consumption. 

As well as diet, you’ll need to look at your hormones, sleep, and stress — all contribute toward how much body fat you store. It’s also important to not drastically cut calories from your diet. Starving yourself will not give you abs. It’s always worth talking to your doctor, or a registered nutritionist or dietician before making drastic changes to your diet. 

2. You’re stressed

As mentioned above, stress can have an impact on how much body fat you store. When you're stressed, the cortisol levels in the body rise. In turn, cortisol affects the fat distribution in the body (high levels of cortisol causes fat to be deposited in the abdomen), increases your appetite, and causes you to crave sugary foods. 

One study found that women who were vulnerable to stress are more likely to hold abdominal fat. While exercising more can be a stress reliever, if you are feeling the effects of stress, whether that’s from your job or your personal life, it’s a good idea to take a look at your fitness regime — here’s why it could be your workout that’s stressing you out

Perhaps switch your HIIT class or tempo run for a calmer walk, yoga class, or Pilates workout. Here’s what 30 minutes of walking per day can do to your body, plus a 15-minute Pilates workout that targets your core

a photo of a man with strong ab muscles

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

3. You’re not training correctly

Despite what you may have heard, doing endless sit-ups isn’t the way to get visible ab muscles. Ab workouts are great at strengthening the muscle groups that make up your core musculature, but you could also build core strength and hit various other muscles using compound exercises. A compound move simply refers to a multi-joint, multi-muscle exercise such as squat or a push-up and can be done with or without weights at home or in your gym.

Ab workouts should only form part of your workout routine. If you’re looking for visible results, mix your ab workouts with cardio workouts, HIIT, and strength training. You should also focus on what you're doing outside of the gym. Focus on being more active by making small changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking the dog, or using one of the best standing desks at work. Here's how to burn calories by switching up your daily routine — what is NEAT?

Of course, it might be that you’re training just the right amount, but you’re expecting results too quickly. Visible abs won’t pop overnight, and if you’re hoping to get a six-pack before your holiday in two weeks, it’s not going to happen. Despite what you may have heard, you can’t spot-reduce body fat.

4. You’re not resting

Another reason why you might not see visible results is that you’re actually overtraining. Sleep and recovery are important aspects of making visible goals, and if you’re not getting enough rest, your body won't release enough of the growth hormone to help muscles grow. You might also be putting yourself at risk of injury as if they aren't rested, muscles can't repair from the micro-tearing that occurs during exercise. 

Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and strap one of the best fitness trackers to your wrist to track how much shut-eye you’re actually getting, plus the quality of good REM and deep sleep, versus light.

5. Your form is off

Another reason why you might not be getting results is because your form is off when you’re working your abs. When practicing ab exercises, it’s important to think about engaging the core. 

To engage your core, Luke Zocchi, Head Trainer at Centr (read our Centr app review here), and Chris Hemsworth’s personal trainer says, “you want to lengthen your spine to make your back straight, breathe in deeply into your rib cage, and draw in your belly button. The best way to engage this final step is to think about what your reaction would be if someone was going to hit you in the stomach." 

Move slowly and with control when you’re doing ab workouts, and if in doubt, ask a personal trainer to check your form.  

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Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.