We all know ‘that’ person. You know, the one who somehow manages to maintain a ripped midsection no matter what they eat or how little they work out. But on the flip side, we also all know someone who grinds it out in the gym day after day and just can’t unveil those mythical abs.
No matter who you are, the appearance of your abs is largely based on your genetics. “How visible they are, how they’re shaped, whether they’re aligned or crooked—it boils down to your DNA,” says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.
Are You In There, Abs?
You can probably guess that having visible abs depends on your total body fat percentage. After all, the less fat you have, the more visible your muscles are underneath your skin.
But, unfortunately, this is complicated by genetics. “Some people are just more resistant to losing fat from their abdominal region, even if there’s not a whole lot of fat there to begin with,” says Israetel. “Meanwhile, others may hold a disproportionate amount of fat under the skin on top of their abs,” he notes. (Think of someone with slim legs but a rounder middle.)
Since you can’t “spot treat” fat loss (a.k.a. lose fat from specific places), you have to lean out all over before you’ll catch a glimpse of your six-pack. You can do all the planks and sit-ups you want, but it doesn’t matter how toned those muscles are if they’re covered in a layer of fat.
Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted
All Abs Are Unique
Even if you can get those muscles to peek through, don’t expect them to look just like your favorite celeb’s toned tummy “Your genetics also determine the shape of your abs as they appear from the front—how aligned they are, how big the borders are between them, and whether they’re short and wide or long and narrow,” explains Israetel.
But while you can’t change your abs’ shape, you can help augment their thickness (how far they stick out from your core) with strength training, he says.
Performing ab-targeting exercises can help make your individual abdominal muscles stand out more for a more awe-inspiring six-pack. Your abs respond to stimulus just like the rest of your muscles do—by growing, Israetel explains. Stress them with weight and they’ll respond over time by adapting and growing bigger and stronger.
Israetel recommends performing the following ab-focused movements three times per week in three to five sets of eight to 20 reps to really help those core muscles shine. Watch these video demos from Renaissance Periodization to check your form.
Hold a light medicine ball or dumbbell and lay on your back with your legs straight and your arms extended overhead. Crunching your abs, lift your hands and feet until they meet extended above your torso. Then pause and reverse the motion to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Hanging Knee Raise
Hang from a pullup bar with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart. Using your lower ab muscles, lift your knees up towards your chest. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Find a slant board at the gym (it looks like a bench that’s positioned at an angle with footholds at the top). Sit on the board facing the footholds. Flex your feet and secure them in the footholds. Using your abs, slowly lower yourself until you’re parallel with the floor. (Don’t lie all the way down onto the board!) Pause, and then sit back up. That’s one rep.