5 Reasons You’re Working Out but Not Building Abdominal Definition

5 Reasons You’re Working Out but Not Building Abdominal Definition

(Last Updated On: September 6, 2020)

Abdominal Definition

Who doesn’t want firm abdominals that are strong and well-defined? Yet most people aren’t born with abs of steel. You build them through a healthy diet and consistent training to hypertrophy the abdominal muscles. Even with structured exercise, ab definition still eludes many people, especially women. You work out most days, watch what you eat, and still don’t have ab muscles that “pop.” Frustrating, isn’t it?

Why are rock-solid abs so hard to attain?  The challenge of getting abdominal definition is greater for females because women have more body fat, but men have to work hard to get them too. Women have to get down to under 20% body fat, in most cases, to see their abs pop. In many cases, it’s too much body fat that’s keeping them hidden.

Still, there are ways to get your abdominal muscles to “pop” and be stronger too.  Here are the most common reasons people fall short of getting the abdominal definition they crave and how to avoid these pitfalls.

High Body Fat Percentage

Regardless of how hard you work out, if you have a thicker layer of abdominal fat covering your abdominal muscles, your abs won’t show through. If you’re female, your abs probably won’t appear until you reduce your body fat to 20% or under, while men have to drop below 15% body fat to see abs that pop. This assumes, of course, that you train your abs. You have to hypertrophy the muscle to get those ripples to show! Too often, people assume that need to do more crunches to get their abs to show. That’s usually not the case.

Too Many Ab-Focused Exercises

Some people are of the mindset that you gain abs by doing endless sessions of abdominal crunches. Don’t believe it! The ab crunch is an isolation exercise that mainly works the two large rectus abdominis muscles that, when developed, give you a six-pack. But abdominal crunches burn few calories since you’re working small muscles and do nothing to reduce abdominal fat.

A more effective approach is to switch some of those crunches for compound strength-training exercises. Compound exercises are those that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. These exercises, particularly ones that work the large muscles in the lower body, burn more calories relative to exercises that work a single muscle group, like the abdominal crunch. Compound movements work your abs indirectly because they force your core muscles to stabilize. Some examples are squats, deadlifts, and push-ups. These exercises also ramp up your metabolism more by boosting growth hormone and testosterone release, which also helps you get leaner. Some trainers even believe you don’t need to do crunches if you do compound exercises like deadlifts and squats.

Not Working Your Entire Core

Another common mistake people make in the quest for ab definition is not working all the core muscles that make up their midsection. Instead, they focus only on the superficial abdominal muscles. Strengthening your core is the closest thing you can get to a natural girdle made of muscle. Core muscles work together to support and stabilize your mid-section while drawing everything in and improving your alignment. They also support healthy posture. That’s important since poor posture can make your tummy look flabby even if it’s not. So, switch some of those ab crunches for planks and side planks. Once you’ve mastered basic planks, try some harder variations that are more dynamic. There are at least 50 plank variations that offer varying degrees of challenge.

Doing the Wrong Kind of Cardio

What type of cardio do you do? Most people do some form of moderate-intensity cardio, like brisk walking, jogging, or cycling at a moderate pace. Your body adapts quickly to the challenges of moderate-intensity exercise and when that happens, fat loss slows. You can shake things up and accelerate fat loss by increasing the intensity of your cardio with high-intensity interval training. The benefit of high-intensity exercise is it leads to a greater after-burn, the extra energy your body expends to help you recover after a hot and sweaty workout. The after-burn helps you burn more body fat.

Need scientific proof? A study in the journal Obesity found that subjects lost more abdominal fat with high-intensity interval training than they did performing moderate-intensity exercise. Plus, you get the health and fitness benefits in less time when you do high-intensity intervals. In fact, you can get an effective fat-burning workout in as little as 20 minutes. Your favorite cardio workout may be comfortable, but perhaps it’s too comfortable. Research shows long periods of moderate-intensity cardio and too frequent cardio sessions can increase cortisol, a hormone that adds inches to your waist and belly. That’s not what you want!

 Too Much Stress and Not Enough Sleep

Exercise and nutrition are only part of the formula for getting defined abs. Not sleeping enough and not managing stress increases the stress hormone cortisol, a hormone that when it stays elevated increases belly fat. Cortisol also lowers insulin sensitivity and increases sugar cravings. It’s easy to see how that could keep you from your goal of getting lean, defined abs! Exercising too much also places stress on your body and boosts cortisol. Make sure you’re getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night and have ways to manage stress. Studies show that meditation, yoga, and walking in nature help reduce cortisol. Don’t let stress consume you or give you a larger belly.

Take-Home Points

  • Vary the type of exercises you do for your abs. Choose more compound strength-training exercises that work multiple muscle groups and add core training to your routine.
  • Shake up your cardio too by adding high-intensity interval training to the mix and don’t focus too much on long-duration, moderate-intensity exercise.
  • Don’t neglect nutrition! A layer of body fat will keep your strong abdominal muscles from showing.
  • Manage stress and get more sleep to keep your cortisol level in check.
  • Be patient. It takes time to get abdominal definition. It won’t happen overnight.



  • com. “Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat In Otherwise Slender Women, Study Conducted At Yale Shows”
  • Men’s Health. “Six-Pack Science”
  • Exercise Physiology. Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. Howley and Powers. 2009.
  • University Health News. “How to Recognize High Cortisol Symptoms”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Abdominal Training: Why Less Ab Work is More

Are Planks Better Than Crunches for Abdominal Development?

Abdominal Training: How Often Should You Train Your Abs?

Are Standing Abdominal Exercises More Effective Than Floor Ab Exercises?

Are You Making These 4 Abdominal Crunch Mistakes?

5 Ways to Get More Benefits from Abdominal Training


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