Are you frustrated by a lack of muscle growth and definition in your abdominal region? Have you been working hard in the gym and optimizing your nutrition but still have a soft, undefined midsection?
You’ve come to the right place. We’ll explain why your abdominals aren’t growing, the barriers to visible six-pack abs, and the best exercises and strategies to build a more muscular, chiseled torso.
What are underdeveloped abs?
Underdeveloped abdominals occur when your abs are weaker or smaller than other upper body muscles. Weak abs result from low muscle density of the abdominals, especially the rectus abdominis or visible six-pack section of your core. A lack of visible abdominals can also result from excess abdominal body fat tissue covering the muscle fibers.
You can strengthen weak abdominals by prioritizing effective core exercises to add bulk to the ab muscle fibers, improving the mind-to-muscle connection with your core muscles, doing heavy compound lifts, and managing lifestyle factors like sleep and stress.
You should also address your nutrition and training to reduce your body fat percentage and make your abs more visible.
The 8 Best Ways to Strengthen Abdominal Muscles
- Rule out medical conditions
- Measure and control your body fat percentage
- Prioritize effective abdominal strengthening exercises
- Consider and accept your genetics
- Optimize your nutrition
- Do more heavy compound lifts
- Address your stress
- Question whether ripped abs are worth it
Rule out medical conditions
Before embarking on the ambitious fitness journey to achieve a visible six-pack, ensure you don’t have a medical condition preventing you from reaching your goals. Some rare genetic disorders like prune belly cause a lack of abdominal musculature and other symptoms.
Other conditions like hypothyroidism, menopause, Cushing’s disease, sleep apnea, diabetes, edema, depression, and gut disorders can also make it extremely difficult to attain visible abs. Always consult your doctor to rule out medical issues and ensure your fitness goals, nutrition, and training plan are safe and appropriate for your health.
Measure and control your body fat percentage
No matter how strong and well-developed your abdominals are, you won’t be able to see them if a thick layer of abdominal fat covers them. You can measure your body fat percentage using several methods, ranging from inexpensive calipers to sophisticated and expensive measures like hydrostatic weighing.
The level of leanness required for visible abs differs for everyone and varies significantly between men and women. You don’t need to get a precise body fat measurement. A rough estimate will help determine how far you are from being lean enough to see your ab muscles.
Prioritize effective abdominal strengthening exercises
Even very lean individuals won’t be able to see their abs if the muscles are too small and weak to pop through the skin. Challenging ab work, like weighted and hanging ab exercises, will bulk up the muscle tissues to make them stronger and more visible.
One study found that ab roll outs using a stability ball, ball pikes, and hanging leg or knee raises most effectively engage the muscle fibers in the upper and lower rectus abdominis and internal and external obliques.
The primary function of the rectus abdominis is to move the torso between the rib cage and the pelvis. Exercises that shorten the distance from the sternum to the hips, like machine crunches or pike variations, build stronger, bulkier abdominals.
Consider and accept your genetics
Some people win the genetic lottery and can maintain visible abs year-round without an overly restrictive diet and exercise regime. Unfortunately, for most of us, a permanently shredded torso and popping six-pack are impossible to maintain without sacrificing our social lives and mental and physical health.
If you are genetically predisposed to store more fat around your middle, prioritize developing realistic goals that align with a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Even with optimal training, some people need to maintain an unhealthily low body fat percentage to see their abs.
You can do this for a while without too many consequences, but over a sustained period, your hormones, mood, libido, and quality of life will start to feel the effects of chronic dieting and intense ab training.
Optimize your nutrition
As discussed above, some people need to reduce their body fat to see their abdominal muscles. The most straightforward way of doing this is spending some time in a moderate caloric deficit to lose fat tissue as it is burned for energy.
To maintain strength and muscle mass when dieting, continue to consume enough protein daily. You also need enough carbohydrates to support your training sessions and dietary fats for healthy hormones, skin, and digestion.
Conversely, if you are already lean but have small or underdeveloped abs, you may benefit from eating in a caloric surplus to build more muscle tissue. Consuming enough total calories, good-quality protein, carbs, and fats will promote abdominal growth.
Do more heavy compound lifts
Targeted ab exercises are one part of the equation for dense, thick abdominal muscles. You also need to prioritize heavy compound lifts in your training plan. Heavy squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and lunges train your core muscles with high-intensity resistance, forcing them to get bigger and stronger to handle the load.
Many lifters can successfully build muscular abs without any targeted abdominal exercises and solely through heavy compound lifting. However, if your abs are stubborn or lagging, you may need to add around six to nine sets of direct ab training on top of your heavy lifts.
Address your stress
If your stress levels are high, you may face significant challenges in reaching your physique goals. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is linked with increased stores of abdominal fat tissue and a higher overall body fat percentage.
Stress from external factors like work, or internal factors like poor mental health, have consistently been associated with an increased risk of obesity and belly fat accumulation.
People leading stressful lives are also more likely to have less time to exercise, poor sleep quality, and a lack of time or mental energy to prepare wholesome meals.
These factors make building muscle, losing body fat, and having quality gym sessions harder. Making lifestyle changes that reduce stress levels will help you lose body fat, strengthen and define your abs, and lead a happier, healthier life.
Question whether ripped abs are worth it
Extremely low body fat can hinder your quality of life, impede your strength, and impact your libido and hormone levels. Since body fat distribution and visible abs are often down to genetics, don’t give up 90% of what makes life enjoyable to look 10% leaner.
There’s a good reason why losing fat becomes more difficult over time. When you approach a very low body fat percentage, your body will use compensatory mechanisms to prevent further weight loss. Although the human body is remarkable, it cannot discern between experiencing a famine and a calculated strategy to cut for summer.,
Your metabolism will start to adjust to keep you within your body’s preferred set point range. It may start breaking down muscle tissue, increasing grehlin (the hunger hormone), and making you highly food-focused. You may experience disrupted sleep as your endocrine system pumps out adrenaline to motivate you to seek food rather than rest.
The 20 Best Exercises to Build Stronger Abdominals
- Machine or cable crunches
- Weighted sit-ups
- Ab roll-outs
- Bosu ball cable crunches
- V sit-ups
- Side planks
- Reverse planks
- Hanging leg or knee raises
- Dumbbell v-sit Russian twists
- Mountain climbers
- Ball or slider pikes
- Lying leg raises
- Seated leg tucks
- Lying toe touches
- Reverse crunches
- Oblique crunches
- Pallof presses
- Bird dogs
In addition to targeted abdominal exercises, heavy compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, and lunges recruit the abs to stabilize your torso. Use a combination of targeted abdominal exercises and heavy full-body lifts to target the abs in different ways and build stronger, thicker core muscles.
What are underdeveloped abs?
Underdeveloped or weak abs occur when your abdominal muscles lag in strength, size, or density. Common causes of weak abdominal muscles are poor form when doing ab exercises, insufficient volume for targeted ab training and heavy compound lifts, and poor nutrition.
Strengthen weak abs by performing a few sets of core work three or four times a week. Perfect your form, engage your core in heavy compound lifts, and optimize your nutrition to achieve hypertrophy and fat loss goals.
Abdominal Muscle Anatomy
Your core comprises four main muscles collectively known as your abdominals — understanding how these muscles function will help you identify and address your weak points.
The transverse abdominis (TVA) is the deepest layer of your core. The TVA sits underneath the rectus abdominus and stabilizes the spine and pelvis, especially during heavy lifts like squats. Strengthen the TVA to build a firmer, flatter stomach, avoid injury, and create a strong abdominal foundation.
The rectus abdominis (RA) is the six-pack section of your core. These muscles sit closer to the surface of your skin and grow outward to create visible bumps on your torso. Your RA allows and controls the movement of your rib cage pulling towards your pelvis, such as the movement pattern of a basic crunch.
The external and internal obliques (EO and IO) work synergistically to control torso twisting and lateral flexion. The obliques are on top of one another, outside of your ribcage. Obliques are heavily involved in rotational core training like Russian twists and anti-rotational movements like the Pallof press.
Weak Abdominals FAQs
How often should you train your abs?
If you do enough heavy lifting overall, you don’t need any specific ab training to maintain or build abdominal strength. To grow severely underdeveloped or weak abs, train them twice a week with six to nine total sets of direct ab work.
With what intensity should I train my abs?
Bodyweight exercises generally provide enough intensity to maintain or build abdominal strength. If you have ambitious ab hypertrophy goals, weighted exercises will help develop thicker, denser ab muscles. Ahtlean-X provides a helpful overview of how to optimize your training and nutrition to achieve visible six-pack abs.
What rep range is best for building abdominal muscles?
Your core muscles require a combination of higher-rep, lower-weight training, and heavier exercises with fewer reps.
You should do half your ab training with lower intensity and higher reps (15-20+) and the other half in the 8-12 rep range with higher intensity or added resistance.
Are visible abdominals a sign of fitness?
No. Having visible abdominal muscles does not indicate a more robust core or better overall fitness. Genetics determine your body fat distribution and the visibility of your abs.
If you build muscle quickly and don’t store much body fat around your torso, you will find it easier to get a visible six-pack.
If you struggle to grow your abdominal muscles and are predisposed to store more belly fat, you will probably have difficulty getting your abs to show. Many of the fittest and most muscular athletes in the world don’t have a protruding six-pack. Focus on your performance goals and overall wellness, and don’t get discouraged or obsessed with an arbitrary aesthetic goal.
Grow Underdeveloped Muscle Groups
If you enjoyed this post, check out our other guides on how to grow lagging muscle groups.