Why Do My Abs Only Show When I Flex? (4 Ab-Tensing Facts)

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Isn’t it frustrating that despite rigorous training of your midsection, your abs only ever become visible when you flex them?

Well, there’s a number of reasons that this may occur, so I’ll now explain why and how to fix this.

The main reason that your abs only show when you flex is that you’re still carrying too much body fat. Men and women will typically start to see ab definition at approximately 13-16% and 21-24% body fat respectively. However, to get cut and ripped ab definition without flexing your body fat percentage will need to be lower. This would generally be in the range of 6-12% for men and 13-18% for women.

1. You’re Carrying Too Much Body Fat

Unfortunately, there’s no two ways about it, if you can’t see your abs then you’re carrying too much body fat.

Realistically, as a man you’ll want to get your body fat percentage to 15% and below.

And for a woman, you’re looking at around 23% and below.

However, while you may notice visible abs at these body fat percentages, you’ll generally have to flex so that your abs are more prominent.

In truth, it’s not until a man get’s under 10% body fat, and a woman under around 17% body fat, that your abs will permanently be on display.

Whether your abs are visible or not always comes down to your body fat percentage. Men require approximately 10% body fat percentage for visible abs. Women require approximately 17% body fat percentage for visible abs.

With that being said, these body fat percentages can vary from person-to-person, and they’re not set in stone.

By this I mean that someone could have a fantastic ripped and chiselled set of abs at 12% body fat.

But, for another person to achieve the same level of definition, they will need to get to around 6% body fat.

This is simply down to genetics, as well as where you as an individual tend to store body fat.

So, although you can aim for a certain level of body fat, just remember that there’s no one size fits all solution.

Nevertheless, if you can only see ab definition when you flex, this is definitely a sign that you still have a way to go in terms of ideal body fat for abs.

2. Are You Focusing On the Wrong Things?

When it comes to lowering body fat your first port of call will always be nutrition.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “you can’t out train a bad diet”, and this is especially true when it comes to revealing your abs.

So, you’ll want to be eating slightly below maintenance calories to begin with.

This doesn’t need to be a huge amount, and usually 200-300 calories below maintenance will be sufficient for most people.

When it comes to training, you should ensure that you’re lifting weights, especially the big compound lifts.

Most people sway towards doing hours-and-hours of cardio, as well as performing thousands of reps of ab exercises on a weekly basis.

However, in truth, without proper nutrition and a focus on resistance training you could end up burning muscle, as opposed to body fat.

Plus, don’t forget that you can’t spot reduce body fat, so all those hours of crunches and sit ups are wasted if you’re still carrying excess fat.

So, for me, abs require a focus on 4 specific areas, but none of these need to be done to excess.

A good mix of resistance training, cardio, ab exercises, and great nutrition will help you achieve your goals.

3. You’re Not Training Your Abs Correctly

I’ve just mentioned that many people view ab training as simply performing thousands of crunches and sit ups every week.

The aim here is to get the rectus abdominis to become more prominent.

However, the rectus abdominis is your six-pack MUSCLE.

Train your abs in the same way as your other muscle groups. Therefore, provide resistance in order to stimulate growth. Don't solely focus on high reps and muscular endurance training.

So, in effect, your abs are muscles, and should therefore be trained in much the same way as any other muscle.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you can certainly produce a great physique from bodyweight exercises alone.

Plus, you can increase muscle mass and strength with just bodyweight moves too.

But, once you’re into the realms of hitting 20, 30, 50, or maybe even 100 reps per set, you’re training more for muscular endurance.

Once again, you can produce an awesome physique just by training muscular endurance, but strength and hypertrophy training will always produce greater results.

So, when it comes to ab training, you should also focus on increasing the size and strength of your ab muscles.

And unfortunately, if you’re performing thousands of reps of the easiest bodyweight ab exercises then you’re not providing sufficient resistance to stimulate growth.

So, I would suggest that you start to add weight to various ab exercises, and practice the same progressive overload technique that you would for any other muscle.

I also think that the abs react extremely well to basic resistance exercises, which also require the abs and core to stabilize.

Some examples include goblet squats, push ups rows with dumbbells, one-arm dumbbell shoulder press, etc.

These exercises create instability in the core, which requires your abs and core to work much harder when performing them.

4. Learn to Increase Resting Tension in Your Abs

Something else to consider is the resting tension (muscle tone) you have in your abs.

Basically, all muscles in the body have a certain amount of tension while at rest.

The greater the resting tension of a muscle, the better definition that muscle will have.

In effect, this is almost like saying that you want to get your abs to a permanently flexed state without actually having to flex or tense.

Therefore, your abs won’t suddenly disappear if you’re no longer flexing them.

The best way to achieve this will be through ab-specific exercises.

One of the best exercises to produce these results is the RKC plank.

This is a version of the plank created by Pavel Tsatsouline.

Pavel is renowned for being the founder of Strongfirst and reintroducing kettlebell training to the West during the late 1990s.

Plus, he has become even more famous for his Russian Fighter Pull Up Program.

RKC basically stands for Russian Kettlebell Challenge, although Pavel’s plank variation doesn’t require the use of kettlebells.

The RKC plank looks exactly the same as a standard plank.

However, due to the tension that you are placing upon the body it will be difficult to hold the plank position for as long.

In fact, if you’re someone who can hold a standard plank for quite a while it’s probably about time you upgraded to the RKC plank.

Key Learning Points

  • It’s not until a man has a body fat percentage of approximately 10%, and a woman has approximately 17%, that your abs will be visible without the need to flex.
  • Carrying excess body fat typically comes down to your nutrition. Therefore, you should aim to reduce your daily calories by 200-300 calories, while focusing on healthy, well-balanced meals.
  • Exercise should involve a good mix of resistance training, cardio, and ab work.
  • The abs are a muscle just like other muscles in the body, so they should be trained in much the same way. Progreessively overload your ab exercises to focus on increased strength and hypertrophy.
  • Perform exercises which require your core to stabilize, which will help to increase overall ab strength and aesthetics, e.g. goblet squats, one-arm dumbbell shoulder press, push ups with rows, etc.
  • Learn to increase resting tension in your abs, e.g. regularly perform the RKC plank.

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