You might assume that, when it comes to building abs, an intense series of planks and sit-ups will get you where you need to go – but it’s not quite as straightforward as simply training harder and for longer.
The honest reality is that genetics play a huge part too – definition will vary among women who eat and exercise the same amount. Our bodies are unique, which means cutting a steely core will differ from woman to woman.
What exactly is your core?
Your core isn’t just your ‘abs’ – far from it. It’s the full midsection of your body encompassing all the muscles in the area – the front, back and sides – and they all need to be strong and work together to provide stability for the entire body.
Your core muscles both control and stabilise your pelvis and spine, and so adequate core strength will make day-to-day activities easier and, in turn, prevent injuries. Further, recent research in the journal Medicina found that core stability training reduces both chronic pain and fatigue.
Keep this in mind when adding abs to your vision board; building muscle tone and strength around your tummy is not just for aesthetics.
With this in mind, Women’s Health spoke to three experts to find out how long they think it takes to build a strong core and sculpt a defined tum, too.
How long does it take to get abs?
“You all have the same core muscles, but some people are naturally more muscular than others,” says Dr Colin Moran, lecturer in health and exercise science at the University of Stirling.
In other words, since body type differs among women, it follows that the healthy measures used by your gym buddy might not work for you, or at the very least, might see results at a different rate.
“We all have different body shapes, sizes, limb lengths and hip widths, as well as different fitness levels and starting body fat percentage,” confirms PT Leigh Clayton.
As such, you will display ab definition at different points to others which means, “it’s very hard to quantify the exact amount of time needed to drop body fat and in turn, show abdominal muscles, as there are so many factors that can influence that,” shares Clayton.
Clayton expands—factors such as the below can all play a part in whether your abdominals are showing:
- Your nutrition
- Your training split
- The amount of cardio you’re doing
- The volume of NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) activity, aka how many calories you burn by living
- Your stress levels
- Your sleep quality
- Your food intolerances or dietary requirements
- Your current health
How should I get my abs to show?
While there is no definitive timeline for a toned tum, experts agree that there is a measured approach you can track to train for abs.
1. Don’t compare yourself to others
There’s healthy comparison and then there’s self sabotage. Just because someone on Instagram has more defined abs than you, that doesn’t mean you need to throw in the towel and give up all hope for good.
Focus on your own training and what works for you—and no social media stalking.
2. Hone in on your nutrition
Secondly, getting in touch with your nutrition and working out how to fuel your training is important if you want visible abdominal muscles.
Clayton explains: “If you’re eating a realistic calorie controlled macronutrient balanced diet and following a progressive training programme that you increase every week, then you will increase the likelihood of your abs showing sooner.”
For more sports-related nutrition, do seek advice from a registered nutritionist or dietician before making any drastic changes.
3. Incorporate core moves into your workout routine
Including core moves in your weekly workouts is important—but don’t go overboard.
Clayton prefers larger compound moves for targeting the abdominal muscles, as he believes they offer the best bang-for-buck in working out your whole body. “Training the abs can obviously affect how prominent they can become, but compound moves such as deadlifts and squats will both increase core strength and improve ab thickness over time.”
He stresses here that correct form is important – ask the PT at your gym for help if you’re not sure if you’re lifting a weight correctly.
Not a weights fan and prefer bodyweight moves? Add side planks or flutter kicks into your workout regime.
a. Balancing on one side of your body, stack your ankles and brace your core.
b. With your top arm reaching towards the sky, reach underneath you. Return to the top and repeat.
a. Lye down on back. Place your hands by your sides for support and lift your legs to the ceiling, toes pointed.
b. Now, bracing your core and keeping your back against the floor, slowly begin to kick your legs up and down. The closer to the floor, the more of a core workout.
4. Activate your core before workouts
Launder advises all women start core workouts with muscle activation.
Try a few pilates based exercises to wake up your core muscles and start re-activating them gently.
For new mums especially, it’s important to learn how to activate your deep core muscles correctly and safely.
For others, it’s a lesson in warming up your muscles, plus will teach you how to manage your muscle pressure correctly, important for pushing yourself to the fullest in each workout.
Swiss Ball Deadbug
a. Lie on your back with your arms above your shoulders, a Swiss Ball held between your hands.
b. Bring your legs into tabletop. Keeping your arms straight, stable and strong, alternate lowering and lifting each leg, ensuring your lower back remains melted into the floor.
5. After a baby
Post-partum exercise specialist Charlie Launder stresses that it is “impossible” to predict how long each individual will take to see stomach definition post-pregnancy.
“Rushing could end up not only causing you back pain and pelvic floor issues, but delay your results further and leaving you with a ‘mum tum’ for longer,” Launder warns.
But, if you follow the correct process and rehab your core properly, you could start to see great progress in a matter of months.
⚠️ Don’t forget: the NHS advises waiting at least six weeks to exercise after giving birth and it’s important to get sign off from your doctor before beginning to move again at all. If you’re wondering why, Launder warns that when you start doing typical ab exercises, such as crunches, before your body is ready, then you bypass the deep abdominal muscles which are vital for creating a strong core.
Plus, many women experience diastasis recti post pregnancy—the widening of the gap between the two sections of the Rectus abdominis (the six pack muscles) and this weakens the core and often the pelvic floor, too.