Have you been working on your abs, feel like you’re making progress but can’t see it as they are hiding underneath a layer of fat?. This is the exact problem I’ve been experiencing, and I’ve wondered whether or not my abs are actually getting stronger with all of the core work I’ve been doing. So, I’ve done the research and want to share my findings with you.
Can you have strong abs under fat? Yes, you can develop strong abs under fat. The rectus abdominis is the section of the core that forms the traditional “6-pack” look, and even if these muscles are strong, they can still be hidden underneath a layer of subcutaneous fat.
In this article, I’ll discuss common misconceptions about core strength and belly fat, in addition to how the core develops through resistance training, how belly fat works, and what you can do about revealing your abs.
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Two Wrong Assumptions About Core Strength and Belly Fat
There are two wrong assumptions that people make when it comes to their core strength and having a flat stomach:
Wrong assumption #1: People wrongly associate having a flat stomach with strong abs.
Just because you have a flat stomach, doesn’t mean you have strong abs. These are two different things. You can have strong abs and not have a flat stomach, and vice versa. Exercising your stomach through targeted abdominal exercises can get them stronger, but depending on the exercises used, and your nutritional habits, your efforts might not be contributing to belly fat loss.
Wrong assumption #2: People assume having a flat stomach is more important than strong abs
Strong abs are definitely more important than having a flat stomach and just because you can’t visibly see your ab muscles doesn’t mean you don’t have strong abs. The abdominal muscles are engaged at the onset of even light exercises and their contribution increases progressively as the exercise intensifies. It’s important to realize that everything we do in both the gym and our daily activities involves our abs. Without strong abs, it might lead to ineffective technique when weight training or potentially lead to pain/injury.
Let’s now take a look at the role of the abdominal muscles when strength training so that you know the impact of having a strong core.
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The Role of The Abdominal Muscles
Here are 3 things that you might not have known about your core muscles:
1. Your core plays a major role in our breathing
Correct breathing is extremely important when working out. This is to ensure that blood circulating to the working muscles get enough oxygen to function properly and have waste products simultaneously removed. Most people wrongfully hold their breath during weight training which can actually lead to an increase in blood pressure.
The most effective and safest way to breathe during strength training is to inhale as the weight is lowered and exhale as the weight is lifted therefore, helping to control blood pressure safely. Your core is the primary driver for breathing effectively by expanding your diaphragm as you lift weights.
2. Your core supports the spine and offers protection from lower back pain and injury
Weak abdominal muscles could make you more prone to back strain from your strength training workout. Having strong abs help to stabilize and brace the spine. When you develop the ability to brace your core under stress, you will feel tighter and more stable when lifting weights.
We discuss more on how to activate your core properly using a “breath and brace” technique in our article on Does a Weightlifting Belt Weaken Your Core.
3. Your core stabilizes the torso to ensure good posture
Good posture is not just about ‘looking good’. Good posture during a workout, especially during strength training, plays a role in helping us develop greater levels of strength and reduces the stress on the muscles and ligaments. This keeps us lifting safely, and may decrease our risk to injury.
In addition, for compound movements, such as squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, and overhead press, it’s critical that our torso remains rigid and in a neutral position throughout the movement. Your core muscles allow you to maintain the necessary posture to lift the most amount of weight possible without sacrificing your technique.
Let’s now talk about the anatomy of your core and how fat is distributed across your stomach.
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How Fat Is Distributed Across Your Stomach
The abdominal muscles form the anterior and lateral abdominal wall and consist of the external abdominal obliques, the internal abdominal obliques, the rectus abdominis and the transversus abdominis.
While each part of the abdominal muscle is important and responsible for various movements of the trunk, it’s the transverse abdominis that needs to be strong if we want to fully maximize our core strength.
The transverse abdominis is the deepest muscle layer and is the horizontal layer of muscle that envelops your abdominal region. It wraps around the torso from front to back and from the ribs to the pelvis. It also wraps around your spine to provide maximum stability, which is why the transverse abdominis is extremely important for every day functioning (we’ll discuss how to strengthen this muscle later).
It is important to note that many ab exercises work the hip flexors more than the actual abs. Therefore, when exercising and trying to get strong abs it is important to minimize the involvement of the hip flexors to isolate and maximize contraction of the abs muscles.
Let’s now talk about belly fat.
There are two main types of abdominal fat: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat:
1. Subcutaneous fat is present underneath the skin and on top of abdominal muscles.
2. Visceral fat is stored within the abdominal cavity (underneath the abdominal muscles) and surrounds your organs.
As a quick rule of thumb: if the fat is visible or pinchable it is most likely subcutaneous fat.
Related Article: How Often Should You Train Abs For Max Results
Unfortunately, skin around the abdomen area has a particular liking for subcutaneous tissue compared to other areas of the body. This area of the body can store several inches of fat. The amount of subcutaneous fat one can develop is dependent on a variety of factors including genetics, lifestyle, physical activity and diet.
The deposition of subcutaneous fat in the lower abdomen is difficult to lose by dieting and exercise compared to the upper abdomen due to the different properties of the fat at each location.
To lose Subcutaneous belly fat you need the right strategy.
The main strategy is to get your body in a caloric deficit. This usually involves burning enough calories through exercise, combined with a diet that creates a caloric deficit based on your total body expenditure. In other words, consuming less calories than you burn through your daily activities and workouts (you can read more about obtaining a caloric deficit in our article on Can You Stronger Without A Caloric Surplus?)
Your genetics determine how and the speed in which the weight will come off. However, adding strength training to your workout has benefits in helping to reduce belly fat as this type of activity increases lean muscle which can boost metabolism and burn calories.
With strength training, you have to progress over time either in sets, reps or load therefore simultaneously getting stronger abs and reducing the layer of fat covering them.
Carrying too much visceral fat can be extremely harmful.
By being in a constant caloric surplus, the body will store this additional energy as fat. These fat cells also produce hormones and inflammatory substances. Scientists believe that visceral fat may promote long-lasting inflammation and has been linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease and even certain cancers.
Since visceral fat sits beneath the abdominal wall, it’s much harder to identify with the naked eye. Studies have shown that in addition to creating a caloric deficit, increasing dietary whole grains and lean protein has shown to be effective in reducing visceral fat. As well, recommendations include reducing sugars and alcohol as these substances are more likely to end up as visceral fat.
Related Article: 30-Min Outdoor Ab Workouts You Can Do Anywhere
Getting A Strong Core With or Without Belly Fat
Our core muscles work together as stabilizers for the whole body. Core training essentially works to develop and strengthen the inner and outer core which is vital for exercise and also performing simple everyday tasks.
For successful midsection training it is essential to target all associated core and ab muscle groups effectively. Ideally working all components of the torso together as one solid unit with front and back muscles contracting simultaneously. Simple bodyweight exercises such as the plank can be an extremely effective exercise to strengthen the core as well as sculpt the abs.
Here is a video showing various plank progressions based on your level:
In addition, two other exercises should be included into your core routine: ab roller and weighted side bend.
A study by Youdas et al. (2008) showed that the ab roller had superior activation of the rectus adominis (your 6-pack muscles) compared with other exercises. There was also significant activation in the transverse adominus (your deep core muscles).
Boeckh-Behrens and Buskies (2000) compared 12 exercises and showed the side bend had the most muscle activation in the obliques (the side part of your core).
Final Thoughts: Should You Workout Your Abs If You Have Belly Fat?
Yes you should because your abs play several important roles and strong abs are essential even if they are hidden underneath the belly fat. However, if you are working out your abs specifically to burn belly fat and not to strengthen your abs then evidence suggests targeted ab exercises are not the most effective. It is suggested that an effective way to burn belly fat is to reduce one’s overall body fat in caloric deficit through consistent exercise (cardio, strength training and flexibility) and a low calorie balanced diet.
About The Author
Dr. Bahijja Raimi-Abraham is a pharmacist and Lecturer in Pharmaceutics at King’s College London. Bahijja’s research is focused on Ageing and Global Health. Bahijja is the first graduate of the University of East Anglia School of Pharmacy to be awarded a Ph.D. and more recently won the Outstanding Woman in STEM Precious Award. Prior to her current position as Lecturer in Pharmaceutics at King’s College London, Bahijja held positions at University College London (UCL) as an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) postdoctoral researcher position and at the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as a seconded Quality National Expert. In her spare time, Bahijja plays netball and enjoys working out using Fitbod. She also likes street art and trying new recipes.