Strong Abs Are More Important Than Flat Ones

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Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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A strong core is essential for a functional body. Your core, which includes your abdominal muscles, helps protect your spine, facilitates all lower and upper body movements, and boosts your performance in sports and daily activities.

We may not always be able to control how our abs look, but we can control how strong they are. While society may say that six-pack abs look good, strong abs can make you feel good.

A supported spine makes daily activities easier and protects you from back pain and injury. Moving beyond crunches, can show you what your abs can really do. Learn more about how to build functional abs.

The Truth About Abs

Ab myths have been around for decades, perhaps even centuries, all due to that singular goal for flat, toned abs. If this is one of your goals, one that you've failed to reach no matter how many crunches you do, knowing a few facts can help you get a clear view of what you can and can't do to tone your abs.

Ab Exercises Build Strength

Ab exercises can build strength and muscle but will not reduce fat. Any exercises for the abdominals that claim to "tone" are incorrect. Muscle can be built (grow) or decline (shrink), but it cannot tone. Building strong abs with larger muscles can help them become more visible while providing functional strength.

To see your abdominal muscles, your body composition needs to be adjusted so that the muscles are visible. This kind of physical change can be challenging and difficult to sustain. While strong abs are helpful for boosting your health, visible abs may not be attainable using healthy lifestyle practices if they interfere with your nutrition or mental health.

Genetics Matter

Genetics play a crucial role in the ability to get flat abs, with women having a more challenging time than men simply because they are predisposed to store excess fat. The favorite place for fat to live in women tends to be around the belly, especially after menopause.

While social pressures may influence how you feel about your body, the desire for flat abs may not be an ideal goal for your physiology. For one, many people are not physically built to have a completely flat abdomen. Inside your abdominal cavity are many organs, including your intestines, stomach, and for many, a uterus.

These organs can push against your abdominal wall, creating a natural curve to your abdomen that does not appear flat. This is completely normal, and many images in the media displaying flat abdomens have been digitally manipulated and are not realistic.

Strong Abs Do More

Distinctive abs may be appealing at the beach or the gym, but strong abs can do a whole lot more for you. A supported spine and protection from lower back pain and injury.

Focusing on strong abs with a variety of exercises can not only give your body more support for daily activities, but it can also free you from that elusive goal of getting flat abs. What a relief to let go of something that's caused nothing but angst and frustration.

What Strong Abs Can Do

  • Stabilize your spine and assist in proper posture
  • Prevent lower back pain and injury
  • Improve strength and balance needed for daily movements such as walking, bending, sitting, standing, reaching, and lifting
  • Stabilize the spine by strengthening the transverse abdominis (TVA)
  • Boost performance in sports and other activities

Getting The Most Out of Your Ab Workouts

We now know that doing hundreds of crunches daily is not the most effective way to strengthen your abs. An effective ab workout involves more.

An example of an effective ab workout includes multiple exercises that work your entire core. Choose five or so exercises that work all the muscles of the core—the TVA, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, and the lower back. You also want to include exercises that involve flexion (like ball crunches), rotation (like bicycles), and bracing or isometric exercises (like the plank).

Include floor exercises and standing ab exercises to target both strength and functionality, and perform one to three sets of eight to 16 reps of each exercise about 3 to 5 days a week. Be sure to perform each exercise in slow, controlled movements.

Going too fast involves using momentum, which makes the exercises less effective. You can also add resistance (holding a weight during crunches, for example) if you need more intensity.

Do a complete program of cardio, strength training, and stretching along with your ab routine for best results. Eating fewer calories than you burn with your program is essential for losing body fat, which helps reveal the ab muscles if this is your goal. Whether you lose fat or not won't determine how functional or strong your abs are, however.

A Word From Verywell

Altered media images and societal pressures may make you feel as though you need to have flat, visible abs. However, striving for extreme body types may be detrimental to your health or not achievable. Instead, placing your goal on strengthening your core and adopting body neutrality may be more beneficial for your physical and mental health.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kolnes KJ, Petersen MH, Lien-Iversen T, Højlund K, Jensen J. Effect of exercise training on fat loss—energetic perspectives and the role of improved adipose tissue function and body fat distribution. Front Physiol. 2021;12:737709. doi:10.3389/fphys.2021.737709

  2. Christensen P, Meinert Larsen T, Westerterp-Plantenga M, et al. Men and women respond differently to rapid weight loss: Metabolic outcomes of a multi-centre intervention study after a low-energy diet in 2500 overweight, individuals with pre-diabetes (PREVIEW)Diabetes Obes Metab. 2018;20(12):2840-2851. doi:10.1111/dom.13466

  3. University of Rochester Medical Center. What does estrogen have to do with belly fat?

Additional Reading

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."