Back in the day, a set of six-pack abs was considered the highest achievement a gym goer could accomplish. These days, we know that fit bodies come in many shapes and sizes, but many trainees still strive to chisel out their abdominals. If that’s one of your goals, keep on reading!
Whether or not genetics are entirely to blame for abdominal development is a question that many a lifter has asked (or perhaps yelled at the sky, fists clenched, toward the end of a particularly grueling cardio session). And the truth is, it depends. Here, I'm going to break down why that’s the case, and how you can work toward a carved-out core if that’s what you’re after.
If you’ve ever read the famous Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, you know there are always exceptions to the rule. So someone can be genetically blessed as an athlete, but ultimately that will only take them so far. If they don't spend time perfecting their sport, learning the finesse of the game and clocking hours on the field, the less genetically blessed will eventually out-train them every single time. Similarly with abs, genetics will help you, but they will only get you so far.
What Role Do Genetics Play in Ab Development?
The thing about genetics is that they play a large role in where you store body fat. Someone with "good genetics" can sit at a higher body fat percentage and still have totally visible abs because they store more fat in their hips or waist as opposed to their midline. On the other hand, someone at that same body fat percentage who holds more body fat at their midline would find that their abs are not as visible.
In the 2021 study Genetics of Body Fat Distribution: Comparative Analyses in Populations with European, Asian and African Ancestries, researchers looked at different ethnicities and the genetics of fat distribution. While it is clear genetics control fat distribution, research also found that, "genetic factors in fat distribution are more likely to be sensitive to sex than to ethnicity."
None of this information is Earth-shattering when it comes to the fact our male counterparts generally find it easier to attain a six-pack. However, if someone with amazing genetics leads a sedentary lifestyle, doesn't exercise and doesn't train their abs, odds are those good genetics won't matter.
Moreover, everyone's abs are shaped differently. No two people are born with the same anatomy, which causes the rectus abdominis to look different on everyone. The rectus abdominis is divided into sections by tendons, and those sections both define your abs and determine how they line up. If they are misaligned, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it -- your genetics 100 percent determine that. Staggered or uneven abs can give the illusion of a 7 pack, 9 pack, or less visible abs in general.
"There are a number of genes responsible for the storage and mobilization of fatty acids. Small differences in the distribution of these proteins seem to determine where your body preferentially stores and releases fat. You cannot change this," says M2 Performance and Nutrition Founder and PhD in immunology, Mike Molloy. “While visible abs might seem like the end-all-be-all of life to some, there are actually some major health benefits to having more subcutaneous fat (beneath the skin) compared to visceral fat (fat around organs), since excess visceral fat is a major health risk. You may not have a six-pack, but it's likely you will have a lower risk for metabolic disease."
Again, make no mistake: Abs are not a measurement of fitness and health. Having visible abs won't protect you from back pain, and it won't mean you're the fittest person in the room. But even without helpful genetics, abs are attainable. Here is how.
5 Ways to Maximize Your Abs’ Potential
1. Sleep 8 Hours Every Night
Sleep is one of the most underutilized and holistic means to change body composition. Nothing will boost your metabolism faster than a good night sleep, so if you want to look lean and feel great, this is a non-negotiable.
Develop a solid nighttime routine that you can stick to. Sleep in a dark, cool room, limit screens before bed, invest in blackout shades, cut out alcohol on weeknights, and try not to consume any caffeine after 2 p.m.
Our bodies are mostly made up of water, so if you want to look lean, stay hydrated. Try to consume at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day. You can use your urine as a guide to hydration -- just a little yellow is where you want to be.
3. Consume Mostly Whole, Minimally Processed Foods
Most of your diet should consist of higher quality foods. Fill most of your days with high quality meat, fish, veggies, potatoes, white rice, squash, oats, fruit, nut butters, avocados, and healthy oils. Shop the perimeter of the store and keep your meals fresh and simple.
4. Train Your Abs
If you want your abs to show through, you need to actually train them. Focus on exercises that require time under tension (a topic I've discussed extensively here). Although it may seem like a good idea to knock out as many exercises and reps as you can, working in high rep ranges (like 50 unbroken sit-ups) is great for cardio but won't get you very far when it comes to core development. Think about incorporating moves like hollow body holds, strict toes-to-bar/toes-to-waist, v-ups, planks and boat pose, which all place your abs in tension.
5. Manage Stress
Chronic stress can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, which can stimulate your appetite and cause weight gain. If you are genetically predisposed to gain belly fat, this will decrease your chance of seeing visible abs.