You’ve crunched, planked, tried the whole “abs are made in the kitchen” thing, and managed to chisel away some awesome-looking upper abs. Your lower abs? Well, they are under there somewhere…maybe?
When it comes to developing a visible six-pack, there’s no denying that it tends to be the bottom two (or four) that many women have a harder time with. And we’re going to get into why.
But before we get into all that, let’s first talk about setting reasonable goals and expectations for yourself—and the fact that no matter how hard you work, sometimes a six-pack just isn’t going to happen.
It’s so important to understand that getting a six-pack, or just seeing more definition in your abs in general, is really damn hard and requires a lot more than just doing abs workouts every day. Nutrition plays an enormous role; you also should be doing total-body workouts meant to reduce overall body fat composition. Factor in genetics on top of that, and the inevitable truth is that some people are just more likely to develop visible abs muscles than others. Some people (many people!) may never be able to, and that’s totally OK. Having a six-pack isn’t a measure of your overall physical fitness. For more on this, you’ll want to read Why It’s So Hard, and Sometimes Impossible, to Get Six-Pack Abs.
The big picture here is that it’s totally fine to have aesthetic goals tied to body-fat composition, but you should understand just what kind of work can be involved, and how that work might still not end up getting you to where you want to be. And you should really ask yourself if it’s worth it to you, or if pursuing this particular goal may be more harmful to you than beneficial. Only you can know the answer to that. Along those lines, if you have a history of disordered eating, you should talk to a doctor and nutritionist before embarking on any new fitness or nutrition regimen.
With all that being said, let’s talk about biology for a second.
Back to the whole “upper abs” being more visible than “lower abs” thing. It’s important to know that as far as biology is concerned, there are no upper abs and lower abs. There are just abs, or more specifically in this case, the rectus abdominis or “six-pack muscle,” California-based exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., tells SELF.
One large sheath of muscle that runs from your sternum to the bottom of your pelvis, the rectus abdominis sits atop the rest of your core muscles and directly below your skin, making it the most visible muscle to make up your middle, McCall says. A tough, wide tendon, called the linea alba, runs down the middle of the muscle from top to bottom, and multiple tendons also run from side to side. That means that, when the muscle grows and builds up around the tendons (and if you have low enough body fat), some people may develop a six-pack.
You build that muscle primarily through spinal flexion—bending your torso to draw your ribs closer to your pelvis or your pelvis closer to your ribs, he says. You can also tap it by resisting spinal extension—keeping your spine straight as you move your arms and/or legs.
If it’s your goal to work on defining your abs muscles a little more, there are some ways you can optimize your time in the gym to better work toward that objective.
Simply put, to work the lower half of your abs, you have to initiate movement from the lower part of the muscle.
The thing is, when performing dedicated abs work, most women focus on that first motion, bringing the ribs closer to their pelvis with crunch and sit-up variations. In crunches, the lower attachments of the rectus abdominus is fixed and not working, McCall says. Meanwhile, most women spend far less time (if any) drawing their pelvis up to their ribs with exercises such as reverse crunches, which increases recruitment of the lower ends of the rectus abdominis, he says.
But wait. Didn’t we just decide there’s no such thing as upper and lower abs? Yes. But to make things extra complicated, muscle cells (aka fibers) are unique from other cells in the body in that they are multinucleated—meaning they have multiple nuclei, or cellular command centers, that run along the length of each muscle fiber. Each microscopic command center tells its little section of the muscle fiber what to do and when to contract. So even though the rectus abdominis’ muscle fibers run from the sternum to the pelvis, the northern sections can be working hard while the lower ones are just chilling out, and vice versa, McCall says.
The best way to work your abs overall is by doing exercises that engage both the top and bottom sections.
McCall recommends performing exercises that hit both ends of the muscle on a daily basis. The majority of its fibers are aerobic-based (often called “endurance muscles”), meaning you can work them out frequently without overtraining them.
For the upper abs, try crunch variations, wood choppers, and medicine ball slams. For the lower abs, reverse crunches, mountain climbers, and leg lifts (both lying and hanging). Meanwhile, deadbugs, jackknives, ab-wheel rollouts, and boat pose variations will hit both portions.
When performing these moves, it’s vital that you prioritize quality over quantity, Vancouver-based strength coach Meghan Callaway, C.P.T., tells SELF. That’s especially true when it comes to tapping the hard-to-reach lower portion. When you let your back arch and ribs flare during exercises such as leg raises and deadbugs, you reduce the tension throughout the rectus abdominis, and especially in the lower portion of the abdomen near the pelvic attachment, she says.
“When you really pay attention to keeping the back, especially the low back, flat and stable during ab exercises, you can really feel the entire length of the rectus abdominis activate,” Callaway says. She also recommends focusing on inhaling during the “easy” part of the exercise and forcefully exhaling through the “effort” phase to further engage the lower abs.
In addition, you really need to put your mind into it. Think about the part of the abs that you’re trying to hit, and focus on engaging and initiating movement from that part of the muscle.
Finally, don’t feel bad if you follow all of this advice and still don’t have visible lower ab muscles. As we discussed above, because of genetics, some people just carry extra fat below the belly button even when they’re at a relatively low body fat percentage. It’s absolutely fine if you want to achieve a certain aesthetic, but focus on being the best ~ you ~ you can be (yes, as corny as that sounds). There are still plenty of fitness benefits to exercising every area of your core, like improved stability and strength.