Abs aren’t the ultimate sign of fitness

Posted by for Strong Women

The quest for a six-pack can be a detrimental measure of your fitness progress – here’s why you should be focussing more on your overall performance and sleep quality, rather than stomach definition.       

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a switch from idolising size 0 waifs to worshipping at the altar of #strongnotskinny – with beauty standards changing from visible collarbones to visible abs.

The fashion for looking visibly ‘strong’ has led to many of us embarking on high octane gym plans – tracking macros, lifting heavy and pursuing a level of training previously reserved for semi-pro athletes. But it took having a body confidence crisis after months of following a rigorous routine for me to realise that abs really aren’t the ultimate sign of fitness at all.

A couple of years ago, I embarked on a bodybuilding programme which was designed to get me stronger, leaner and ‘healthier’ than ever. As a runner, I’ve always been pretty fit but hadn’t done much work on building muscle. My main aim? To improve my performance on the track by getting stronger in the gym. My real aim? To get a six-pack.

For months, I tracked my calories and bust a gut in brutal gym sessions. After a few months, I was lifting more than I ever thought possible and saw muscles I didn’t even know existed come to the fore. My running got noticeably faster and my sleep improved.

But my body image, if anything, was getting worse. 

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As my body fat plummeted and my muscle mass increased, I found myself staring in the gym mirror wondering when my lower abs would pop. Even at 15% body fat (which is the same level as many athletes), I had some definition but nothing like the bulging abs you see on Instagram or fitness magazine covers. I felt embarrassed that all the time and energy I was putting into training and eating ‘clean’ wasn’t resulting in the one thing that would show how hard I was working. I ended up crying in Byron one evening while on a date, worrying what impact a portion of courgette fries would have on my goal. Sitting there with mascara smeared all over my face, too scared to order anything, it was the wakeup call I needed.

Since ditching the programme and concentrating on performance rather than aesthetics, however, I’ve gone on to smash my own 5k, half marathon and marathon personal bests. But I no longer devote my life to the gym or My Fitness Pal, so I’ve got even less definition than I did before. Does that mean I’m less fit now? Of course not.

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“A visible six-pack may be a goal for many people – but visible abdominal muscles are in fact not a reliable indicator of physical fitness, they are an indicator of low body fat (around 10% for men and 14% for women) which is simply unachievable and not necessary for most people,” Hannah Lewin, Digme Fitness instructor and PT, tells Stylist.

“It is possible to reduce your body fat and have visible abs via extreme dieting without ever-increasing your fitness levels.”

This obsession over strength isn’t genuine; it’s another impossible beauty standard levied at people of all genders and which has very little to do with actual performance.

Just look at some of the top athletes in the world. Tennis players such as Heather Watson are fitness personified; it takes another level of power, strength and stamina to play hours of tennis a day. Despite her gruelling training regime and success on the court, Heather doesn’t have the same body aesthetic as the bikini models you sometimes see on the ‘gram. At the height of their careers, footballers like Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney were taunted by fans for not having rippling abs – despite that the fact that they were two of the fittest men in the UK (proving that this is a damaging beauty standard for all genders).

Heather Watson

But we do all have abs, even if you can’t see them. Don’t be fooled into thinking they’re muscles which don’t exist unless they’re popping out of your body.

“You use them to sit up and get out of bed in the morning!” Laura Hoggins, PT and author of Lift Yourself, reminds us.

The way we metabolise fat and build muscle is largely down to genetics. Most of us straddle two of three body types: mesomorph (predisposed to building muscle – someone like Serena Williams), ectomorph (burns fat easily and finds it hard to build muscle – Kate Moss) and endomorph (predisposed to storing fat – Kim K). 

While you can’t out-train your body type, you can use your genes to perform at your best. Endomorphs, for example, are classic pear-shapes; no matter how much you workout, you’re never going to get rid of your bum and hips. Speed might not be your natural skill but strength sports such as weightlifting and boxing really are. While you might find that running a marathon doesn’t come as easily to you as it does to other tall, lean types, that doesn’t mean that you can’t train up for one – and smash it.

“Instead of focusing solely on an aesthetic goal, focus on progressing your fitness,” Hannah advises.

“That’ll make your workouts more enjoyable, productive and may also help with long-term motivation.”

Fitness goals have a sneaky way of progressing over time. You might start out aiming to simply survive your first 5k parkrun… and find that within a few months, you’re aiming to run your first half marathon. With weight training, the only way is heavier.

The feeling of seeing your fitness progress, and having a concrete way of measuring it – be that with medals or dumbbell weight increases – will last far longer than any arbitrary scale number or physical beauty standard. 

Life lessons from strength training

If there’s one resolution we should all have for 2020, it’s to drop the idea that visible abs equals fitness. If making them look more prominent is a genuine goal of yours, that’s OK – but it’s also worth having a fitness-orientated aim to back it up with. All ab-packs show is a low-fat percentage – something that has no correlation to how strong or healthy you are.

Real signs of fitness

As well as improved performance in whatever sport or physical activity you do, there are a number of ways that you can accurately measure your fitness levels.

Laura tells us that there are four pillars of fitness that professionals look at when assessing progress.

“Depending on your goals, it may seem extreme to measure these things but I learned very early on that if you’re not assessing you are just guessing, and someone’s physical aesthetic could lead to a judgment on their fitness, without knowing the facts!”

Cardiovascular fitness – your ability to maintain work output as efficiently as possible. This is all about being able to supply oxygen to the body, enabling you to work at a higher intensity while maintaining a comfortable heart rate. You can measure aerobic work by seeing if you can work for longer periods of time without needing to stop. Struggling to run a 5k? Aim to run 3k and gradually increase – taking stops for breathers when you need. Before long, you’ll find that your capacity to run longer distances increases and that’s when you’ll know that your cardio fitness has improved.

Muscular strength – your ability to exert maximum force on an external load. How much can you lift? Could you pull a bus? OK, maybe Laura could pull a bus but for most of us, we want to be able to deadlift our own weight and be able to do practical stuff such as move heavy furniture. You’ll need strong abs for that, but you don’t need to see them.

Photo by John Arano on Unsplash

Muscular endurance – your ability to continue muscular contractions, working with load or against resistance over a longer period of time. Could you complete a 60 minute weights class? Could you spend a couple of hours lifting that heavy furniture?

Flexibility – your range of movement within a joint is also a contributing factor into physical fitness. You might be strong, but are you strong in range? It’s no good being jacked and not being able to touch your toes – flexibility is the thing that’s going to keep you mobile well into old age. Take aesthetics out of the equation and we’re looking at a lifelong goal of being functionally fit.

Body composition – we know that if we want to have a healthy body, we’ve got to keep a watch on our visceral fat levels (that’s the stuff that packs around our vital organs). However, every individual is unique, and you don’t have to see abs to have a low visceral fat percentage. 

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on an old Dutchie.

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