In Pursuit of Self-Improvement

Working on that six pack, but not getting anywhere? Here are seven reasons you can’t see your abs.
By: Tim Hamilton

There is really only one reason you can’t see your abs: You’ve got a layer of body fat covering them. Read on and shed some light on how that happens and what to do about it.

1. You eat too much sugar and refined carbohydrates.
When you consume sugar, your insulin spikes and your metabolism shifts to burning sugar and not fat. Do this often, and it’s a recipe for insulin resistance. That, in turn, can lead to weight gain and diabetes.

Unless you are genetically gifted and can eat anything you want and stay lean, you’ll need to reduce or eliminate sugar if you want to reduce body fat. How much you can get away with varies according to individual genetics. You’ll have to figure that out through trial and error. But for most folks to lean out, it is necessary to cut carbs significantly, especially the easily digestible, high-glycemic type.

2. You’re doing too much of the wrong kind of exercise, too little of the right kind or both.
If you’re a “cardio junkie” who’s feeling “skinny-fat,” you might need to rethink your training philosophy. Gaining muscle and improving body composition are generally incompatible with excessive endurance activity.

Equally pointless are endless abdominal exercises of every imaginable variety. Resist the temptation to work the daylights out of your abs until you can barely walk. This has zero effect on the fat around your midsection in spite of misleading ads and product claims.

A sensibly constructed weight-training routine is a great place to start. This ideally would include barbell lifts such as squats, deadlifts and presses, with relatively heavy weights, preferably with quality instruction. Muscle ignites your metabolism and favorably impacts hormones to help increase lean tissue and burn fat. We are not talking bicep curls, triceps extensions, rubber bands or little pink dumbbells. That’s not weight training. If you can do more than 20 reps, you’re developing endurance, not strength.

Keep your conditioning work short and intense (in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 minutes), or go for a nice hour-long stroll at an effortless pace. Both have been shown to be favorable for burning fat.

3. You chose the wrong parents.
Not everyone is going to have six-pack abs. You’ve got to play the hand you’ve been dealt the best you can. Like Jerry Garcia said, “Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a damn if you don’t lay ‘em down.” There are elite athletes who don’t have ripped abs. It’s mostly genetic. Some just have them, and some not so much.

Some people are tall, and some are short. Some people have a tendency to store more body fat, while others tend to remain lean, regardless of diet. Some people can display impressive definition at 12 to 15 percent body fat, while others need to get to 6 to 8 percent. And some people, even when they are lean, will just not have deep grooves between the segments of the abs.

4. You have a hormone imbalance, thyroid issues or another disorder.
If you have reason to believe this is the case, see a doctor and get it checked out. Hormones override everything. There may or may not be anything you can do about it, but it’s worth looking into.

But don’t rush to assume this. Do a reality check. Could your diet improve? Is your training consistent? An honest assessment is crucial.

5. You refuse to limit frequent alcohol consumption, and you either misunderstand or dismiss the negative cascade of events that accompany it.
If you refuse to limit alcohol, there is no mystery about a lack of progress in the gym. An occasional drink a few nights a week is usually not a problem. However, with excessive consumption, your dietary discipline goes out the window. You eat stuff you shouldn’t. Sleep is affected negatively. Workout quality is compromised. Your ability to absorb vital nutrients is reduced.

Chronic alcohol consumption reduces testosterone, strains the liver and tends to shut down fat burning, none of which are particularly favorable to attaining that six pack.

6. You have unrealistic time-frame expectations.
Maybe you just haven’t stuck with it long enough. Popular media would have you believe you can get ripped in a matter of a few weeks or so. No one wants to hear that it will take a year to attain the physique you want, or that it will be a major challenge. Our ADD culture has trained us to expect immediate satisfaction and instant gratification.

Changing your body takes time, patience and consistent, unrelenting focus and effort. Success is neither quick nor haphazard. Develop a patient, determined mindset.

7. You have fitness ADD.
For some, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. This is a destructive mindset. Invest yourself fully in what you’re doing. Try not to be distracted. If you have hired a trainer, trust them and do exactly as they say. Give it a fair shake. If you suspect your trainer is incompetent, fire them, but before you do, just be sure it’s not actually you who is misinformed about training concepts.

Try to see past the hype, the slick packaging and the social media buzz, and measure your program against the time-tested fundamentals previously described. Then stick with it long enough to see results before you hop off to something else.

As your training career matures, you may find that your reasons for exercising and pursuing self-improvement grow deeper and less superficial. Six-pack abs are nice to have, but in the long run, your health, vitality and quality of life may prove to be more powerful motivators.

Tim Hamilton is the owner of SeaCity CrossFit in Corpus Christi, Texas. He has been training and coaching kids and adults since 1999, and he is a CrossFit Level I trainer and a USAW sports performance coach. For more articles on fitness, visit Hamilton’s blog at

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