The belly area is of interest to many, for different reasons. Health-conscious individuals know that belly fat is a sign of poor health and can increase the risk of developing various diseases (2). Other people simply desire a leaner and more toned stomach for aesthetic purposes.
Regardless of the motivation behind wanting to get rid of belly fat, one question remains – is it better to have a toned stomach or a flat stomach? Does it matter which one we strive for, and if so, why?
Toned Stomach vs Flat Stomach: What’s the Difference?
A flat stomach is more about low body fat, while a toned stomach is more about muscle definition. Achieving either (or both) depends on your personal fitness goals, diet, and exercise routine.
A flat stomach primarily refers to the absence of excess abdominal fat. This can be achieved through a combination of a balanced, calorie-controlled diet and regular cardio exercise to burn off fat. Having a flat stomach doesn’t necessarily mean your abdominal muscles are strong or well-defined.
Genetics play a role in where we tend to store fat, and some individuals may not store much fat in their stomach area (13). This means they have a naturally flat stomach, even without putting in much effort.
A toned stomach, on the other hand, refers to having well-defined abdominal muscles. This is often achieved through strength training exercises, specifically targeted at the abdominal muscles, such as crunches, planks, and other core strengthening workouts. A toned stomach might not always be “flat” in the sense of being free of all fat, but it will show muscle definition.
Unlike a flat stomach, having a toned stomach requires specific exercises to build and maintain muscle mass. This means that even if your body naturally stores fat in other areas, you can still work towards a toned stomach through targeted workouts.
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Is It Better to Have Abs or a Flat Stomach?
For health purposes, neither a flat stomach nor a toned stomach is necessarily better. What matters most is maintaining a healthy body fat percentage, which differs for men and women.
According to the American Council on Exercise, a healthy body fat percentage for men is between 14-17%, while for women it’s between 21-24% (5). Going below these percentages can be okay for athletes, however going below essential fat levels can be unhealthy and increase the risk of various health issues.
Training for a toned stomach often involves targeted exercises that strengthen the core. A strong core has many benefits, including:
- Improved posture – Core muscles help support the spine and improve posture, reducing strain on the back (14).
- Better athletic performance – A strong core is essential for many physical activities, including sports and weightlifting (14).
- Reduced risk of injury – Strengthening the core can prevent injuries by stabilizing the body during movements and exercises (14).
- Better balance and stability – A strong core helps with balance, coordination, and stability, which are essential for daily activities (14).
So, in this regard there may be some health benefits to having a toned stomach, compared to just a flat one.
However, having abs or a toned stomach doesn’t necessarily mean you have a healthy body fat percentage. It’s possible to have visible abs but still be at an unhealthy level of body fat.
In terms of physical appearance, both abs and flat stomachs have their own appeal. A flat stomach may give a more lean and slender look, while a toned stomach can give a more sculpted and athletic appearance.
Can You Have Visible Abs But Not a Flat Stomach?
Yes, it is possible to have visible abs without having a flat stomach. This is because abdominal muscles can be well-defined and toned, even if there is some fat covering them. It’s all about the balance of body fat and muscle mass.
The difference between bulky abs and flat abs is often a matter of body fat percentage.
“Bulky abs” is a term often used to describe abdominal muscles that are not only well-defined but also have significant volume or thickness. They are usually the result of intensive strength training and hypertrophy (muscle growth) workouts.
When people refer to “bulky abs,” they’re typically talking about a more muscular, bodybuilder-type look, where the abs are very pronounced and have a 3D appearance. This is in contrast to a “toned” look, which refers to less muscle mass and lower body fat, resulting in a leaner appearance with muscle definition.
Achieving bulky abs requires a combination of targeted ab exercises, like weighted crunches or leg raises, along with a diet adequate in protein to support muscle growth (10). It’s important to note that genetics can also play a role in how your abs develop and look.
How to Achieve a Toned Stomach
If you prefer a toned stomach over just a flat one, here are some tips to help you achieve it:
- Incorporate strength training exercises that target your core muscles into your workout routine.
- Add resistance, volume or weights to your ab workouts to build muscle mass (12).
- Follow a balanced diet with adequate protein intake to support muscle growth (6).
- Incorporate HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or cardio exercises into your routine to help burn off excess fat (7).
- Stay consistent with your exercise and nutrition habits for long-term results.
Check out our Flat Stomach Challenge for a workout plan to help you achieve your fitness goals.
How to Maintain a Flat Stomach
If you prefer a flat stomach, here are some tips to help you maintain it:
- Focus on maintaining a healthy body fat percentage through a balanced diet and regular cardio exercise.
- Avoid prolonged excessive calorie restriction, as this can lead to muscle loss and decrease metabolism (3).
- Incorporate strength training workouts that focus on total-body exercises for overall fat loss and muscle maintenance (1). Our push-up benefits blog gives an insight to one of these exercises
- Stay hydrated and limit your intake of sugary drinks. Drinking enough water can play a vital role in metabolism.t (8).
- Practice mindful eating habits, such as portion control and listening to your body’s hunger cues (11).
We’ve compiled a Weekly Workout Plan at Home to help you achieve and maintain a flat stomach.
Why Is It So Hard to Get a Toned Stomach?
Building muscle mass in the abdominal area can be challenging because, unlike other muscle groups in the body, abdominal muscles are often covered by a layer of fat, which can make them harder to see. So, even if you have strong abdominal muscles, they may not be visible without lowering your body fat percentage.
Additionally, the following factors can also contribute to making it difficult to achieve a toned stomach:
- Genetics – As mentioned earlier, genetics play a role in how our bodies store fat and develop muscle (13). Some people may naturally have less body fat in their abdominal area or may find it easier to build abs.
- High body fat percentage – In order for abdominal muscles to be visible, a person’s body fat percentage needs to be relatively low. This means that even with well-defined abs, they may not be visible if there is too much fat covering them.
- Diet and exercise consistency – To achieve a toned stomach, you need to have a consistent toned stomach workout routine that targets the abs, as well as a diet plan that supports muscle growth and fat loss.
- Time and patience – Building muscle takes time, and it’s important to be patient with the process. It may take weeks or even months of consistent effort before you start to see noticeable changes in your abdominal muscles.
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How Do You Know Your Stomach Is Toning?
You’ll know your stomach is a flat toned stomach when your waist circumference decreases, and your abdominal muscles become more defined. You may also notice increased strength in your core muscles, improved posture and balance, and possibly even a higher resting metabolic rate.
Your Waist Circumference Decreases
As you lose body fat and build muscle, your waist circumference will decrease. Naturally, a smaller waist will give the appearance of a flatter stomach, but that’s just the visual part.
A decrease in waist circumference can contribute to a decrease in visceral fat, the dangerous type of fat that surrounds your organs and increases your risk for various health issues when it’s excessive (15).
Taking before and after measurements of your waist can be a great way to track your progress and see how many inches you’ve lost.
Your clothes may also fit differently, and you may need to go down a size or two in pants as your waist becomes smaller.
Your Abdominal Muscles Become More Defined
As you continue to work out and lower your body fat percentage, your abdominal muscles will become more visible and defined. You may start to see lines or indentations between the ab muscles, known as “cuts” or “lines of definition.”
This is a good sign that your abs are toning and becoming more prominent. It’s important to note that everyone’s abdominal muscles will look different based on genetics, with some having a “bulky” appearance and others having a more “toned” look.
Increase in Core Strength
As you target your abdominal muscles, you will also be strengthening your core as a whole. This includes the muscles in your back, hips, and pelvis, which are essential for stability and balance.
You may start to notice that you have an easier time with daily activities like carrying groceries or lifting objects. Your core strength also contributes to better athletic performance in sports and other physical activities (14).
Improved Posture and Balance
A strong core also plays a crucial role in maintaining good posture and balance. As your abdominal muscles become stronger, they can better support your spine and help you maintain proper alignment (14).
This can lead to reduced back pain and an overall improvement in body mechanics.
Higher Resting Metabolic Rate
Building the total muscle mass including in the abdominal area can also increase your resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is the number of calories your body burns at rest (9). This means that even when you’re not working out, your body will be burning more calories than it would if you had less muscle mass.
As a result, having a toned stomach can help with overall weight management and make it easier to maintain a healthy body weight.
Check out these Push Up Benefits for core-strengthening exercises which can contribute to a toned stomach.
How Long Does It Take to Tone and Flatten Stomach?
It may take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to see noticeable changes in your stomach’s tone and appearance. This timeline can vary depending on factors such as body fat percentage, genetics, and consistency with diet and exercise.
How Can I Make My Stomach Flatter?
You can make your stomach flatter by reducing body fat through a combination of strength training and cardio exercises, as well as following a healthy diet that supports muscle growth and fat loss.
How Long Does It Take To Tone Down Stomach?
It takes anywhere from a few weeks to several months to tone your stomach, depending on your current fitness level and body composition. Consistency with exercise and diet will play a key role in achieving desired results.
How Can I Tone My Stomach Flat Fast?
To speed up the process of toning your stomach, you can focus on increasing the intensity and frequency of your workouts, incorporating HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercises, and following a nutrition plan that supports muscle growth and fat loss. Note that there are no shortcuts to achieving long-term results, so steer clear of any fad diets or extreme workout routines.
The Bottom Line
In conclusion, while there are some differences between a flat stomach and a toned stomach, both have their own benefits and appeal. Bear in mind that having abs or a toned stomach doesn’t necessarily mean you have a healthy body fat percentage, and maintaining a healthy balance between fat and muscle is key for overall health.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A Study of Effect of the Compound Physical Activity Therapy on Muscular Strength in Obese Women (2013,nih.gov)
- Abdominal obesity and metabolic syndrome: exercise as medicine? (2018,nih.gov)
- Caloric restriction: implications for sarcopenia and potential mechanisms (2020,nih.gov)
- Diet and the Gut (2016,nih.gov)
- Demystifying Body Fat Percentages: A Healthy Range Explained (Medriva) (2023,ace.org)
- Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit (2019,nih.gov)
- High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss (2011,nih.gov)
- Increased Hydration Can Be Associated with Weight Loss (2016,nih.gov)
- Increasing muscle mass to improve metabolism (2013,nih.gov)
- Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods (2019,nih.gov)
- Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat (2017,nih.gov)
- Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise (2014,nih.gov)
- The genetics of fat distribution (2014,nih.gov)
- The real-world benefits of strengthening your core (2012,harvard.edu)
- Visceral Fat (2022,clevelandclinic.org)