Trying to get abs and build more muscle, please advise

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It has been my goal for awhile to strengthen up a little and have abs. I want to focus on myself and achieve my goals. Basic info below.

Self: I'm 20, around 5'8, and currently weigh around 126-127 pounds. I don't have a completely flat stomach but I'm pretty close.
Diet: I've started eating at least 100g of protein daily with a variety of other healthy foods for more nutrients. Daily calories are adding up to be 1400-1600.
Workout: I've been fairly active over the years. This is my current workout routine.
Mon, Wed, Fri
- Morning - (Empty stomach) 15 min cardio, Afternoon - Lower body with weights (currently just 10-12 lbs.) 20-30min, Evening walk after dinner (2.5-3 miles)
Tues, Thurs, Saturday
- Morning - (Empty stomach) Run a mile on and off, 15 min, Afternoon - core/abs with weights (10-12 lbs.), Evening walk after dinner (2.5-3 miles)
Sunday
Just an evening walk after dinner (2.5-3 miles)

I really just want some honest feedback and advice. At one point, I gave up and got frustrated, watching all these fitness trainers on YT eating the bare minimum and doing extreme workouts. I seriously hope that's not the case for getting abs. I personally know women who have had unbalanced hormones (period coming in early or 2x a month) due to eating little and working out too much. I would rather not experience that and just want to build muscle without screwing up. So please advise (eat more, lift less, whatever) and hit me with the facts that can help me on my fitness journey.

Answers

  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,547 Member
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    To get the look that some YT fitness influencers have is probably no fun at all. They might need very low body fat % consistently, which messes with your hormones, and makes it difficult to gain muscle naturally, which they may counter by being on various "supplements". Plus to get where they are, they probably have great genetics. It's a fruitless goal imo to judge yourself to that standard, and you're right to be concerned about the risks.

    I've no idea about your height/weight and calories, so I'll just comment on the workouts. The walking is great. Zone 2, good calorie burner, doesn't fatigue the body. Re the weights, 3x per week for lower body is great. You could be doing sufficient volume, however I'm skeptical that 10 pounds is enough for that. You would need to be doing sets close to failure in the 5-30 rep range, and I doubt 10 pounds is enough. You'd also need progressive overload, e.g. increasing reps/sets/volume over time.

    How long have you been at 1600 calories, and what has your recent weight change been?
  • ourfamilysample
    ourfamilysample Posts: 5 Member
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    Thank you so much for such a detailed answer! I seriously appreciate it.
    To answer your question, my height is 5'8" and weight about 127 pounds. I have been at 127 pounds for at least a year now. I've been at the high Protein diet with 1400-1600 calories for only about 2 weeks. I'm not expecting overnight results but instead good results overtime in a healthy way.
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    At your height/weight, odds are your abs are not hiding behind excess bodyfat, it's more a matter of needing to build the muscles themselves. That's done via eating more, which you're already doing, getting enough protein, which you are, and working those ab muscles while giving sufficient time for them to rest and recover. All of these things look good.

    My one thought is why are you not doing any upper body exercises to go along with the 3x/week abs and 3x/week legs? If you are concerned about your upper body becoming bulky, trust me, with the weights you are using that will NOT happen. What will happen, however, is not only getting a little stronger, but now the entire body's muscular system will be begging the body for additional hormones, including those which help spur muscle growth. You are ignoring half your muscles, thus missing out on half the potential hormones floating through your blood. (Not exactly half, but you get the picture.)

    You can either add a few upper body exercises to your core day, turn your leg days into full-body days, or switch one leg day to an upper body day (while keeping two leg days per week). No need to absolutely hammer the upper body, but no more ignoring it, either.
  • Leo_King84
    Leo_King84 Posts: 246 Member
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    You cant just "get abs". You already have them, you just want to see them. If you ain't seeing them it's because they are coveted by a layer of fat. So that's what you need to work on. Unfortunately you can't just target stomach fat, you just have to keep chipping away at it until it goes from the areas you want.

    You really don't need to go mad at it like YT influencers, just keep doing what you're doing. You said you've been the same weight for a year now. So two things, if you're the same weight, measurements and clothes fit the same then you need to reduce calories a bit. If you're the same weight but measurements, clothes feel looser then you've gained muscle mass. Muscle is heavier than fat so you would have lost fat too. If that's the case, keep doing what you're doing.
  • kngddmbppx
    kngddmbppx Posts: 19 Member
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    It sound like you already have low body fat so I think it shouldn’t be too hard to get the abs you want. In my opinion I think your calories are too low for all the exercise you are doing. Maybe add 300 calories with mostly protein? Maybe a protein shake that’s about 300. I’ve been going to the gym since I was 18 but I only did cardio I’ve been doing weights consistently since 2019 and I am 48 years old. I eat at least 2000 on days that I workout or I feel like I’m dragging and I don’t have the energy for my strength workouts. My weight is 125 and I’m ‘5’”5” and I actually have been losing a little bit but I’m careful bc I don’t want to lose the muscle. People always say I look like I have low body fat but it’s bc muscle weighs more than fat so it just looks like I’m lean. Lol! I’d also say increase the weight to the point where u can finish 8 reps but barely able to finish the 8th one. Consistency is key, I think and if you already have the good eating habits like it sounds like you do then you will be consistent and get the abs that you want!! You got this!!! 😊
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,547 Member
    edited April 26
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    Plugging your stats in here, which is a good calculator, suggests your TDEE may be about 2,000 to 2,200. That's just an estimate ofc.

    https://www.sailrabbit.com/bmr/

    So if you've been on 1,600 for a couple of weeks with no weight change, I can think of at least three reasons why:

    1. Water retention due to your monthly cycle. So keep going with what you're doing.
    2. Water retention due to recent increase in exercise, which means the muscles retain more water for repair. As above, keep going.
    3. Your tracking is off. Maybe you aren't tracking every drink, condiment, cheat meal, etc.? Maybe some entries you're using from the public database are inaccurate? Maybe you are eye-balling portion sizes of high calorie items and under-counting those?

    Ann is right that you should add some upper body work. Nobody who is natural puts on a lot of muscle suddenly or by accident. It takes time + consistency + progressive overload + nutrition. You probably need more than 10 pound db's though. What leg exercises are you doing with those?
  • ourfamilysample
    ourfamilysample Posts: 5 Member
    edited April 27
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    Responding to Retroguy2000, I would say my calories tracking is mostly accurate. I ended up measuring a majority of the foods (im a terrible cook so I gotta measure or I just end up making mush) which makes it easier and more accurate to log. As for the leg exercises I do, I usually find a random workout video online. A majority of those will always have variations of a lot of squats, lunges, and sometimes glute activation (glute bridge, donkey kicks)
    Thank you to everyone who has responded. Seriously some of the best and honest advice I've received.
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,547 Member
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    Check out Bulgarian split squats. Those should be a bit more challenging. You can add your db's to those too.

    I really think you need more weights though. If you can't get more, or don't have gym access, look into bands like Bodylastics or Sunpower full loop bands. Those aren't as good as free weights or machines, but they can offer you more resistance and potential for overload than light db's.
  • AnnPT77
    AnnPT77 Posts: 32,738 Member
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    Holy crab, what the heck?

    I'm with nossmf and kngddmbppx (who seems to be the only woman commenting here other than me): Very high odds you'll get better overall appearance by patiently adding muscle, including upper body, vs. losing more fat weight. If you do that, striving to stay close to current body weight at least, and are patient about it, the overlying fat layer (if any) will decrease along the way to fuel your activity and muscle gains.

    So many of these guys commenting are . . . um, guys. Knowledgeable guys, but I think they lack intuition about what 5'8" and 127 probably looks like. Don't get me wrong, I'll bet it looks good. And I'm not saying you have zero fat to lose at your current height/weight, either. You may have some. But I'd bet on "not lots". You're only about 5 pounds above the technical definition of underweight.

    You're doing a lot of good things: Pretty reasonable protein, some lifting (though not full body, and probably less than ideal total workload for your goals), some cardio in the mix.

    And no, you won't get bulky if you lift heavier (or other higher volume), especially not overnight You'll have plenty to stop and turn to a muscle-maintenance routine when you reach a look you like.

    If you don't want a bodybuilder look, don't worry: Women work really hard for years to get that look. It doesn't happen by accident. The most impressive woman of that type I know of here is around 5'5", and last I knew somewhere in the 150s pounds, which is (heh) technically overweight. She has ABS! Her abs almost have abs, I swear.

    You are smart to doubt "fitness influencers". Some of them are lying liars who lie, and others merely exaggerate. (A few are honest dealers, but it's few.) The lying liars tell you to follow a program they're selling (outright, or by monetizing your eyeballs via sponsored products or advertising on their sites/channels, or by being compensated by the video platform to drive traffic). They're liars because that trendy program isn't what they did to get their current look.

    The liars and the exaggerators are posed, perfectly lit, professionally photographed/videoed, artfully tanned, sometimes photoshopped (or the video equivalent), occasionally even use makeup to fake contours. If you saw them in real life, they don't look like that.

    The honest dealers get less traffic because they don't promise quick results, or major miracles.

    For sure, random workout videos isn't the most efficient path to your goal. Follow a good, professionally designed, progressive, full-body workout program. If you don't have ideas, there's a thread here where MFP-ers have listed and discuss ones they found useful:

    https://community.myfitnesspal.com/en/discussion/10332083/which-lifting-program-is-the-best-for-you/p1

    Probably the best, fastest way to "get abs" at your size would be to:
    * eat at least at maintenance, maybe 100 or so calories above,
    * lift at more total workload (heavier would probably be a better strategy, but there are other ways to increase useful stress if you don't have access to heavier weights),
    * maybe increase protein a bit (where you are isn't bad, but maybe 125-135g or so could be a bet-hedge),
    * get overall good nutrition beyond the protein (healthy fats, micronutrients, fiber, etc.)
    * follow a good progressive program, and
    * be patient, because this is a slow process.

    I know patience is hard, but you're at a perfect age to make excellent progress. It only gets slower as we get older. (NB, I'm 68.) On top of that, starting now, and establishing good habits, is a huge investment in your later quality of life. I know a 77-y/o woman who started lifting decades ago, and has done so consistently ever since. She looks, moves, and lives like she was 50-something. That may not sound impressive to a 20 year old, I don't know, but it's a pretty big deal in quality of life and health when a person reaches that age.

    Best wishes - you can make amazing progress with the right moves!

    P.S. Fasted cardio isn't any better for weight loss than fed cardio. If you're running before eating because of digestive issues, or because you subjectively like it, that's fine. But if you're thinking it has objective benefits, the evidence for that is thin, at best.
  • zankash23
    zankash23 Posts: 105 Member
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    @ourfamilysample I had my 3rd child a year ago and struggled with belly weight. I started considering surgery till I met a trainer who knew exactly what I wanted

    I incorporate a lot of wall sits and specific weight exercises that target my core. The major one was trx suspension cable training and some modified Pilates.

    Now I’m seeing major changes and even some abs.
    muscles. Might be worth giving it a try x
  • ourfamilysample
    ourfamilysample Posts: 5 Member
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    Just want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has commented on this post. This might sound crazy but for a while I was worried that eating more (protein, carbs) would make me gain back all the weight I had worked so hard to lose. Tbh, I really ate less, around 1200-1300 cals, and just felt discouraged. I've just been struggling to receive some honest and helpful advice without blowing my money in some dumb online program/product. I seriously appreciate everyone taking the time to give such helpful advice.
    I'm already working to add in everyone's tips to my routine. Just some of my personal action items based on above posts.
    1. Eat more protein (120g+) and healthy calories to add up to at least 1900 daily. Want to restore my relationship with food and just enjoy what I eat also. All about balance 😊
    2. Lift heavier overtime. 10 lbs was kind of easy lol. I don't go to the gym but I'm confident I can achieve my goals at home. I have a lot of weights (15, 20, 30, 40, lbs)
    3. One day at a time. I know this is not an overnight thing but I feel motivated by everyone here and am ready to achieve my goals!

    Hope this post can also inspire others.
  • claireychn074
    claireychn074 Posts: 1,429 Member
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    .
    1. Eat more protein (120g+) and healthy calories to add up to at least 1900 daily. Want to restore my relationship with food and just enjoy what I eat also. All about balance

    Just a note re food and “healthy” calories. I cook most of my food from scratch and eat a lot of v simple meals like protein (fish or chicken ) with a lot of veg. But - I also drink alcohol, I eat chocolate, cakes and biscuits. I enjoy bread and I’ve got a salted nut habit. I eat a varied diet, I don’t generally eat one thing to excess. Whilst most of my diet is not junk food (I personally hate McDonalds or stuff like KFC), I do eat some processed foods.

    So balance, as you said, is really important, both for your enjoyment in life and for sustainability. It’s definitely not an “all or nothing” situation, and if I want a slab of cake after a heavy lifting session, I’ll eat it and enjoy it 😀
  • AnnPT77
    AnnPT77 Posts: 32,738 Member
    edited April 27
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    If you've been eating mostly really low calories like 1200-1300ish for a long time, it might be useful to bump up to the 1900 gradually, over a small number of weeks. May not, too. But it shouldn't be injurious, at worst.

    No matter whether you increase calories all at once, or in increments, realistically you may see some body-weight scale fluctuations (maybe roller-coaster-y, even). Don't worry. Eventually the dust will settle, maybe one or two menstrual cycles worth of time, and even at worst the long-run results won't be awful, I predict. It's just that bodies can be weird about eating-pattern changes.

    ETA: @claireychn074, I was hoping you or some similar other additional woman/women with more applied experience than I would drop in. Thank you.
  • AnnPT77
    AnnPT77 Posts: 32,738 Member
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    BTW, @ourfamilysample, if you feel up to it as the weeks roll on, I'd love to hear from you about how things are going from your perspective. I always wonder how these things turn out, and I'm sure your experiences would benefit other people who are on a similar track. :flowerforyou:
  • ourfamilysample
    ourfamilysample Posts: 5 Member
    edited April 27
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    @AnnPT77 I would love to share my progress with you!
    And just responding to your post above, to clarify since i wrote it in a confusing way in 2 different places.😅
    initially it was just 1200-1300 cals daily. For about the past 2-3 weeks, I bumped up my daily cal by a few 100. Estimated daily now is 1400-1600 and am going to increase as I lift heavier.
    Also gonna try not to weigh myself too much so I don't freak out. If I'm not wrong, muscle weighs more than fat, but looking at that scale sometimes really makes me insecure.
  • claireychn074
    claireychn074 Posts: 1,429 Member
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    @AnnPT77 I would love to share my progress with you!
    And just responding to your post above, to clarify since i wrote it in a confusing way in 2 different places.😅
    initially it was just 1200-1300 cals daily. For about the past 2-3 weeks, I bumped up my daily cal by a few 100. Estimated daily now is 1400-1600 and am going to increase as I lift heavier.
    Also gonna try not to weigh myself too much so I don't freak out. If I'm not wrong, muscle weighs more than fat, but looking at that scale sometimes really makes me insecure.
    Getting used to the scale changing is definitely a challenge. And if you’re upping calories (including carbs) you will hold a load of water weight. If you’re upping weight lifting, your muscles will also hold water (they swell) and that will cause an apparent weight spike. But it’s important to remember it’s not fat - it’s water and just temporary.

    Now, if you’re increasing calories and lifting weights and trying to build muscle, there is a chance you’ll put a bit of fat on as you build those muscles. That can mess a bit mentally with some people (myself included) but only you will know how you manage that.

    Finally, the one thing no one has yet mentioned is genetics. Some people just carry fat on their tummies rather than anywhere else and it can be v difficult to show visible abs. I decided one year I wanted a six pack, I achieved it, but then I wanted cake. And it didn’t help my sport - being a bit heavier with a bit more fat gives me the energy and strength I want.

    Have fun on the journey, enjoy the process, and just keep going 😀
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,547 Member
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    1. Eat more protein (120g+) and healthy calories to add up to at least 1900 daily. Want to restore my relationship with food and just enjoy what I eat also. All about balance 😊
    2. Lift heavier overtime. 10 lbs was kind of easy lol. I don't go to the gym but I'm confident I can achieve my goals at home. I have a lot of weights (15, 20, 30, 40, lbs)
    3. One day at a time. I know this is not an overnight thing but I feel motivated by everyone here and am ready to achieve my goals!
    Good stuff. And thank you for being thankful for the assistance here, you're very welcome.

    100g protein should be enough. There's no harm in having more, but studies have shown minimal benefit above 0.7g per pound for muscle growth. 100g is 0.8g per pound which should be sufficient.

    I'm glad to hear you have more weights already. A quick primer on gaining muscle:

    10-15 working sets weekly per muscle group. You're doing 3x per week so 4-5 working sets each session per group is enough. These should be close to failure, 1-2 reps away is ideal. What is failure? Well you said 10 pounds was easy, so next time go up to 15 pounds, and after the initial warmup try to go to failure, i.e. your final reps can take longer and be challenging, but so long as you still have good form they count. When you can't do any more reps with good form that's failure. Now, how many reps was that? 5 is good for strength gains. 5-30 is good for muscle gain, with the sweet spot being about 10-15. Track your progress, and increase reps then weight every week, e.g. 12 reps up to 13 then 14, then increase the weight and be back at 12 reps, and so on.

    Re eating more calories, do bear in mind that lifting doesn't burn many. You'll get lots of other health benefits though.

    Check out this vid. Regulars may recognize it, I've posted it before. It's a YT'er I follow talking with his wife about her transformation after she started lifting more. Time stamped to 15 mins in, just a 4 min watch from there.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUXjbINwTfA&t=900s
  • AnnPT77
    AnnPT77 Posts: 32,738 Member
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    @AnnPT77 I would love to share my progress with you!
    And just responding to your post above, to clarify since i wrote it in a confusing way in 2 different places.😅
    initially it was just 1200-1300 cals daily. For about the past 2-3 weeks, I bumped up my daily cal by a few 100. Estimated daily now is 1400-1600 and am going to increase as I lift heavier.
    Also gonna try not to weigh myself too much so I don't freak out. If I'm not wrong, muscle weighs more than fat, but looking at that scale sometimes really makes me insecure.

    2-3 weeks isn't very long. Nothing terrible will happen if you go straight to 1900-ish (except a relatively bigger water retention jump on the scale). Creeping up from where you've been, maybe 100-200 daily calories every week or two to get to 1900, that scale jump would be multiple smaller ones (probably), and it might encourage your body to increase your energy level/non-exercise activity (reversal of any adaptive thermogenesis) a bit more.

    That's never a sure thing, though. Loosely, to your body it can be like coming out of a famine into gradually more bounteous food availability, vs. a big jump being maybe more like a sudden feast. For me, the gradual increase post loss helped me add calories in small, pleasant, nutritious increments . . . when I might've been tempted to add one big treat if I added several hundred calories all at once. (You're probably a stronger character than I am, though. Most people are. :D )

    Minor quibble, which I'm sure you know if you think about it: Fat and muscle weigh the same, considered as a pound of each. The scale may not change if one drops proportionate to the other increasing. What is true is that a pound of muscle is more dense or compact than a pound of fat, so if that proportionate change happens (slowly!), you'd end up a bit smaller/leaner at the same body weight.

    As a bit of background, half a pound of muscle mass gain per week would be a really good result for a woman, and would likely require near-ideal conditions: Youth, favorable genetics, good nutrition (especially but not exclusively protein), a good progressive program faithfully performed, relative newness to lifting, and probably some things I'm forgetting.

    You're in a good position for gains, though if you're relatively new to lifting intensely, I'd expect you'd need to mostly tap out the strength gains from neuromuscular adaptation (NMA) before mass gains much kick in. (Neuromuscular adaptation = better recruiting and using existing muscle fibers.) Early strength gains can be pretty fast, in the right scenario. Mass gains are more gradual.

    If the scale is freaky sometimes, and you haven't yet read this thread (especially the article linked in the first post), I recommend it:

    https://community.myfitnesspal.com/en/discussion/10683010/the-weird-and-highly-annoying-world-of-scale-fluctuations/p1

    I found that quite informative and even calming.

    Best wishes!