Many people dream of having well-defined abs, but let’s face it, only a few manage to achieve it because factors like carbs, alcohol, and time are not in your favour.
However, if we break down how to get those coveted “six-pack” abs, you’ll realise it’s not an impossible task. The key is understanding how long it takes and the specific behaviours (hint: excessive couch time and unhealthy snacks) you need to ditch.
First and foremost, achieving a six-pack (or any number of packs depending on your genetics) boils down to reducing body fat. Lowering body fat is crucial to unveiling those sculpted abdominal muscles.
To safely and effectively reduce body fat, it’s essential to pay attention to both your diet and exercise. In the realm of nutrition and fitness, one universal truth remains: there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching a goal.
Individual results are influenced by genetics, body shape, and overall build.
How quickly can you achieve six-pack abs?
Well, it depends on your starting body fat percentage. A safe and practical guideline is to aim to lose 1 to 2 per cent of body fat each month.
So, the journey to revealing your abs could range from 3 months to 2 years—it varies for everyone. Before diving into any nutrition and fitness plan, it’s advisable to consult with a registered dietitian and a certified personal trainer or exercise professional.
Given the abundance of misinformation in the world of food and exercise, it’s crucial to ensure you’re on the right plan for your individual needs.
For starters, the ideal body fat percentage to showcase your midsection muscles is 14 to 19 percent for women and 6 to 13 percent for men. While dropping below 10 per cent body fat may give you a visually appealing look, maintaining this level requires dedication and discipline. Your body might not be thrilled about it and could tempt you to eat more, thinking you’re in a state of starvation.
It’s worth noting that unless you’re a professional bodybuilder or elite athlete, going below 10 per cent body fat is not necessary for visible abs. A certain amount of body fat is essential for survival.
Women naturally require more fat than men, primarily due to the hormone estrogen and the need to support fertility. Men, with their higher lean muscle tissue (thanks to testosterone), need less body fat and tend to lose weight more efficiently. This chart from the American Council on Exercise can give you a better idea of what different body fat percentage ranges look like
If you’re truly committed to getting those abs, let’s explore how long it might take based on your starting body fat percentage.
At what body fat do abs start showing?
30 per cent or more
- Men: 10 months to 2 years
- Women: 1 to 2 years
If you’re at 30 per cent body fat, regardless of gender, you’re in the obese category. Muscle definition is not visible, and this level puts you at risk for various chronic health conditions. Expect your journey toward visible abs to take approximately 1 to 2 years. Men might trim a few months, targeting around 10 months, but 8 to 12 months is a reasonable timeframe for those with 30 per cent body fat. Add another year if you’re closer to 40 per cent body fat.
20 per cent
- Men: 3 to 6 months
- Women: 1 to 3 months
Starting at 20 per cent body fat means it’ll take roughly 3 to 6 months to begin seeing your abs. For men, up to 20 per cent body fat is considered healthy, but the fat-to-muscle ratio still leans toward the former. Women are close to the body fat percentage range for revealing abs, requiring around 1 to 3 months, depending on their nutrition, fitness routine, and initial muscle mass.
15 per cent
- Men: 4 to 6 weeks
- Women: Abs may be visible (or need a few more weeks)
At 15 per cent body fat, you’re in a healthy place. Men will start seeing muscle definition in their arms and legs, with a lower fat-to-muscle ratio. Men are about 4 to 6 weeks from their goal, while women have likely reached their goal, with visible abs. The timeframe may vary based on individual body types, but the hard work and dedication should show noticeable results.
10 per cent
- Men and Women: Abs should be visible
At 10 per cent body fat, those abs should be well-defined. For guys, this is the ideal percentage for visible and defined abs. Women, on the other hand, have entered the “essential fat” range, which may require sustained effort to maintain. Unless you’re gearing up for a competition, it’s okay to ease up a bit and allow a few pounds back to prioritise overall health over an overly lean physique.
Do you get abs from what you eat?
Absolutely! Unfortunately, it’s true that you can’t out-train a bad diet. The coveted six-pack is present in everyone, but it’s hidden under a protective layer of body fat. To reveal those abs, we need to shed the fat. Alongside exercise, modifying our eating habits is crucial. Consider the following:
Optimising body composition requires a thoughtful approach. Losing body fat is intricately linked to weight loss, which necessitates a reduction in calorie intake. Generally, a moderate reduction of 500 calories per day can translate to shedding around 1 pound per week. This might involve consuming 250 fewer calories, and concurrently, boosting activity to burn an additional 250 calories. Numerous strategies exist, but establishing a calorie deficit remains pivotal for effective fat loss. Even in the realm of dietary choices, such as enjoying a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s important to consider the overall caloric balance to align with fitness and wellness goals.
Focus on whole foods
Prioritise minimally processed, whole foods for a healthy diet. Regardless of the quest for visible abs, placing whole foods at the top of your dietary priorities ensures a rich intake of nutrients and helps curb cravings. A diet centred on whole foods includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein (such as eggs, fish, lean meats, and poultry), and healthy fats (like avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds).
Eat complex carbs
Carbohydrates are essential fuel, and incorporating complex carbohydrates into your daily plan is crucial. This includes fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains. While dialling back on pasta, focus on options like sweet potatoes, quinoa, squash, and oats. On the journey to a six-pack, most of your carbohydrates should come from vegetables, but all high-quality complex carbs have their place.
Increase Fiber Intake
Boosting your fibre consumption is a smart move for weight loss. Fibre-rich foods not only pack a variety of nutrients but also take longer to digest. Include fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains in your diet for a fibre boost.
Non-starchy vegetables, especially, should become a regular part of your diet when aiming for fat loss. These nutrient-packed wonders are rich in fibre and water, helping you feel full while keeping your calorie intake low. Strive for at least 4 servings of non-starchy vegetables daily.
Fruits bring a wealth of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Aim for 2 to 3 servings per day, with berries being an excellent low-calorie and antioxidant-rich choice.
Beans, legumes, and whole grains not only provide fibre but also serve as good protein sources. Whole grains like steel-cut oats, quinoa, farro, and sprouted grains deliver a protein boost. Aim for 2 to 4 servings of whole grains daily for optimal results.
Reduce Added Sugar
To reveal those abs, minimising added sugar in your diet is crucial. While sugar-sweetened drinks like soda and juice are clear culprits, added sugar hides in unexpected places, such as whole-wheat bread, crackers, flavoured yoghurt, vitamin water, dressings, sauces, and meal replacement bars. Check labels diligently to identify and cut down on added sugar.
Water is a vital nutrient, playing a role in converting food into energy, facilitating nutrient transport to muscles, and supporting essential organs. Dehydration can sap your energy. Combat this by drinking consistently throughout the day, aiming for a minimum of 2 litres daily. Add an extra litre for each hour of exercise. Remember, if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Boost Your Protein Intake
Protein is essential for preserving and building muscle. When losing weight, there’s a risk of losing muscle along with fat. To prevent this, make sure to prioritise an adequate protein intake.
Among all the macronutrients (including carbs and fat), protein demands the most time and energy for digestion. Your body expends calories during protein digestion, and due to its longer breakdown time, you’ll feel full for an extended period. This can lead to a reduction in overall calorie consumption.
A study discovered that increasing protein intake from 15 to 30 per cent of total daily calories resulted in enhanced satiety, decreased overall calorie intake, and greater weight loss, all while keeping calorie and carbohydrate intake constant.
Opt for high-quality protein sources such as omega-3-rich fish, lean red meat and poultry, nuts, seeds, eggs, low-fat dairy like Greek yoghurt, beans and legumes, and quality grains.
Eliminate Processed and Refined Foods
Our discussion began with the mention of added sugar, and now it’s time to bid farewell to processed and refined foods like cakes, cookies, brownies, crackers, chips, white bread, and pasta (cue the tears). Anything fried or processed lacks redeeming qualities.
These foods have been stripped of nutrients and loaded with calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. As a result, they offer zero nutritional value and can hinder your efforts to reveal those abs.
How can I get a six-pack at the gym?
Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were a single exercise guaranteeing a visible six-pack? Well, it’s a bit more intricate than a few crunches.
Cardio, strength, and targeted ab exercises are all crucial, working together to sculpt those abs.
While cardio can be challenging, relying solely on it for fat loss isn’t the most effective strategy, especially in steady-state exercises like jogging, walking, or cycling at a consistent pace throughout your workout. Your body adapts to this effort level, minimising additional calorie burn. Although cardio supports calorie burn and weight loss, studies emphasise the importance of strengthening muscles in conjunction.
Building defined muscles hinges on resistance training. Did you know that muscle burns more calories than fat? The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn not only during exercise but also afterwards—during daily activities and even while you sleep. Yes, really!
And forget the misconception that building muscle makes women look “bulky.” It’s a myth. Incorporate weights—whether it’s bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, water, or just your body weight—to add resistance to your routine.
Compound movements, like squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups, are highly effective for building strength, boosting metabolism, and burning calories. These movements engage various muscles simultaneously, providing a comprehensive workout that includes your abs.
HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training)
For maximum heart-pumping benefits, look no further than High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This workout involves short bursts of intense activity followed by rest or lower-intensity movements.
HIIT stands out as one of the most efficient workouts, not only burning calories during the session but also continuing the burn for up to 2 hours afterwards, as per the American College of Sports Medicine. You can do HIIT with just your body weight, incorporate weights, or opt for straightforward cardio exercises like running, jumping rope, cycling, or swimming.
Studies highlight the significant calorie-burning potential of high-intensity interval exercise, contributing to decreases in total body fat and insulin resistance. In fact, a 2019 review revealed a 28.5 per cent greater reduction in total absolute fat mass for those engaged in HIIT compared to moderate-intensity continuous training.
While ab-focused movements alone won’t magically unveil your abdominal muscles (surprising, right?), they remain crucial. Strengthening these muscles is a prerequisite before flaunting them.
The good news is you don’t need to exhaust yourself with countless crunches. Many compound movements, including those mentioned earlier, engage the abdominal muscles while also working with other parts of the body.
If you’re into strength training, you’re likely already giving your abs a good workout. For a core-focused routine, consider the wonders of Pilates, along with exercises like planks, bicycle crunches, and V-ups, targeting all the muscle groups in your abdomen.