Getting to visible abs is a goal many people have (sometimes out loud, sometimes in secret because admitting you care for aesthetics is looked down upon by society.) The question is how long will it take YOU specifically to get abs if you were to start a diet and exercise program?
And by YOU I’m referring to:
- Your current body fat percentage
- Your diet
- Your exercise program
I’ll walk you through the process to find out exactly how long it’ll take to get abs, considering the three factors above.
Let’s use the hypothetical Mary to help guide us through the steps.
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Meet Mary. Mary wants to get abs.
In fact, Mary already has abs, like all of us – but she wants them to be visible and not hidden under a layer of fat.
Mary just started her fitness and health journey a few weeks ago and has been working with a personal trainer. She is working out 5 days a week and is pleased she has already lost about 8 lbs.
However, her patience is being tested. She thought her abs would already be visible by now – only they’re not. Her trainer tells her to keep working at it and they will come. She wants to know exactly how long it’ll take her to get the visible ab muscles she’s dreaming of.
First let’s take a look at what it takes to achieve visible abs. Then we’ll go through the steps to figure out exactly how long it’ll take to get that 6-pack and what you’ll need to do to achieve results.
How to get visible abs (even a 6-pack.)
#1: Drop your body fat percentage to “athlete” level.
The most important factor for developing visible ab muscles is body fat percentage. If there is a layer of fat over the abdominal muscles, you won’t be able to see them, no matter how strong your abs are. Mary has abs, but she can’t see them because her body fat percentage isn’t low enough.
And by “low body fat percentage” I don’t mean low just to be healthy. I’m referring to “low” in order to see abs, which is still healthy for most people but lower than what’s needed for general health.
(Yes, getting 6-pack abs is no walk in the park.)
What is the optimal body fat percentage for visible abs?
- For men: 6 – 9%
- For women: 16 – 19%
At these body fat percentages, you will likely be able see definition of ab muscles. These percentages are considered to be within the athlete body fat range, which is why it takes dedication to get to this point!
Let’s compare this to average body fat percentages:
- An average male who weighs 200 lbs: would be expected to have a body fat 21% or have about 42 lbs of body weight made up of fat.
- An average female who weighs 165 lbs: would be expected to have a body fat of about 28% or have about 46 lbs of body weight made up of fat
This means the average male would need to loss around 12-15% body fat and the average female around 9-12% body fat to reach the optimal range for seeing abs.
You can see in the below chart some more examples of average body fat percentages and classifications
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#2: Start doing muscle-building exercise.
If you’re not exercising, a flat belly will most likely be just that – a flat belly. Some people call that “skinny fat.” You may get some ab definition when body fat percentage is low, but nowhere near the definition you could get if you add strength exercise into the mix.
- Cardio exercise will help out by helping you burn fat faster, and hence reach your body fat percentage goal more rapidly.
- Strength-training exercise won’t just help you burn fat faster, it’ll also give shape to those muscles.
- Strength-training while losing body fat will help you retain lean muscle mass. After all, you want to drop the fat, you don’t want to lose weight by losing your muscle!
HIIT workouts that provide both strength-training and cardio will work best for super-busy people. These workouts are good if you have less than 1 hour a week total to exercise. For everyone else, a combination of isotonic and isometric exercises will be great.
Nope, ab exercises can be a part of your workout but they don’t need to be the main part of your workout. In fact, I would argue that you could skip ab exercises altogether in favor of a total body strength-training program, and still get great results and visible abs.
Your abs help stabilize your body so they’re pretty much working all-the-time. Any standing exercise you do? Those abs are working to keep you upright. Back exercises like the lat pull down? Those abs are activated hard to help you pull that weight down.
Keep in mind I’m not advocating against doing ab-focused exercises. I’m just clarifying that you don’t necessarily need them to get abs.
How long to get abs? Follow these 5 steps to find out.
How long will it take and what you will you need to do get visible ab muscles? You will need to follow these 5 steps to figure it out.
Step 1: Discover your current body fat percentage.
First, you need to figure out your current body fat level. The higher your body fat percentage, the longer it’ll take to get those visible abs.
Please go through this body composition guide and scroll to the bottom to determine the best ways to measure your body fat. To do this quickly, but not super-accurately, you can use an online calculator. Some bodyweight scales will also measure body fat.
Say you go for the quick but not-so-accurate online calculator method. Our hypothetical Mary is 132 pounds and 67.7 inches. She calculates her current body fat percentage to be 24% so she is in the fitness range.
So how much fat does she still need to burn to get visible abs? Let’s move on to the next step.
Step 2. Calculate how much fat you need to lose.
Ok so now you know your starting point. Let’s find out what your body fat goal should be.
To calculate how much body fat you want to lose, subtract your current body fat percentage from your ideal body fat range for abs (athlete body fat range in the table above).
Mary’s body fat percentage is 24% but she wants to be at 19%, so she needs to lose 5% body fat.
Let’s translate this percentage into pounds of fat: How much should Mary weigh after dropping 5% of her body fat?
The American Council on Exercise suggests the following formula:
Desired body weight = lean body weight/ (1- desired body fat % expressed as a decimal)
The body fat calculator will also show you your lean body mass. Mary has a lean body mass of 100lb
For Mary, her desired body weight is 123.4lb which she worked out like this:
lean body weight 100lb/(1- 0.19) = 123.4lb
She currently weighs 132lb which means she should aim to lose around 8.6lb to achieve 19% body fat.
Step 3: What calorie deficit should you be at to get abs?
A safe and achievable goal for most people is a body fat loss of 0.5-1% per week.
As I said right above, Mary has calculated that to reach her goal she needs to reduce her body fat percentage by 5%. That’s about 8.6 pounds. To lose 0.5-1% of her bodyweight a week, she needs to drop between 132*0.05 = 0.6 pounds to 132*0.01= 1.3 pounds a week. Whether she chooses to aim to losing 0.6 or 1.3 pounds a week depends on her personal preference.
Now to lose those pounds, Mary needs to be on a calorie deficit. To achieve a calorie deficit, she can either eat less or move more or both. Just remember weight loss does not necessarily equal fat loss – if resistance training is not maintained you may be losing lean body mass and this is not ideal. Inevitably there will be some weight loss than is not from fat.(2, 3)
That’s another reason right there to make sure you include strength-training in your programming.
How hard should Mary diet?
- Right above we found out Mary needs to lose 8.6 pounds to get to her desired 19% body fat.
- We also found that Mary can most likely lose anywhere between 0.6 to 1.3 pounds of fat a week.
- To burn a pound of fat, Mary needs a calorie deficit of 3500 calories.
So for a fat loss of 0.6 to 1.3 pounds a week, Mary needs a weekly calorie deficit of 0.6*3500 =2100 calories to 4200 calories a week.
To make this into daily calories, then we just need to divide by 7. This gives a daily calorie deficit of 300 to 600 calories. The higher the deficit, the faster she’ll drop weight.
Step 4: Calculate how long it’ll take to get those abs.
If Mary chooses the daily calorie deficit of 300 calories, that’s 0.6 pounds of fat a week. To lose 8.6 pounds of fat Mary will need 8.6/0.6 = 14.3 weeks.
Say she chooses the higher daily calorie deficit of 660 calories, then she’ll get there in half the time, just 7 weeks!
Now Mary knows exactly how long it’ll take, and the answer depends greatly on her. If she wants to keep a higher calorie deficit, she can keep her hopes up for 7 weeks. If not, she’ll still get there in a little more than 3 months.
No more getting frustrated about not already seeing her abs. Mary is now equipped with data and knows exactly what it’ll take to get abs.
Don’t want to do the work above to calculate exactly how long it’ll take to get abs? Use the tables below for a very rough estimate.
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Step 5: Determine what it’ll take (diet and exercise) to reach your goal.
Here’s where you will need to make a diet and exercise program that fits your lifestyle and stick to it.
For example, Mary hates running so even though this is what she thinks she should be doing, she doesn’t do it. She also has minimal time in the mornings, so prefers to do HIIT workouts, which take less than 30 minutes to do and are very effective. On the weekends she will do yoga at home. Most importantly, while Mary has a strict routine she makes sure not to overdo it. She has planned rest days and when she feels her body needs a break she will take an extra day off.
Mary also keeps track of her calorie intake using an app on her phone. When calculating her calorie requirements, she made sure to estimate her activity levels correctly, so she doesn’t add any extra calories to her total when she exercises.
Calculating calories burned through exercise can be:
- Inaccurate, gym machines and apps often over estimate calories burned
- Increase the likelihood you will ‘treat’ yourself with extra food. While you do need to re fuel post workout you can easily over compensate.
By tracking what she eats Mary knows exactly what her daily calorie deficit is & how long it’ll take her to get to her goal. Once you know your calorie deficit, you can very easily predict how long it’ll take to lose fat. Every pound of fat is roughly equal to 3500 calories.
Before you move on… Make sure to track whether you’re losing fat specifically
Your total body weight e.g. the number on the scales may not give you an accurate representation of body fat loss. As you gain muscle your weight may stay the same or increase even if your body fat percentage is decreasing. This is because you are building muscle which has a volume less than fat – fat takes up more space. So, make sure to keep track using weight and continue to calculate body fat percentage as discussed previously.
Tips to make dieting easier and/or more effective
- Remove liquid calories that don’t help at all with satiety
- Focus on nutrient dense foods such as vegetables and whole grains, these are high in fiber and will fill you up
- Cut back on empty calorie foods
- Eat enough protein for increased satiety and muscle building (4)
- Eat enough food post workout so you don’t become overly hungry at a later stage
- Also, don’t eat too much food post workout! Try not to pig out just because your worked out, eat within your calorie requirements
- Be prepared! Try meal prepping and take healthy snack options with you go out
- Make healthy options easy, put a fruit bowl on the table and cut up veggie sticks and put in the fridge
- Cut back on the beer and cocktails!
What if you decide getting a 6-pack is not worth the effort?
For all those out there that don’t have visible abs keep in mind this isn’t a measure of health of fitness. You can still be fit, healthy and strong without abs!
Getting a 6-pack you see is no walk in the park, it takes quite a bit of effort to get there.
So are you up for the 6-pack challenge or does this all seem like it’s too much effort? Leave a comment and let me know.
- Exercise AC. Ace Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant Manual, The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. American Council on Exercise; 2009
- Stiegler P, Cunliffe A. The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports medicine. 2006;36(3):239-62.
- Forbes GB. Body fat content influences the body composition response to nutrition and exercise. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2000;904(1):359-65.
- Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of sports sciences. 2011;29(sup1):S29-S38.