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Many aspire to one day have six-pack abs, but let’s be real, few have succeeded because carbs, booze, and time are not on your side.

But, if we unpack (pun intended) how to obtain that coveted “six-pack,” you’ll find it’s not mission impossible after all. What you really need to know is how long it takes and exactly what behaviors (ahem: endless couch chilling and junk food) you need to kick to the curb.

First and foremost, getting a six-pack (or four-pack, or eight-pack if you have great genes) comes down to the amount of body fat you have. Reducing body fat is a necessary step to reveal your chiseled midsection.

To lower body fat safely and effectively, it’s important to focus on both diet and exercise. With everything nutrition and fitness related, there remains one true constant: There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to achieving a goal.

Genetics, body shape, and build always factor into individual results.

Your timeline to a six-pack depends on the body fat percentage you’re starting with. A good rule of thumb (and a safe one) is to aim to lose 1 to 2 percent of body fat per month.

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Illustration by Mekhi Baldwin

So, unveiling your abs can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years. It really does vary. It’s also a good idea to consult a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer or exercise professional before beginning any nutrition and fitness plan.

There’s a lot of noise and misinformation in the food and exercise world, and it’s important to be sure you’re on the best plan for your individual needs.

For starters, the ideal body fat percentage to see your midsection muscles pop is 14 to 19 percent for women and 6 to 13 percent for men. Getting (and staying) below 10 percent body fat may look aesthetically divine (ow ow!), but this takes dedication and discipline.

Your body will NOT like being here and will likely try every trick in the book to get you to eat more because it thinks you’re starving.

It’s also important to note that unless you’re a professional bodybuilder or elite athlete, you don’t need to be below the 10 percent point for your abs to be in view. Some body fat is good. We actually need it to survive.

Women naturally require more fat than men. Science points out most of this is due to the hormone estrogen, and to support fertility. Men on the other hand, need less body fat and naturally have more lean muscle tissue (thanks, testosterone 🙌) which helps them drop weight faster.

Dudes are simply burning more calories, even at rest, because of this muscle mass. This chart from the American Council on Exercise can give you a better sense of what different body fat percentage ranges look like:

Category MenWomen
Essential fat2%–5% 10%–13%
Athletes6%–13% 14%–20%
Fitness14%–17% 21%–24%
Average18%–24%
25%–31%
Obese25% and up 32% and up

So you’re really committed and ready for those abs? Let’s look at how long it might take to get into ab-revealing shape based on beginning body fat percentage.

30 percent or more

Men: 10 months to 2 years

Women: 1 to 2 years

At 30 percent body fat, whether you’re a man or woman, this is considered obese. No one is seeing any muscle definition here. This number also puts you at risk for a number of chronic health conditions.

From this starting point your journey to visible abs is likely to be close to 1 to 2 years. Men may be able to shave a few months off and achieve this in 10 months, but 8 to 12 months is a reasonable time frame to set your sights on if you have around 30 percent body fat.

Add another year if you have closer to 40 percent body fat.

20 percent

Men: 3 to 6 months

Women: 1 to 3 months

If you’re starting with 20 percent body fat, it would take somewhere between 3 to 6 months to start seeing your abs. For men, up to 20 percent body fat is considered healthy, but the fat to muscle ratio is still skewed toward the former.

Women, however, are close to the top body fat percent range that allows you to reveal your six-pack. Women likely have anywhere from 1 to 3 months to go, give or take. This depends on their nutrition and fitness routine, and how much muscle mass they start with.

15 percent

Men: 4 to 6 weeks

Women: Abs may be visible (or need a few more weeks)

At 15 percent body fat, you are in a very healthy place. Guys, your muscles are starting to show, you see definition in your arms, your legs, and now have a lower fat to muscle ratio.

At this rate, men are probably 4 to 6 weeks shy of their goal. Women, you’ve reached the goal and you should be seeing those abs visibly.

Depending on your specific body type you might see them more or less, but you should definitely see evidence of all your hard work and dedication.

10 percent

Men and Women: Abs should be visible

At 10 percent body fat those abs should be poppin’ and at this percentage guys have made it to the ideal percentage for abs that can quickly be (or already are) defined.

For women, you’ve entered the “essential fat” range and are not likely to be able to stay here without some real effort.

Unless you’re preparing for a competition, it’s OK to ease up and allow a few pounds to come back to ensure you’re not jeopardizing your health for the sake of a visible six-pack.

It is unfortunately very true that you can’t out-train a bad diet. In reality, we all have the coveted six-pack, it just sits under a protective covering called body fat (cue the dad jokes).

To uncover them, we’ve got to remove the fat. To do that, along with exercise, we need to change up our eating habits. Here are some things to consider.

Reduce calories

Losing body fat means losing weight, which means reducing caloric intake. Generally, you can cut 500 calories per day in order to lose around 1 pound per week.

That can amount to consuming 250 calories less per day, while increasing activity to burn an additional 250 calories. There are a number of ways to look at this, but a calorie deficit will help you lose body fat.

Focus on whole foods

Aiming for minimally processed, whole foods is the number one recommendation for healthy eating. Regardless of ab-revealing power, putting whole foods at the top of your diet to-do list ensures you’re getting lots of nutrients, while avoiding cravings.

A diet focused on whole foods will include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein like eggs, fish, lean meats and poultry, and healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.

Eat complex carbs

Carbohydrates are necessary fuel, and you should aim to include complex carbohydrates in your daily plan. That means fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains.

Put the pasta on the back-burner for now and focus on sweet potatoes, quinoa, squash, and oats. On the road to a six-pack, the majority of your carbohydrates should come from vegetables, but all high quality complex carbs have their place. On that note…

Eat more fiber

Foods high in fiber are great for weight loss. Besides the sheer number of nutrients in fiber rich foods, they also take a while to digest. Fiber rich foods include fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains.

Non-starchy vegetables in particular should be a diet staple when fat loss is the goal. They’re nutrient dense gems full of fiber and water, which helps fill you up, while also being low in calories.

Aim for at least 4 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day.

Fruit brings the nutrient goodies to the table in the form of vitamins, minerals, and fiber and you should aim for 2 to 3 servings per day.

Looking for the best choices? You can never go wrong with berries. Low in calories and sugar with antioxidants for days, these babies will never steer you wrong.

Beans, legumes, and whole grains are also great sources of protein, in addition to fiber. Whole grains like steel cut oats, quinoa, farro, and sprouted grains also contain a bit of a protein punch.

Stick to 2 to 4 servings of whole grains per day for optimal results.

Eat less added sugar

Not all sugar is bad, but to bust out those abs you’ll want to reduce as much added sugar from your diet as possible. Sugar-sweetened drinks like soda, juice, and energy drinks are obvious no-nos, but you’d be amazed where added sugar shows up.

Would you expect sugar to be an ingredient in that whole-wheat bread you bought? What about the whole wheat crackers? Did you know that flavored yogurt can have as much sugar as a Snickers bar? Vitamin water, dressings, sauces and marinades, meal replacement bars, the list goes on and on.

Read labels and you’ll be shocked by all the products with added sugar.

Drink more water

Water is an essential nutrient. It’s necessary to turn food into energy and to help nutrients reach your muscles, and also to support vital organs. If that’s not enough, dehydration is a real energy killer.

If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Drink consistently throughout the day and aim for a minimum of 2 liters per day. Add 1 liter for each hour spent exercising.

Increase protein

Protein is necessary to maintain and build muscle. Losing weight can sometimes result in loss of muscle in addition to fat. In order to avoid this, focus on eating enough protein.

Of all the macronutrients, (carbs and fat, too) protein requires the most time and energy to digest. Your body actually burns calories as it digests protein, and because it takes a bit longer to break down, you’ll feel full longer.

This can ultimately reduce the number of calories you consume.

One study found increasing protein intake from 15 to 30 percent of total daily calories resulted in increased satiety, decreased overall calorie intake, and resulted in greater weight loss. This was while keeping calorie and carbohydrate intake the same.

Protein should come from high quality sources like omega-3 rich fish, lean red meat and poultry, nuts, seeds, eggs, low fat dairy like Greek yogurt, beans and legumes, and high quality grains.

Math is a really cool thing… for abs

The slightly higher recommended protein intake is about 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you want to aim for 30 percent of calories from protein you may want to consider a range of 1.8 to 2 grams per kilogram body weight.

Before your eyes roll into the back of your head (too late?), the best way to figure out how many grams of protein per day you should be eating involves some light math.

First divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2. That number equals your weight in kilograms. Then multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.2 and then 1.5 to obtain your ideal protein range. For a 130-pound person the equation would be: 130/2.2 = 59 kilograms.

59 x 1.2 = 71 grams

59 x 1.5 = 89 grams

So, a 130 pound person would need 71 to 89 grams of protein per day at a minimum.

Nix processed and refined foods

We started this conversation when we mentioned added sugar. It’s time to say goodbye to processed and refined foods like cakes, cookies, brownies, crackers, chips, white bread, and pasta (brb crying). Really anything fried or processed is devoid of any redeeming qualities.

These foods have been stripped of nutrients and loaded up with calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. Because of this they get a zero in the nutrient department and have some real ab-reveal squashing qualities.

It would be great if there were one tried-and-true exercise that would ensure a visible six-pack, right? Well, it’s more complicated than a few crunches.

Cardio, strength, and ab-focused exercises are all important. They work synergistically to get you those abs.

Cardio

Cardio can be hardio, but it’s not the best route to fat loss alone. Especially when performed as a steady state exercise (i.e., jogging, walking or cycling at the same pace for the duration of your workout).

Your body becomes accustomed to this rate of exertion and does not have to spend any additional effort to perform. Don’t get us wrong, it’s an important part of the routine that supports calorie burn and weight loss, but studies show you still need to strengthen muscle.

Resistance training

Resistance training is key to developing defined muscles. Did you know that muscle burns more calories than fat?

The more muscle you have, the more calories you’re burning not only when you exercise, but also after you exercise, while going about your day-to-day activities, and even while you sleep. YES!

And, you can just forget the idea that building muscle will make ladies look “bulky.” It’s total BS. Lift weights, even heavy ones sometimes. Bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, water, and bodyweight — all can be used to add resistance to your routine.

Compound movements tend to be the most effective for building strength, while also boosting metabolism and burning calories. Squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups are good examples of compound movements that engage different muscles in the same movement while also working your abs.

HIIT

By far the best bang for your heart pumping buck, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) consists of short bouts of intense activity followed by a period of rest or lower intensity movements.

HIIT is one of the most efficient workouts you can do because it burns a ton of calories. And, that’s not just during the workout, but up to 2 hours afterward, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

It can be done with just your bodyweight, with weights, or with more simple cardio exercises like running, jumping rope, cycling, and swimming.

Studies have shown that high-intensity interval exercise is associated with significant decreases in total body fat as well as insulin resistance.

In fact, a 2019 review found that those who participated in HIIT had a 28.5 percent greater reduction in total absolute fat mass compared to participating in moderate-intensity continuous training.

Ab-specific movements

Ab-focused movements alone will not reveal your abdominal muscles (say, what?!), but they are just as important. You need to develop and strengthen these muscles before you even think about showing them off.

The good news is you don’t need to perform hundreds of crunches in order to work your abs. Many compound movements, including those mentioned above, target the abdominal muscles while also working other parts of the body.

So if you’ve got yourself a strength training routine, you’re likely already working them. Pilates is incredible for the core, as are planks, bicycle crunches, and V-ups to target all of the abdominal muscle groups.

tl;dr

  • Revealing your hidden six-pack abs requires dedication and commitment. It can take months to years to get abs depending on your body fat percentage.
  • Your body fat percentage, genetics, nutrition, and fitness plan all determine your timeline and outcome.
  • Don’t get caught up in the comparison trap. We’re all on our own fitness journey.
  • It helps to enlist the help of a dietitian and a certified fitness pro to help you get a six-pack, and make sure you’re losing weight safely.