Crunches and planks make your ab muscles stronger, but that six-pack will never show if you have a layer of fat covering them. A reduction in your overall body fat percentage gives the ab definition you desire, but how low you have to go to get that musculature depends on your gender and genetics.
Lean Body Fat Levels for Abs
To reveal abdominal definition, and possibly a six-pack, most men need to achieve a body fat percentage of six to nine percent; women need to reach 16 to 19 percent body fat.
The leaner you are, the more likely it is that defined abs will show. Athletes and physically fit people tend to have lower body fat levels because of the demands of their activity.
These ab-revealing body fat percentages are significantly lower than the healthy recommendation of 15 to 20 percent for adult males and 20 to 25 percent for females. A woman's body fat levels are typically higher than a man's due to childbearing — a woman's body is designed to support a baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Going Too Low
Low body fat levels do make your abs more likely to be visible, but it's not guaranteed. Some people have ab muscles that are segmented less clearly than others or muscles that are shaped in irregular patterns — not a clear four-, six- or eight-pack. No matter how lean these individuals get, their abs just won't look as defined as someone with different genetics.
It's possible to go too low in body fat in an attempt to reveal your washboard abs. No additional athletic performance or health benefit occurs when a man drops below 8 percent body fat or a woman below 14 percent.
Bodybuilders and figure competitors may drop below these body fat levels for competition, but rarely maintain such levels for the long term.
Regardless of your goals, you need a certain level of essential fat, which exists within your internal organs, regulates your body temperature and facilitates vitamin absorption. In men, this averages three percent and in women, 13 percent. Dropping below these amounts can endanger your health.
Achieving Low Body Fat Levels
A comprehensive fitness and diet routine helps you achieve toned, taut abs. A diet that focuses on whole, unprocessed foods and precise portions is essential to leaning out.
Lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains should make up most of your meals, and you need to avoid refined carbohydrates, added sugar, saturated fats and alcohol.
You'll spend time meal planning and exercising almost daily with a combination of cardio and strength training. Focus, too, on proper rest and recovery between workouts and overnight.
Start With Small Changes
If you're one of the men that has an average body fat percentage of 28 percent fat or an average woman with 40 percent, less radical steps help you achieve a healthier body — even if you never see your abs.
Reducing your fat a little decreases your risk of chronic disease and improves your energy levels; you'll also look slimmer and more fit. Take modest steps, such as cutting back on desserts, adding a salad to dinner and aiming for the minimum 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio most days.
Read more: The 3 Secrets to Losing Belly Fat