Six-pack abs are a promise of magazine articles and supplement advertisements. But obtaining this coveted look isn't as easy as performing a few extra crunches or drinking a protein shake. A perfect mix of a dedicated fitness routine, a precise diet and genetic gifts is what it takes for a woman to achieve six-pack abs.
Reduce Your Body Fat Percentage
For a woman to get six-pack abs, she needs to reduce her body fat to between 16 and 19 percent body fat. This is still a healthy body fat level (primarily for athletes), but far below what's considered an average healthy range, which is 22 to 33 percent.
The average American woman is an unhealthy 40 percent fat. Unless you're already lean, achieving six-pack abs will take some work. Abdominal crunches, twists and planks won't get a female to lean body fat levels. Only a precisely timed and portioned diet along with cardio, strength-training and appropriate rest will get you there.
Know the Importance of Diet
Limiting desserts and eating smaller portions jump-starts weight loss when you're overweight. But to get six-pack lean, you'll have to be far more precise in your strategy.
Meals will consist mostly of lean proteins and vegetables. At one or two meals, you'll add fruit or whole grains, as well as a little healthy fat from sources such as olive oil or avocados to round out your nutrition.
Because obtaining a six pack requires a very specific ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates and could be undermined by additives and unhealthy fats, foods prepared outside the home — at restaurants or friends' houses — are usually off-limits.
Get Serious About Cardio
Lose weight without exercise, and you'll end up losing muscle along with fat — which hinders the appearance of your six-pack. The standard Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exercise guidelines for adults call for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days and two strength-training workouts weekly to foster good health.
You'll have to get more serious about exercise than these recommendations to reach the body fat levels necessary for six-pack abs. Cardio exercise, such as running or rowing on an ergometer, is important to calorie burning.
A paper published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Obesity concluded that high-intensity interval exercise is more effective than steady-state work when it comes to burning fat, especially visceral fat that sits deep in the abdominal wall and secretes inflammatory compounds.
To do your own high-intensity intervals, alternate all-out efforts with periods of easier effort. For example, warm up for five minutes and then alternate one minute of sprinting with one minute of walking for 20 minutes. Finish with a short cool down. Don't do this workout every day, though, or you'll risk burnout.
Lift Heavy Weights
Strength-training is intrinsic to gaining a six-pack, even for a woman. When you lose weight without lifting weights, one-quarter of every pound you lose comes from valuable lean mass. Muscle takes more calories for your body to burn during activity and during rest, giving your metabolism a boost.
Aim to strength train a minimum of three times per week. You'll likely do one to three sets of multiple exercises for each major muscle group, including your chest, back, legs, hips, arms, shoulders and abs, using weights that make you feel tired by the last couple of reps in a set of eight to 12.
You might even strength train four or five days per week, alternating lower body and upper body workouts. Leave at least 48 hours of rest between muscle groups worked.
Abdominal exercises should be part of your strength-training routine. Moves such as the plank, side plank, bird dog and crunches are a start, but as you become stronger, introduce moves that include resistance such as kettlebell swings, standing trunk rotation and standing cable crunches. Aim to work the abs three to five times per week.
It may not seem fair, but even if you do all the work and reduce your body fat level, you're not guaranteed a six-pack. Some women's genetics give them staggered abs that don't appear as clear segments.
Your body type also determines how you build muscle and if your abs will appear. This doesn't mean you should give up on exercise and a healthy diet, just keep your expectations realistic.
Read more: The Science of Amazing Abs