In this world of strong is the new skinny, a chiseled set of abs is one of the most attractive features you can sculpt. But they don't come easy; it takes consistent focus on nutrition and exercise to reach a low enough body fat percentage for ab definition to start showing through.
Working on a Six-Pack
Regardless of your gender, if you want to show off swoon-worthy ab muscles, two things need to happen. First, you need well-developed ab muscles. Just like any other muscle in your body, you achieve this level of development through an appropriate schedule of strength-training and recovery time. That doesn't mean doing hundreds of sit-ups and crunches; instead, you should focus on challenging core exercises that make more efficient use of your time.
Next, you need a low enough percentage of body fat that the contours of your rectus abdominis — the so-called "six-pack muscle" — won't be obscured by a pad of subcutaneous fat. As always, there's a genetic component at work in determining your overall body type and exactly what this muscle looks like in your body. But no matter what your genes have handed you to work with, the nutrition and fitness choices you make will have the greatest effect on what does — or doesn't — shine through in your midsection.
The Importance of Body Fat
Although sculpting a chiseled set of abs does require low levels of body fat, reaching zero percent body fat should never be a literal goal. You need a certain amount of body fat for a healthy, functioning body. As PennRec explains, that essential percentage of body fat for women averages about 13 percent, while for men it averages about 3 percent.
That doesn't mean you immediately keel over if you go below that percentage, and bodybuilders will sometimes dip below those levels on purpose — but only for a short time, because doing so can cause many health complications, from shrinking internal organs to loss of muscle tissue (including those hard-won abs), damage to your nervous system and problems with your renal and gastrointestinal systems.
In fact, Penn Rec notes that having a certain amount of "storage" body fat — representing stored energy beyond what's needed to simply maintain life — is important for things like sufficiently padding internal organs.
The American Council on Exercise places fit, athletic body types at 14 to 24 percent body fat for women, with 25 to 31 percent being deemed "acceptable"; while for men, 6 to 17 percent body fat is considered in the fit or athletic range, and 18 to 24 percent body fat is "acceptable." Man or woman, if you want to see any obvious signs of your abs in the mirror, you need to aim for the lower end of that body fat percentage chart.
Measuring Your Body Fat Percentage
Measuring your body fat percentage isn't a matter of guesswork, although there is some variance in accuracy for the different methods available to you. As the Mayo Clinic explains, readily consumer-available methods of measuring body fat often return variable results. Clinical methods of measuring your body fat percentage remain the gold standard, with cross-sectional imaging methods such as MRI and CT scans providing the most precise measurements.
That's particularly true when it comes to intra-abdominal or visceral fat — which, as Harvard Health Publishing explains, is linked to even greater health risks than subcutaneous (under the skin) abdominal fat. Other clinical methods that may be used to evaluate your body fat percentage include specialized X-ray exams, the so-called Bod Pod (air displacement plethysmography) and underwater weighing.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Fat Loss
Measuring Body Fat for Consumers
With that said, there are a number of methods of measuring body fat percentage to which everyday consumers have ready access. And although they do return variable results, if you choose a single method and use it consistently, the information may still be useful for gauging an overall downward or upward trend in body fat percentage. Here are a few of the readily available methods:
Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA): A bioelectrical impedance machine passes a weak electrical current through your body, then uses the current's speed through your body to calculate your percentage of body fat. (Lean tissue conducts the current faster than body fat.) These devices may be handheld, or present in bathroom scales.
Body circumference measurements: Using a flexible measuring tape to measure your body circumference at various points (e.g. waist, hip, arm, thigh) is an inexpensive, easy way of tracking your body fat over time. Although it won't return specific percentages, unless you started out lean and are putting on extraordinary amounts of muscle, you can trust that decreasing circumference measurements translate to reduced body fat.
Skinfold caliper measurements: This one is a bit of a hybrid method, because using skinfold calipers to accurately gauge body fat requires very specific training — so it's best done by a personal trainer or other fitness professional. And in order to reduce variability in the results, you should have your skinfold measurements consistently taken by the same person, using the same equipment.
A body fat percentage calculator: Finally, you can input body measurements (usually skinfold measurements or circumference measurements) into an online body fat percentage calculator to get a rough estimate — at best — of your body fat levels.
Reducing Your Body Fat
To lose body fat, you must establish a calorie deficit or, to put it another way, burn more calories than you take in. You can do this through increasing physical activity or somewhat decreasing your calorie intake; according to findings from the National Weight Control Registry, the vast majority of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off do so using a combination of both methods.
This takes care of reducing your body fat percentage. But if you don't build some impressive abs while you're at it, you won't have anything to show off. In a small study published in their 2014 newsletter, the American Council on Exercise recruited 16 volunteers to perform a variety of ab exercises.
The difference between many of the exercises was quite slim, but some of the most effective for activating the rectus abdominis (the so-called six-pack muscle) were decline bench curl-ups, stability ball crunches, the captain's chair crunch and, of course, the humble abdominal crunch — the gold standard against which all the other exercises were measured.
Focusing on your abs at least two or three times a week will help you develop strong, shapely ab muscles — but that doesn't mean you have to do hundreds of repetitions. Consider adding extra resistance instead, which in turn can help encourage muscular hypertrophy — then make sure you let your abs recover for at least one to two days before you do a focused workout for them again.
Read more: How to Gain Muscle Mass at Home Fast
- Penn Rec: "Body Composition Information and FAQs Fact Sheet"
- American Council on Exercise: "Abs! Abs! Abs!"
- American Council on Exercise: "Percent Body Fat Calculator: Skinfold Method"
- Mayo Clinic: "How Accurate Are Portable Body Fat Analyzers?"
- Cañada College: "Assess Your Fitness Level"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- American Council on Exercise: "How to Select the Right Rest Intervals and Post-Training Recovery for Your Clients"