Getting six-pack abs isn't easy for anyone, but it's even harder for women than for men. Women have less muscle mass and more body fat than men, and they often find it harder to lose weight. These factors combined make reducing body fat low enough to reveal chiseled abs very difficult — but not impossible. The best way for a female to get abs is to reduce calorie intake, increase activity level and be patient.
Women need to lower their body fat to 20 percent to start seeing six-pack abs.
Lower Your Body-Fat Percentage
The average woman has a body fat percentage between 25 and 31 percent. To start to see abs, body fat needs to be 20 percent or lower, according to fitness and fat loss expert Michael Matthews. At this point, the layer of fat between your skin and muscle is thin enough that you can start to see muscle definition in the abdomen.
Depending on where you are now, you may have a little or a lot of fat to lose, but the basic strategy is the same: get your body into a caloric deficit and keep it there.
People gain fat for many reasons — hormones, genetics, stress — and they store fat in certain places for those same reasons. But the No. 1 thing that leads to fat gain is consuming more calories than your body needs.
When your body has a surplus of calories, it stores them as fat. The longer it has a surplus, the more fat it stores. The best way to get abs for a female is to reverse the process by reducing calorie consumption so you're taking in fewer calories than your body needs. It will then begin to access fat stores for energy.
When you lower your body fat percentage, fat loss may be more visible in your arms and face before your waistline starts to shrink. This is because you can't target just one area for fat loss, and where you lose fat first has a lot to do with genetics. If you maintain your caloric deficit, you'll eventually begin to see abdominal fat loss.
Reduce Your Calorie Intake
The first place you should go to create a caloric deficit is your kitchen, or the break room at your office. You can't get a six-pack eating unhealthy foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients. By just cutting these unhealthy foods out of your diet, you can trim hundreds of calories each day to help create the deficit you need:
- Candy, cakes, cookies
- Ice cream
- Chips and other snack foods
- White rice, bread, pasta and other refined-grain foods
- Soda, fruit juices, sweet tea and other sweetened beverages
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
Seriously, if you want six-pack abs, you can't eat these foods — except on rare occasions. But eschewing these foods won't just give you a chiseled tummy; it will also improve your overall health and reduce your risk of disease.
The foods you should be eating are high in protein and fiber, with a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio. These include:
- Lean meat and fish
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
What's the deal with dairy? The jury's still out on whether dairy is good or bad for weight loss. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, eating yogurt may aid weight loss, while drinking milk and eating cheese do not. Ultimately, whether you want to include dairy in your diet is your choice. Just remember that milk is liquid calories, which aren't as good for weight loss as eating whole foods, and cheese is a high-calorie food that should be eaten in moderation.
Protein also feeds lean muscle mass growth; if you're strength training, you need to consume more protein to support muscle repair and recovery.
Do More Cardio
In addition to cutting calories, you need to burn more calories to create a deeper calorie deficit. Cardio exercise is anything that rhythmically moves your major muscle groups and raises your heart rate for an extended period of time.
Running, jogging, cycling, rowing, swimming, aerobics, cardio kickboxing, elliptical training, spinning and dance aerobics are all excellent forms of cardio that burn a decent amount of calories. The harder you work during these activities, the more calories you'll burn and the more fat you'll lose.
Benefits of Vigorous Exercise
Maybe you hear that long, slow cardio is best for fat loss. That's a myth. Besides burning more calories, intense exercise has other benefits for fat loss.
Due to something called "excess post-exercise oxygen consumption," or EPOC, intense exercise boosts your metabolism after you finish your workout. According to well-known health and fitness expert, Pete McCall, your body works hard after a tough exercise session to bring itself back to its pre-exercise state. This takes energy, so it burns calories. That means you continue to burn calories after your workout is finished for as long as it takes your body to come back to baseline.
The most effective exercise for increasing the EPOC effect, says McCall, is high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. During a HIIT workout, you alternate periods of very intense effort with periods of active recovery at a slower pace. These spurts of intense effort mean your body has to do more work in the period following exercise to bring the body back into homeostasis.
HIIT also may be more effective at burning abdominal fat, specifically. A study published in Diabetes & Metabolism in 2016 found that women who completed a HIIT cycling workout two days a week for 16 weeks lost more abdominal fat than women who did an equivalent moderate-intensity steady-state training program. The researchers concluded that HIIT appears to be more effective than steady-state cardio for reducing abdominal fat.
Build More Muscle
Burning fat is about eating less, exercising more and optimizing your metabolism. The best way to get abs as a female is to build more total-body lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle mass you have, the more energy your body expends building and maintaining it.
While fat takes very little energy to maintain, muscle is metabolically active and accounts for up to 20 percent of your total daily energy expenditure, according to Paige Kinucan and Dr. Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico.
Doing hours of crunches won't do anything to reveal a six-pack, because you can't spot train. Instead, spend your time doing large-muscle, multi-joint compound exercises that build muscle and burn fat. The best moves for getting six-pack abs include:
- Dead lifts
- Chest press
- Military press
Don't be afraid of building muscle — it won't make you bulky. Most women just don't have the physiology to bulk up without a special diet and supplements or steroids.
If you're just starting to lift weights, begin with lighter resistance to learn proper technique and build foundational strength and muscle memory. Then work up to lifting heavy weights to really see the shift in body composition you desire. Intense weightlifting has the same effect on your metabolism in the recovery period as intense cardio. Lifting light dumbbells and doing leg lifts just isn't enough to cause the metabolic and body composition shifts you need when your goal is six-pack abs.
Challenge each muscle group two to three times weekly, do vigorous cardio, get enough rest to allow your body to recover, then do it again. Maintain a clean diet, and you'll start to see those abs peeking through in no time.
- Cleveland Clinic: Is It Harder for Women to Lose Weight?
- BuiltLean: Ideal Body Fat Percentage Chart: How Lean Should You Be?
- Muscle for Life: The “Secret” to Losing Your Face Fat and Double Chin
- Healthline: Is It Possible to Target Fat Loss to Specific Body Parts?
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Food and Diet
- WebMD: Trying to Lose Weight? Watch What You Drink
- Harvard Health Publishing: Making One Change — Getting More Fiber — Can Help With Weight Loss
- Healthline: How Protein Can Help You Lose Weight Naturally
- ACE: 7 Things to Know About Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)
- Diabetes & Metabolism: High-Intensity Interval Training Reduces Abdominal Fat Mass in Postmenopausal Women With Type 2 Diabetes
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism
- Bodybuilding.com: 8 Reasons Women Should Lift Weights