The elusive six-pack abs — everyone wants them, but few know how to get them. Is it a super secret? Not really. Getting chiseled abdominal muscles simply involves shrinking the layer of fat that covers those muscles so that you can see their definition. And that requires dedication to a healthy diet and lots of exercise. How long it will take to achieve six-pack abs depends on how much fat you have to lose and how dedicated you are to eating clean and working out.
Getting six-pack abs takes as long as necessary to shrink the layer of fat covering your abdominal muscles. That could take three months or one year, depending on where you're starting from and how quickly you're able to burn fat through diet and exercise.
How Much to Lose?
To get that chiseled look, fitness and fat loss expert Michael Matthews explains that men need to reduce their body fat to 10 percent and women need to drop to 20 percent body fat. At this point, you can no longer "pinch an inch." The layer of fat covering your muscles has shrunk enough to enable you to see the rippling tissues underneath.
According to the Human Kinetics, the average man between 30 and 50 years of age has 11 to 17 percent body fat and the average woman of the same age has 15 to 23 percent body fat. If you fall into this category, you'll have to shed somewhere between 8 and 14 percent body fat if you're a man, or 5 to 11 percent body fat if you're a woman.
To estimate what that means for actual pounds of fat loss, you'll need to do some math:
Desired body weight = Lean body weight/(1 - desired body fat percentage)
Your desired body weight is your weight after you have reached your body fat goal. Your lean body weight is how much muscle tissue you currently have. To determine this, you'll have to have your body fat tested.
For an example of how to use this formula, take Jason who weighs 170 pounds and has 20 percent body fat. That means he has 136 pounds of lean muscle mass. His goal is 8 percent body fat, which means:
Desired body weight = 136/(1 - 0.08) = 148
170 - 148 = 22
Jason needs to lose 22 pounds of body fat.
The most accurate body fat measurements come from dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scanning, air displacement (BodPod) and hydrostatic, or underwater weighing, according to the British Heart Foundation. But these come with a hefty price tag and are difficult to access. Other cheaper and more accessible options include bio impedance and skinfold testing, but the results are not always accurate.
How Fat Loss Works
Now you know how many pounds of fat you have to lose (or at least how to find that out) to reach your ideal body fat percentage. Before you can figure out how long it will take, you need to understand how fat loss occurs.
Fat is energy in the form of calories. You gain fat when you take in more calories than your body needs for energy. It shuttles those extra calories to your fat cells for safekeeping.
Therefore, to reduce fat, you have to get your body to use those fat stores, so you must lower your calorie intake below your calorie needs. Your body will then need to dig out those fat stores for the energy it needs.
More About Those Calories
Theoretically, 1 pound of fat contains a certain number of calories. While it's hotly debated in the sports, health and nutrition fields, the mainstream medical community usually says that this number is 3,500 calories.
So, for every 3,500-calorie deficit you create, will you burn 1 pound of fat?
This is where it gets more complicated, and the answer is maybe, but only at first. According to Densie Webb, Ph.D., RD, the 3,500-calorie rule may work for short-term weight loss of a few pounds, but after an individual loses weight, there are dynamic changes in energy balance and physiological adaptations that slow the rate of fat loss over time.
Plenty of other factors are at play in how long it takes you to lose fat. Genetics is a big one. Some people are genetically programmed to lose weight more quickly than others. Hormones, underlying health conditions, medications you take and many other things can also speed up or slow down your rate of fat loss.
How Long to That Six-Pack?
The short answer is that you can't predict how long it will take to get six-pack abs. You could estimate that if, everything being equal, you burn 250 calories through exercise and reduce your calorie intake by 250 every day, you'd create a 500-calorie deficit each day and a 3,500-calorie deficit each week, therefore losing 1 pound of fat per week.
For Jason, that would mean he'd reach his target body fat percentage in 22 weeks — and he'd be sporting his rock hard abs like a proud peacock. Alas, the body doesn't work on such a neat schedule.
Predicting fat loss only leads to disappointment and discouragement when it doesn't happen as quickly as you hoped it would. So just don't do it. What you can do is set activity and diet-related goals for yourself that will set you up for six-pack success.
Dieting for Six-Pack Abs
Cut out sugar. Sugar is fat's BFF. If you want a six-pack, you've simply got to cut out sugar, except for the occasional treat. This means giving up sugary cereals, flavored coffee drinks, soda, baked goods and ice cream. Oh, and alcohol. Making this one sacrifice can make all the difference in achieving your #sixpackgoals.
Eat whole, fresh foods. Eschew almost anything that comes in a bag, box or tray; ditch chips and other snack foods, frozen meals and fast foods. Eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Load up on fresh vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats.
Exercising for Six-Pack Success
Do more high-intensity cardio. Vigorous cardio is just more effective for burning more fat in a shorter amount of time than long, slow cardio. Plus, you get the afterburn effect from intense exercise, which means your body keeps burning calories at a higher rate in the hours following your workout session.
Build muscle with heavy, compound exercises. The more muscle you have, the faster you'll burn fat. Choose multijoint exercises, such as squats, dead lifts and rows, over single-joint isolation exercises like biceps curls. Compound exercises recruit more muscle fibers, burn more calories while you're doing them and increase the intensity of your workout to encourage the afterburn effect. And don't be afraid to pile on the weight — more weight equals higher intensity, which equals more muscle.
Stop doing so many crunches. All the crunches in the world won't reveal six-pack abs any faster because you can't spot-reduce. A few ab exercises each workout with progressively heavier resistance will be enough to build the abdominal muscles, which you will eventually see if you stick with the rest of the plan.
- Muscle for Life: How Long Does It Take to Get Six-Pack Abs?
- ACE: What Are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?
- British Heart Foundation: What's the Best Way to Measure Body Fat?
- Precision Nutrition: Calories in vs. Out? Or Hormones? The Debate Is Finally Over. Here’s Who Won.
- Mayo Clinic: Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics
- Today's Dietitian: Farewell to the 3,500-Calorie Rule
- Harvard Health Publishing: Does Metabolism Matter in Weight Loss?
- ACE: 7 Things to Know About Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)
- Bodybuilding.com: Muscle Building: Hypertrophy and Physiology—How to Lift Weights to Maximize Mass!
- Human Kinetics: Normal Ranges of Body Weight and Body Fat