Ahh, the elusive six pack.
Everyone wants those coveted abs, but there seems to be a lot of different ideas out there about how, and how long, it takes to get toned abs.
One thing most of us can agree on is that to get that washboard stomach, you need to get really, really lean.
You need to systematically strip body fat away from your physique until very little remains on your stomach. For men, this usually means dieting down to about 8-10% bodyfat.
But what’s the ideal bodyfat percentage for abs for females?
For most women to have visible abs, they’ll need to be around 16-19% bodyfat.
This, however, is a complicated question with lots of determining factors. In this article, we’ll dive a little deeper into the right bodyfat percentage for abs (female) and what it means for you.
The 3 pillars of visible abs for women
So, you want to know how lean you’re going to need to get to see your abs, or how long it’s going to take to get toned, visible abs and a washboard stomach.
The reason this question is complicated is because there are (at least) 3 major factors that go into whether or not you have visible abs:
- Bodyfat percentage
- Core strength & development
- Fat storing genetics
1) Bodyfat percentage
Simply put, you have to drop the majority of the fat layer that’s covering up your abdominal muscles in order to see them.
Pretty obvious, right?
Contrary to popular belief, the key to shedding this fat and getting eye-popping abs isn’t usually tons and tons of cardio.
Full body strength training and eating in a moderate calorie deficit will support fat loss and muscle retention.
(Basically, eat a little less and lift heavy weights a few times per week!)
Do this for long enough and you’ll continue to coax your bodyfat percentage down lower and lower until those ab muscles become visible.
(And by the way, I can recommend an AMAZING strength and nutrition program for women if you’re interested in getting lean and toned.)
As mentioned above, women will probably need to be in the 16-19% bodyfat range to see their abs.
2) Ab & core strength
Now whether you, personally, will need to be at the high end of that range, the low end of that range, or outside of it entirely is up to the second major pillar:
In other words, how big and strong are your ab muscles?
If you have a very powerful body with well-developed core muscles, your abs may poke through even at slightly higher bodyfat levels.
If you simply keep dieting down to lower and lower weights without doing any strength training, you may find it extremely difficult to get visible abdominal muscles.
Again, you can see the benefit of lifting heavy weights in the gym and building a powerful body.
3. Fat storing genetics
There are major differences in how men and women store fat on their bodies, primarily due to hormone levels.
Men tend to store body fat primarily around their midsection and upper body in general. Women are more likely to store body fat in their lower bodies.
Each of us is a little different. Our own individual bodies have genetic predispositions as to where they prefer to store our body fat.
Fat storage plays a MAJOR role in what bodyfat percentage you’ll need to have visible abs.
- If you’re someone who tends to store fat mostly in your lower body (legs), you may find that a little strength training and a quick diet are all you need to get those abs popping.
- If you tend to store more body fat in your stomach, you’ll need to get much leaner in order to have visible abs.
You know your own body best. When you diet, what part of your body seems to be affected the least? What’s your “problem area”?
This’ll help you figure out how lean you’ll need to get to see your abs.
The formula for perfectly toned abs for women
With these key pillars in mind, it’s easy to create an effective strategy to bring your own abs to the surface.
(Executing it, not quite as easy!)
Full body strength training + direct ab work + moderate calorie deficit = Six Pack Abs
Full Body Strength Training
Enough of the cardio!
Building your endurance and cardiovascular health are awesome for longevity and overall performance.
For building abs? Not so much.
Challenge yourself to lift heavy weights in the gym, focusing on compounds movements that work your whole body (and core!).
Think bench press, squats, deadlifts, rows, etc.
Direct Ab Work
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to “blast” your abs with intense 45-minute circuits.
You don’t need to do 1,000 sit-ups per day.
If you build your overall full body strength, your core will likely come along.
Incorporating a little bit of direct ab work, via challenging moves like leg raises, planks, L-sits, etc, can only help.
But your main focus should be your full-body training and getting the right nutrition.
Moderate Calorie Deficit
No need to crash diet here, that will only work against you.
(It’ll be hard to stick to, it hurts your performance in the gym due to low energy, and you’ll lose muscle… hardly the recipe for six-pack abs.)
Most experts agree you can safely and effectively lose weight by eating 20-25% fewer calories than your maintenance energy needs.
Long explanation made simple, multiply your bodyweight by 12 for a rough idea of how many calories you should have per day.
At that rate, you should lose about a pound per week.
How long will it take to get abs?
The formula is extremely simple.
Sticking to it, and doing the work, isn’t.
How long it takes you to get your six pack will depend on so many different things:
- Your natural strength potential
- Fat storing genetics
- Effort in the gym
- Training style
- How much fat you have to lose
(Not to mention, not everyone is actually capable of getting a six pack… Some of us will only have 4-packs, while others will have 8. It’s a weird phenomenon but take heart… Arnold Schwarzenegger only had a 4-pack.)
In most cases, expect it to take much longer than you think. You’ll often have to lose significantly more fat to see abs than you think you will.
(If you’ve been dieting for an extremely long time, consider taking a break and eating at maintenance calories [bodyweight x 15] for a few weeks to regain some energy and motivation.)
What are the stages of getting abs?
Since this will likely be a long process, it might help to have some milestones along the way you can count on.
Stage 1: Getting lean
Almost everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, will have to get leaner or get to a lower bodyfat percentage to see abs.
There aren’t going to be too many people who need to bulk up first.
(Though you certainly can! You can go in whatever order you want.)
You’ll see the most drastic and exciting changes to your physique, in my opinion, by losing fat first while building or maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.
(At least, that’s what happened for me. Eating at maintenance or a small surplus was cool and I liked the strength gains in the gym, but it wasn’t until I leaned out significantly that I started to get really motivated to keep up my journey.)
You do that by eating at a moderate calorie deficit, as mentioned above, while keeping your protein intake high to trigger your body to keep or build muscle.
Again, your target here to see visible abs is somewhere around 16-19% bodyfat.
Stage 2: Building full body strength
You can definitely get to a point where you’ve leaned out a lot and brought your overall bodyfat down a ton, but you still don’t have abs.
There could be a little bit of stubborn fat on your belly, or it might have flattened out a lot but you just can’t see the definition yet.
At this stage, it’s probably a good idea to start building some muscle and developing your overall strength base.
(For women, around 20-22% bodyfat will give you a really nice athletic look! But you might not have the chiseled 6-pack yet.)
Keep working in the gym on your full-body training.
If you’re exasperated from a long dieting phase, you might even consider bulking up some and bringing your calories up to help you build muscle.
After all, if you really want those ab muscles to pop, they’ll need to grow!
A very small calorie surplus (250 calories per day, or bodyweight x 17) should be plenty for a proper lean bulk to avoid too much unwanted fat gain.
Once you’ve spent a few months bringing your strength numbers up, you can resume leaning out and those ab muscles will start to pop.
Stage 3: Extra ab work & bringing up lagging areas
If you have:
- Leaned down
- Bulked up
- And then leaned down again
You should have some really solid muscle development to go with your lean physique, and at this point the abs should be getting close!
Here’s where doing a little extra direct work on your abs can really help.
And now is a good time to target specific parts of your midsection that you may want to focus on (like obliques, lower abs, etc.)
My favorite core exercises are:
- Leg raises
- Incline sit-ups
- And planks (you can do these weighted for a greater challenge)
There are a ton of variables that go in to each of us getting those toned, visible abs we covet.
Spending time worrying about exact bodyfat percentages or lengths of time is a waste.
Instead, get on a good workout program that gives you the exact blueprint you need (for workouts AND nutrition), and make sure it’s something you’ll STICK TO.
However long it takes.
If you’re looking to get started, definitely check out my top recommended toning workout for women.