The Truth About Abs

Ah, the elusive abs. The holy grail of the fitness world and a modern-day marketer’s wet dream. From Spartacus to Brad Pitt, the chiselled six pack is shown off like a peacock using its feathers to attract a mate. Shrouded in myth and legend. It’s said that only Buddhist monks and late night infomercial presenters know the real secret to building abs. So I went in search of the truth. To separate fact from fiction. To find out what it really takes to build a washboard core. Let’s see what I found out . . .

The Six Pack Blueprint

Okay, so you probably know there’s nothing mystical about building abs. You don’t need to do 1 billion sit-ups a day. And you don’t need to buy the secret foods ancient Aztecs used to build overnight abs. It comes down to this: drop your body fat low enough and develop strong core muscles. Bam! Abs. The hard part is getting lean enough to see them, and maintaining that leanness. We’ll get into the challenges below. But first, here’s an infographic prepared by Lucas James that sums up the process.

how to get abs

How Much Weight Will I Need to Lose to See Abs?

The level of body fat at which abs become visible varies from person to person and between males and females. But as a general rule, it’s around 10-12% for men and 15-17% for women. Sorry ladies, but you have a higher body fat level than men, which is suspected to be for creating miniature humans (AKA childbearing). To put those body fat levels in perspective, here are some photos put together by Built Lean.

female body fat percentage

How Hard Is It to Get Lean?

I’ll be straight up with you: getting down to an extremely low body fat level (3-7% for men and 10-12% for women) is very tough. And unless you're a bodybuilder or fitness model, you don't need to push it that far. It's actually unhealthy to have such low body fat levels.

As you can see from the above photos, both men and women have a lean, defined look at levels that are much easier to achieve and maintain (10-15% for men and 15-22% for women). At these body fat levels, there will likely be definition around your abs.

There are two main challenges in getting lean: 1) dieting down to your goal weight and 2) maintaining that body fat level. These are two very different beasts. Dieting is the short-term process you use to lean out. Once you’ve lost the weight, you’ll need to maintain it to keep abs visible.

I’ve written about how dieting affects metabolism before. In a nutshell, once you end your diet your body is primed to regain weight – the rebound effect. So you can use willpower to lose weight, but to keep it off you need to maintain a consistent health and fitness routine long term. Otherwise your six pack will be gone in less time than it takes to post a shameless selfie online.

The point of this post is to give you a realistic idea of what it takes to see abs. They're not unattainable or out of your reach. But like any worthwhile goal, they take work. It comes down to a highly-structured nutrition and workout program.

The effort you’ll need to put in to lose weight and maintain it will vary considerably from person to person. But here are some general things you may need to work on:

  • Eat mostly home cooked meals and meet specific macronutrient targets for carbs, fat, and protein each day. This may require tracking your food intake.
  • Eat lean protein with most meals.
  • Avoid processed foods and incorporate lots of vegetables.
  • May need to cycle carbs strategically (i.e., after workouts).
  • Limit eating out to 1-2 times per week. Eat clean meals when eating out.
  • Decrease alcohol consumption to one drink every 1-2 weeks.
  • Sleep 8-9 hours each night.
  • De-stress for 10-20 minutes each day.
  • Do challenging workout sessions of around 60-75 minutes at least 4 times a week.
  • Do a combination of compound lifts and ab exercises.

Love-Hate Relationship Ab Exercises

Okay, so you’ve got the blueprint to build abs and know that it’s going to take work to get there. Here are some of my favourite exercises for working the core:

The Torture Twist

Myotatic Crunch

Stability Ball Pike Roll Out


Back squat

Realistic Expectations

We often look at glossy pictures of fitness models and bodybuilders and have an unrealistic idea of what’s achievable.

Fitness models and bodybuilders go to extremes to get to very low levels of body fat (men get under 6% and women under 16%) for a short period of time. They generally diet down for a show or photo shoot. It is NOT healthy. It goes against biological cues and they are in a slow starvation process. In addition, they have professional photographers that know how to make them look their best. Photos are edited and makeup used. Water and carb intake is manipulated. And spray tan and an assortment of other tricks are used to highlight muscle definition. So remind yourself of this next time you pass a picture of a model with killer abs.

You can rock a set of awesome looking abs, but expecting to look like a bodybuilder or fitness cover model year-round is not realistic. It’s important to remind yourself of this regularly. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when we see so many of these images.

Where to Now?

So, now you’re armed with some info on what it takes to get lean enough to see abs. Have a think about what you can commit to, what’s important to you, and if you need coaching to get there. Here are some questions to get you going. Be honest with yourself when asking these.

  • How lean do you want to be? Do you want to see a visible six pack or are you happy with a flat stomach and some definition around the abs?
  • What are you willing to do to achieve your fitness goals?
  • What are you not willing to do to achieve your fitness goals?
  • What’s the priority right now?

Do Something – Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day or 2) answer the above questions and map out a plan to start right now! Start so small you can’t fail. Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you're so close to the share buttons - look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out any time. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know if you’re going to lean out and work on those abs, or what’s helped you get a six pack in the past.

Subscribe to My Blog

If you liked this post, you'll love my weekly email. Short. Punchy. Packed full of gems of wisdom on life, fitness, and beyond! Enter your email to sign up. In addition to one weekly email (learn more), you'll get a free e-book: The Battle Tested Body Transformation Guide!