It might be the number one stretch goal when it comes to fitness—the six-pack. Ripped, chiseled abs have become the holy grail of body goals. They tell the world that you’re strong and lean and that carbs have no power over you. But they’re not easy to achieve, because well … pasta, booze, and time are not on our side.
And while fitness magazines or YouTubers might try to sway you with promises of “sculpting a perfect six pack in under a month with a unique workout and meal plan,” we know better. To get seriously shredded you need some serious dedication. But how much time are we talking? We spoke with some experts to get some real talk.
What they told us was there’s no one way to get them. And that there are a lot of factors at play, so unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all gameplan. But first and foremost, getting visible abs comes down to the amount of body fat you have. That tired cliche of six-packs being made in the kitchen is a cliche for a reason—it’s true.
According to Harvard Health, about 90% of body fat is subcutaneous, meaning it lies just under the skin. It’s the squishy stuff that forms your belly and is a body fat that you can grab with your hands. Roughly 10% of fat is the visceral variety. This is the stuff that lies beneath the abdominal wall and in the spaces that envelop your intestines and liver. It secretes hormones and other substances that cause low-level inflammation. Doing targeted exercises like crunches is great for toning abdominal muscles, but losing both subcutaneous and visceral fat is the first step to unearthing your abs.
The American Council on Exercise says you’ll need to lower your body fat to about 6% - 13% percent for men. On a scale used by ACE, this is known as the “athletes” category. Some trainers warned that even then, some people won’t have the genetic makeup necessary for a full six-pack. (Hey, a four-pack is great, too.) That’s because they may have thicker skin and tissue surrounding the muscle, which ultimately makes it harder for the abs to show.
But this means your timeline to a six-pack depends on the body fat percentage you’re starting with. A good rule of thumb, according to the ACE trainers, is to aim to lose one percent of body fat per month. Maybe two if you’re in a hurry. Which means uncovering your abs will be a process that takes anywhere from three months to up to two years. It really will vary.
It’s also a good idea to consult a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer or exercise professional before beginning any nutrition and fitness plan. Why? Well, it’s not exactly easy to hover around 10% body fat. Your body will not enjoy being here and, in fact, will naturally try to trick you to get you to eat more because it basically thinks you’re starving.
But you can stay on track by cutting around 500 calories from your daily diet if you want to lose one pound a week. If you’re working out daily, you may be able to cut fewer calories. If you burn 250 calories with daily exercise, you likely need to only cut calories by 250. Remember that when you lose weight, you also lose lean muscle. To help maintain muscle mass and keep your abs strong, it’s important to consume adequate amounts of protein. Aim for roughly 1 to 1.5 grams for every two pounds you weigh. And don’t forget to add regular resistance training to your high intensity workouts. Cardio plus lifting weights seems to be the magic bullet—it allows you to lose more body fat and whittle your waist circumference more than those who just do aerobic exercise to burn calories.
So there you have it. The cold hard truth about how to get the six-pack you want. If you’ve got the disciple and a little time, then you will no doubt be flashing those abs … in three months to a year or so.
FYI: The major muscle in the abdomen responsible for that washboard appearance is the rectus abdominis. It’s a long, flat band of fibers that extends vertically from the pubic bone to under the ribs.