What Is Ideal Body Fat for Abs to Show? (For Men & Women)

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: January 29, 2024
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Some people say that building ab muscles is actually not all that difficult. But achieving visible abs—those ripped six-pack abs—is incredibly different.

As a personal trainer, I would definitely agree. See, you need considerable fat loss to achieve muscle definition, and the adipose tissue around your belly is usually the last to go.

But through years of research into diet and exercise techniques, I’ve been able to get people to the ideal body fat percentage to show off some abs and their entire body.

Here’s what it takes for such muscle definition.

Quick Summary

  • To achieve visible abs, reducing body fat to specific levels is essential, with men requiring 2%–5% and women needing 10%–13% body fat.
  • Accurate body fat measurement is best done by combining a DEXA scan and a fat caliper rather than relying on BMI or body circumference measurements.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights that optimal body fat percentages differ between men and women due to their distinct anatomical structures.
  • In my professional opinion, while genetics play a significant role in ab visibility, a well-planned diet and exercise regimen can make a substantial difference for most individuals.

At What Body Fat Percentage Are Abs Visible?

man and woman flexing their body muscles

According to an article on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, men and women have to look at different body fat percentages because the levels at which they are considered healthy are different due to their unique anatomies [1].

Naturally, this means women generally have a higher BMI, so let’s break this down.

For Men

In the very elite range of bodybuilding, men will be in a body fat percentage range of 2% to 5%. According to WebMD, this is classified as essential fat, and anything below this is dangerously low [2].

The right type of core and ab workouts will give athletes an incredibly ripped belly, where a small pinch will barely lift the skin. There will certainly be hardly any subcutaneous fat.

More realistic for most men will be a range of 6% to about 17%. And in this range, you should still have very toned abs that are clearly visible.

Once you get into the 20+ body fat range, it may be quite difficult to properly see the muscle shape. But you should still look slim.

For Women

The female-specific body fat percentage at the lowest end is 10% to 13%, and this would still mean that women have very little belly fat. See, women store fat differently, and their breast tissue and thighs tend to make up the higher body fat levels.

But even at an athletic 14 to 20 percent body fat, it should be possible for women to show off the outlines of their ab muscles.

From my own experience and research with female clients, that seems to be the ideal and most realistic range to get to.

When managing body fat and avoiding weight gain, seeking guidance from a certified personal trainer is highly recommended.

In order to achieve your desired results, you need to choose an exercise and nutrition plan tailored to your body fat percentage.

How Should You Measure Body Fat Percentage?

person measuring her body

A lot of people simply rely on a calculation of height and weight, but this is going to be a very unreliable number [3].

I've found this method quite unreliable. Working with clients, I've seen how these numbers can be misleading, underscoring the need for more accurate methods.

It will give you a rough idea, but if you’re heading for a low athletic BMI, you’ll quickly get numbers that don’t make sense.

You should also not rely on body circumference measurements for a similar reason.

According to an article on UC Davis Health, if you want to get an accurate number, then the best thing you can do is combine a DEXA scan and a fat caliper [4]. The DXA is the most accurate for body fat, and it might be worth going for one every 12 months.

“As the name implies, DXA uses X-rays of two different energies to estimate your body fat percentage. During a DXA scan, you lie on your back for approximately 10 minutes while an X-ray scans over you.”

- Grant Tinsley, Ph.D., & Writer at HealthLine.com

And a caliper will be able to measure your body fat percentage in specific areas so that you can figure out if your targeted approach to abs is working.

Will You Have Ripped Abs If You Lose Fat?

Losing body fat is certainly a key part of how much muscle you can show off, but you have to lose the fat in the right places.

I've seen many who focused solely on weight loss but didn't achieve the defined abs they desired because the fat loss wasn't targeted. It's a nuanced process that requires a strategic approach to diet and exercise.

And here’s a common issue:.

It’s usually the case that belly fat stays around the longest. As you lose weight through dieting and training, it will likely happen around your shoulders and thighs first.

It’s only once you get to a low body fat percentage of under 18% that you may start seeing that belly fat disappear. That’s why I always set the right expectations with clients, as the abs are usually the last place where you start seeing results.

Role of Genetics in Ab Visibility

The visibility of abs is not just a matter of body fat percentage; it's also about the structure and distribution of abdominal muscles, which are significantly influenced by genetics.

Some individuals naturally have more pronounced and segmented abdominal muscles, while others may find it challenging to achieve the same level of definition, regardless of their fitness regimen.

Genetics also dictate where we tend to store fat. Some people are predisposed to store more fat around their abdomen, which can obscure abdominal muscles, while others may store it in their hips, thighs, or other areas.

This genetic predisposition plays a significant role in how easy or difficult it is for someone to achieve visible abs.

How Can You Lower Your Body Fat To See Your Abs?

woman in the gym doing ab crunches

You store fat by eating more calories than you burn, and in the same sense, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn to reverse those metabolic processes.

What many people get wrong, though, is that they exercise a lot and do endless ab crunches, but they don’t fix their diet.

And if you’re still eating processed carbs and junk food, then all that hard work could be for nothing.

So, what’s my advice?

To get a lower body fat percentage, get into a 10% calorie deficit diet and exercise five days a week. On three of those days, add targeted ab and core workouts.

It’s as simple as that to plan, but it’s challenging to keep doing this consistently for 6 to 12 months.

Nutritional Strategies for Specific Body Types

Through my experience in nutrition planning, I've learned that different body types need unique dietary approaches.

I've worked with ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs, customizing their nutrition plans to align with their specific needs and body responses.

Ectomorphs: The Lean and Fast Metabolizers

Ectomorphs are typically characterized by a lean build and a fast metabolism. They often struggle to gain weight and muscle mass.

  • High-calorie diet: Ectomorphs need a higher calorie intake to gain weight. Focus on calorie-dense foods to increase total caloric intake without having to consume large volumes of food.
  • Balanced macronutrient distribution: A balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is crucial. Carbohydrates are particularly important for ectomorphs to provide enough energy and support muscle growth.
  • Frequent meals: Eating more frequently - around 5 to 6 meals a day - can help in meeting calorie requirements and provide a constant supply of nutrients to the muscles.

Mesomorphs: The Natural Athletes

Mesomorphs have a naturally athletic build and can gain muscle and lose fat relatively easily.

  • Moderate caloric intake: Mesomorphs should aim for a balanced caloric intake that supports their active lifestyle without promoting excessive fat gain.
  • Protein-rich diet: Protein is essential for muscle building and repair. Mesomorphs should include a good source of protein in every meal.
  • Complex carbohydrates and healthy fats: Focus on complex carbs like whole grains and include healthy fats for sustained energy and overall health.

Endomorphs: The Solid and Strong

Endomorphs tend to have a larger frame and may gain weight easily, often struggling with fat loss.

  • Controlled caloric intake: Endomorphs should be mindful of their calorie consumption to avoid unnecessary weight gain.
  • Higher protein and lower carbohydrate diet: A diet higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates can help manage weight and support muscle maintenance.
  • Fiber-rich foods: Incorporating plenty of fiber-rich foods can aid in digestion and help with satiety, reducing overall calorie intake.



Can You Only See Your Abs With an Extremely Low BMI?

No, you don't only see your abs with an extremely low BMI. Elite athletes might have a BMI as low as 5, but with the right training, a BMI of 10% to 15% could be enough to achieve visibly ripped abs.

Can Your Body Fat Be Too Low?

Yes, your body fat can be too low. And some people end up chasing an extremely low BMI to see their abs when they could have a problem with their training. Remember, the human body requires an essential body fat percentage, below which you could end up with health problems.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/index.html
  2. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/what-is-body-composition
  3. https://www.calculator.net/bmi-calculator.htm
  4. https://health.ucdavis.edu/sports-medicine/resources/dxa-info
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
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Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
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