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

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: July 10, 2022

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 definitions, and that 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

  • Men and women will need to aim for different BMI percentages to achieve visible abdominal muscles.
  • You should never rely on the height to weight quick body fat percentage calculation for any defined muscle goals.
  • Achieving this kind of body composition takes a combination of diet and exercise to target that belly fat mass directly.

At What Body Fat Percentage Are Abs Visible?

man and woman flexing their body muscles

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 have generally got a higher BMI, so let’s break this down.

For Men

At the very elite range of bodybuilding, men will be in a body fat percentage range of 2% to 5%. This is classed 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 [2]. 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.

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].

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.

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., and 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.

And here’s a common issue.

It’s usually 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.

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.

Related:

FAQs

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.

Have You Set The Right BMI Goal To See Your Abs?

There are three things to getting those ripped abs. First of all, you have to start measuring body fat percentage accurately with a DEXA scan or fat caliper.

And once you know what your starting point is, you’ll need to get to a BMI of below 15% through a strict diet and exercise routine.

Achieving that body composition doesn’t take rocket science, but sticking to the routine required will take effort and dedication over many months.


References:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/index.html
  2. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/body-fat-measurement#1
  3. https://www.calculator.net/bmi-calculator.htm
  4. https://health.ucdavis.edu/sportsmedicine/resources/dxa-info.html

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