If you're getting leaner by working out and eating clean, you might be wondering when you'll start to see your abs pop. But how many crunches you do won't determine whether you have a six-pack or not — it's all about your overall body fat percentage.
What's Body Fat Percentage, and How Is It Measured?
"Your body fat percentage represents the total amount of fat mass you have," explained NASM-certified personal trainer and POPSUGAR Assistant Fitness Editor Tamara Pridgett. This is a combination of two different types of fat: essential body fat and storage fat. Essential fat is needed to protect your organs and joints, to keep you warm, and to help with reproduction. Storage fat is stored energy in the form of adipose tissue, and it's the fat people tend to see on their bodies.
You can have your body fat percentage measured by taking skinfold measurements, which aren't too accurate, even if taken by a professional. Gyms also can have you use an InBody machine that's similar to stepping on a scale. It sends a bioelectrical current throughout your body, measuring body fat percentage. This also isn't the most accurate.
A DEXA scan or a BodPod test are two of the most accurate ways to measure body fat percentage. These are usually only offered at specialized clinics and are pricey — around $250 to $300. What's helpful about these in terms of your six-pack showing is that they can break down the exact percentages of where fat is distributed throughout your body.
What Body Fat Percentage Do I Need to See My Abs?
Many trainers agree that it's difficult to give a specific percentage of body fat that allows for abdominal visibility. Certified personal trainer Virginia Kinkel, who has been operating and analyzing DEXA scans for five years, said that where you store fat, how much fat, and how much muscle you have will determine whether or not your abs show. "Two people with the exact same body fat percentage can store it completely differently. One person may have abs, one person may not," she said.
Although there isn't one specific body fat percentage you need to see abs since everyone's fat is distributed differently, there is a body fat percentage range you can aim for. NSCA-certified personal trainer, chiropractor, and owner of Movement Upgraded Ryan Hosler said that for men, if you're around six to 17 percent body fat, your abs should be noticeably visible. For women, the range is 14 to 24 percent body fat. Definition will start to show on the higher end (17 percent for men, 24 percent for women), and your abs will become more sculpted as that number lowers.
How Can I Lower My Body Fat Percentage?
Unfortunately, you can't spot-reduce fat from your belly. You need to reduce your overall body fat percentage, which will diminish fat from all over, including your stomach. You can do this by doing two main things: One, eating a healthy diet including eating in a moderate calorie deficit, limiting the processed carbs and sugar. And two, working out with a combination of weight training and high-intensity interval training.
A Warning About Low Body Fat Percentage
Oftentimes, we can focus heavily on achieving a specific body fat percentage. This can be important for those managing weight-related chronic disease like heart disease and diabetes. But registered dietitian Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CDN, owner of To the Pointe Nutrition, who specializes in sports nutrition, warns that it's critical to make sure that whatever body fat percentage you're aiming for, you make sure it still allows for your body's basal metabolism to function properly.
"Oftentimes, I will see athletes strive for extremely low body fat percentage, which cause hormonal disruptions that impair long-term health and performance," she explained. "The body's fat stores act as a direct moderator for several hormones, including bone building and appetite regulators. Without enough body fat, we risk a future of brittle bones and chronic hunger."
Forget Body Fat Percentage!
"Having abs that are visible is not actually the best indicator of health or fitness," added NSCA-certified trainer Brittany Van Schravendijk, head coach at Living.fit. The level of leanness required to have abs show can be unhealthy for women in particular, which may cause disruptions in their hormonal balance and menstrual cycle if they are below 20 percent body fat.
While there's nothing wrong with wanting a flat stomach or visible abdominal muscles, it shouldn't come at the expense of your health. "Instead of focusing on how they look, I'd like to see people focus on how strong they feel and what they can do," ACSM-certified personal trainer Kekua Kobashigawa said.