What is the Ideal Body Fat to See Your Abs?
By Tom Venuto, Fat Loss Expert,
Author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle
Hopefully by now, most of my readers realize that abdominal exercises don’t burn fat off your stomach, they only develop the muscles underneath the fat.
Nutrition experts say, "Abs are made in the kitchen, not just in the gym" and there is a lot of truth to that.
No matter how much you work out, if you don’t eat right and achieve a calorie deficit, your abs will remain covered in a layer of adipose.
When the realization hits you that you must reduce your body fat percentage to see your abs, one of the biggest questions that pops into your mind is...
"How low do I have to get my body fat percentage to see my abs?"
It's a tough question and the answer may be different for men than women.
Here's what I'd recommend:
First, get familiar with some benchmarks for body fat levels.
Burn The Fat System has a body fat rating
scale, which includes averages and my suggested optimal body
fat percentages. This is my own chart, which I created with
a combination of research literature and my own personal
BURN THE FAT, FEED THE MUSCLE BODY FAT RATING SCALE:
Body Fat Levels and Aging
Just a quick note: You're not destined
to get fatter as you get older, but in the general
population (not fitness and bodybuilding folks), the average
older person has more body fat.
What I did to accommodate this was to
include a body fat range instead of one number, so younger
people can use the low end of the range and older people can
use the higher number.
Also, just so the average reader can
keep things in perspective, single digit body fat for women
and low single digits for men is far beyond lean - it's
RIPPED - and that's usually solely the domain of competitive
Competition body fat levels were not
meant to be maintained all year round. It's not realistic
and it may not be healthy, particularly for women (when a female's body fat gets too low and she tries to maintain it too low, it can affect her monthly cycle or have other health implications).
Men's Versus Women's Body Fat Levels
For most women, 12% body fat or
thereabouts is ripped, and for many, that's contest ready
(figure or fitness competition).
Just for comparison, I've done over
7,000 body fat tests during my career, and the lowest I have
ever measured on a female was 8.9% (4-site skinfold method).
She was a national-level figure competitor and she was
shredded - full six pack of abs... "onion skin!"
However, I do know some women who get
down to 11-13% body fat for competition - extremely lean,
complete with six pack abs - but oddly, they still had a few
stubborn fat spots - usually the hips and lower body.
What about guys? Well, I know a guy who
looks absolutely chiseled in his abs at 11% body fat, but
other guys don't look really cut in the abs until they get
down to 6-8% body fat. Bodybuilders usually aren’t ready for
competition until they get below 6%.
That's the trouble with trying to pin
down one specific body fat number as THE body fat level for
seeing 6-pack abs (or being ripped and contest-ready):
Everyone distributes their body fat differently and two
people may look different at the same percentage.
The average guy or gal should probably
aim for the "lean" category as a realistic year round goal,
or if you're really ambitious and dedicated, the "very lean
You'll probably have to hit the "very
lean" category for six pack abs. However, the bottom line is
that there's no "perfect" body fat percentage where you're
assured of seeing your abs.
Besides, body fat is one of those
numbers that gets fudged and exaggerated all the time. I
hear reports of women with body fat between 4% and 8% and I
usually dismiss it as error in measurement (or there's some
What Body Fat Testing Can And Can't Do For You
Body fat testing, especially with
skinfolds, is not an exact science. All body fat tests are
estimations and there is always room for human error.
The low numbers are nice for bragging
rights, but the judges don't measure your body fat on stage.
What counts is how you look and whether you're happy with
that (or whether the judges are happy with it, if you're
You can use my chart to help you set
some initial goals, but for the most part, I recommend using
body fat testing as a way of charting your progress over
time to see if you're improving rather than pursuing some
Burn The fat, Feed The Muscle program, you
can learn more about how to measure your body fat -
professionally or even by yourself in the privacy of your
Are my standards too high?
One final note: there are always a few people who take exception to my body fat rating scale. More often it's females than males. More often older than younger. And more often non athletes than athletes. For example, a female might have a body fat of 26% or 27% or thereabouts, she is perfectly healthy and she is not significantly overweight. She argues that a body fat of 26% or so should not be rated as "poor" and that the standards on my chart are too high.
Having been influenced by the bodybuilding and physique world my entire life, I do have high standards, and my chart is admittedly skewed slightly toward an athletic population. However, for a young girl, 26% body fat and for a 40 or 50-something woman, 30% body fat, does in fact, leave plenty of room for improvement which is exactly what the chart says.
I'd like to encourage my readers to consider setting higher standards and loftier goals. Not everyone wants to or needs to be "ripped" (as might be necessary for physique competition). But in my opinion, many people set goals too low and settle for what they think they can get, not what they really want. So the real question is not "what is the real ideal," but "what do YOU really want?"
With that said, please use my chart only as a guideline and not as gospel. Ultimately, it's up to you to set your own goals and standards. If 6-pack abs or a fitness model body are your goals I think this info should give you a better idea of what it will take. But whatever your goals - just average/healthy, lean, ripped, or even contest prep - I'm confident I can help you if you've been struggling to get a leaner look.
Burn The Fat, Feed The
Muscle explains why body mass index and
height and weight charts are virtually worthless, and shows
you how to track your body composition over time and "tweak"
your nutrition and training according to your weekly
Train hard and expect success,
Tom Venuto, author, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle
PS. There's a story behind that photo, just above. This is the contest (NPC Natural Eastern Classic) where I hit the lowest body fat I've ever been measured at - 3.4%. I was 34 then I think. Im now 43. The last two times I competed I hit 5.0% and 4.5% respectively. Is it harder to get ripped when you get older? Maybe, or maybe I just didn't work as hard. We'll find out for sure if I compete again. By the way, This was the overall posedown. I won the middleweights and that guy next to me - Panaxce Pierre, the Light-Heavyweight, won the overall. Don't know what his body fat was, but he was ripped to shreds. Being that Panaxce just won the overall Team Universe championship - biggest natural show in the world, I don't feel any shame in only winning my class and not the overall.... but reminiscing on this sure makes me want to compete again!
About Fat Loss Coach, Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, independent nutrition researcher, freelance writer and author of the #1 best-selling e-book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tomís articles have been published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in IRONMAN, Australian IRONMAN, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Menís Fitness, Menís Exercise as well as on dozens of radio shows including Martha Stewart healthy living (Sirius), ESPN-1250 and WCBS. To get more information about Tom's e-book about natural fat loss, visit the home page at: www.BurnTheFat.com
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