How to get a six pack: Start with diet, not exercise

A doctor weighs in on why they're so hard to get.

Caroline Roberts Digital Editorial Intern
Caroline Roberts writes articles and notifications for CNET. She studies English at Cal Poly, and loves philosophy, Karl the Fog and a strong cup of black coffee.
Caroline Roberts
5 min read
six pack

We all want six pack abs, but how realistic are they?

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Six pack abs are the holy grail for many people's fitness goals, but getting them is not an easy feat (and it's not a healthy pursuit for many people, either).  Youtube videos with titles like "How to get a six pack in one week" make people believe having visible abs is just a matter of doing 100 crunches a day. Hate to burst your bubble, but achieving a chiseled midsection requires much more than that.

Whether or not you have those coveted abs has less to do with exercise and more with genetics and body fat percentage. Genetics are completely out of our hands, and body fat is a little harder to control than you may think.

Still determined to try for six pack abs, or want to learn why your exercise-filled attempts have never been successful? I spoke to Dr. John Morton, the head of Bariatric and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Yale Medicine, and together we'll tell you everything you need to know, including how to work towards your goal safely.

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What does body fat percentage mean?


Body fat is partly determined by what you eat, but there's other factors going into the number that are out of your control.

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It may sound fairly self-explanatory, but your body fat percentage just measures how much of your body mass is fat. And don't look at fat like it's a bad word -- body fat percentage includes essential fat you need to survive.

Body fat percentage is easy to get confused with body mass index, or BMI, but the two are quite different. BMI isn't the best measurement of health, since some people can have a "healthy" reading but actually be in danger for obesity-related illnesses because they have too little lean mass.

There's a bunch of different ways you can measure your body fat percentage, and for the best readings you'll want to get it done at a doctor's or dietician's office. They'll have machines like an underwater weighing station or the ability to do a DEXA scan, which are far more accurate than anything you can do at home.

However, if you don't have the resources to make the trip to a healthcare provider, you can get a fairly good estimate at home. The American Council of Exercise has a calculator where you can plug in some skinfold measurements for a rough idea of what your body fat percentage is.

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What body fat percentage do I need for a six pack?

No matter how strong your ab muscles are, they're not going to show through unless you have a low enough body fat. That specific body fat number though, is individual.

Morton says that you'll typically need to be below 15% body fat for a six pack, though he stresses that it's different for everyone. Some women on Reddit report that they can start to see a six pack at around 20% body fat, while others are at 18% and don't see anything.

The reason why the number varies for everyone is because we all have different body fat distribution -- some carry fat around their midsection, while others have an "hourglass" shape, where you carry fat in your chest and hips. Body fat distribution is determined in part by environmental factors, like alcohol intake and cigarette use, but it also has a strong genetic component

So, you may be at 18% body fat but carry my weight on your hips, but I may be at 18% and carry it around my stomach -- in that case, you'll have a lot easier time getting a six pack.

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Morton also points to groups of people that have a harder time getting to a low body fat -- namely, Hispanics, African Americans and women.

Depending on your individual situation, the body fat percentage needed for a six pack may not even be healthy. Low body fat can disrupt menstruation and fertility, and can damage your heart, immune system or cause a ton of other serious conditions. Women will typically not want to go below 14% body fat, and men 8%, but for some people that number may be higher -- if you're experiencing health problems connected to your weight, contact your healthcare provider.

Say you get to a low enough body fat percentage in a healthy manner -- I hate to break it to you, but you still might not have a six pack. Your abs are actually one big muscle, called the rectus abdominis, and the six pack look is created by the intersections of three lateral tendons and one horizontal one. While most people have this tendon pattern, some have two or four lateral tendons -- in that case, you'll have a four or eight pack.

What workout should I do for a six pack?

I hope I haven't rained on your parade too much -- if you're still motivated to try, there are certainly steps you can take to maximize your chances of getting that coveted six pack.

The first thing you'll probably want to do is lose weight. But be careful -- weight loss doesn't automatically mean fat loss. Morton says to emphasize your protein intake instead of carbs and fat, and keep up your exercise and weightlifting during your weight loss journey. This way, you can ensure that you're primarily losing fat and not muscle or water.


When losing weight, be sure to keep up the exercise.

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"Another helpful way to get a six pack is to avoid the other six pack," Morton says, referring to alcohol. There's a reason why it's called a beer belly -- alcohol intake usually puts weight around your midsection, so you'll definitely want to avoid overconsumption if you want a six pack.

Finally, don't neglect the core workout. Morton tells me that even if you aren't striving for a six pack, core workouts are super important for preventing neck and back issues, as well as improving your posture.

Certified Physical Therapist Jeff Cavaliere, known on YouTube as Athlean X, has a great workout routine video with some simple compound movements to develop your abdominal strength. Whatever workout you end up doing, you'll want to ensure you're incorporating whole body movements so that you don't develop muscle imbalances.

Just remember to make sure you're getting protein, avoiding too much alcohol and working out your abs -- if the genetic gods are kind to you, your hard work will get you to where you need to be.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.