By Tom Venuto Iron Magazine
Hopefully by now, most of my readers realize by now 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.
My 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 experience.
BURN THE FAT, FEED THE MUSCLE BODY FAT RATING SCALE:
Competition Shape (“ripped”): 8-12%
Very Lean (excellent): < 15%
Lean (good): 16-20%
Satisfactory (fair): 21-25%
Improvement needed (poor): 26-30%
Major improvement needed (Very poor): 31-40%+
Competition Shape ("ripped"): 3-6%
Very Lean (excellent): < 9%
Lean (good): 10-14%
Satisfactory (fair): 15-19%
Improvement needed (poor): 20-25%
Major improvement needed (Very poor): 26-30%+
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 physique athletes.
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.
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 – by all standards 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 category.”
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 “assistance” involved).
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 competing).
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 “ideal” number.
In my 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 own home.
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. Usually it’s because they have a body fat of 26% or 27% or thereabouts, they are perfectly healthy and they are not significantly overweight. They argue 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 you – and ALL my readers to consider setting higher standards and loftier goals. Not everyone wants or needs to be “ripped.” 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 are your goal, 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.