There is not a ‘set number’ for the body fat percentage you need to get abs. Everyone is different, so the percentage for you to start showing abs will depend on a number of different factors.
1. The Individual’s Genetics
We are all different. We are all predisposed to hold body fat in different places. I tend to hold body fat around my chest, especially the lower chest.
I notice when I get really lean that my chest gets a lot bigger because it pops out and it gets more definition.
The lower back is also somewhere I hold body fat. I actually don’t hold body fat much on my abs, whereas the next person might be the complete opposite.. they might hold it all on their stomach, and have no fat on their chest and shoulders.
So everyone is very different, and I’d say genetics is the biggest factor in determining what % body fat you will start to show abs.
“You may have noticed at the gym or at the beach that people who are overweight don’t all look the same, nor do they all carry excess fat in the same places. Just as there are different body types, there are also different ways in which humans store fat.”
‘Why People Store Fat in Different Parts of Their Body’, 2013
2. Muscle and Size
Muscle and size will play a big part too.
If you’ve got a lot of muscle mass – whether it’s around the shoulder, chest or abs, or wherever – it’s gonna be pushing against your skin, so you’re gonna look a lot leaner.
Essentially, if your abdominal muscles are bigger, they will start to show at higher body fat percentages.
There’s plenty of guides on how to build your abs, but here’s a short extract from a study which really goes into the minute detail of abdominal hypertrophy.
“Strive for quality of movement with each contraction. Also, visualize your abdominal muscles contracting tighter with each exercise, stressing the importance of the contraction. Although it’s great to do these exercises with accompanying music, try not to let the music dictate the tempo of the exercise. Slow and controlled movement is always best.”
Len Kravitz, Ph.D
3. An Estimate Percentage: 10-15%
As already established, everyone is different. But if I was going to give a range, I’d say you’re gonna start seeing some abs at around 10-15% body fat.
At around 10% you should have a good six pack, and below 10% you’re starting to get shredded. The photo below will give you a rough idea of where you’re at in terms of body fat percentage.
A common misconception is that you can target certain areas to burn fat. But this is false, you cannot control where you lose fat. Therefore, in order to make sure you get abs, your overall body fat percentage needs to decrease.
Exercises performed around a certain area does not mean fat in that area will be targeted. For example, doing crunches or sit-ups does not burn fat around the stomach. This was proved in a study by Vispute et al, which concluded “abdominal exercise training was effective to increase abdominal strength but was not effective to decrease various measures of abdominal fat”.
Kravitz, Ph.D., L. (1998). Abdominal Training. [online] Unm.edu. Available at: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/abdominal.html [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
Richardson, K. (2013). Why People Store Fat In Different Parts Of The Body. [online] Naturally Intense Diet & Fitness Blog. Available at: https://naturallyintense.net/blog/weight-loss/why-people-store-fat-in-different-parts-of-the-body/ [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
Vispute SS, e. (2011). The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21804427 [Accessed 25 Jan. 2020].