Whittling your body fat percentage down to near-single digits doesn't happen by chance: it's a direct result of diligent training and precise nutrition. But losing enough body fat – and retaining enough muscle – for your six-pack to show can take months (or years) to achieve.
At this point, we presume you know that you can't 'target' or spot-reduce fat. Nor can you out-train a revolving roster of takeaways, post-work pints and sugary treats, no matter how vigorous your gym sessions are. Achieving single-digit body fat is seen as fitness' holy grail for a reason.
Progress can be slow, especially as you edge closer to your goal. "Dropping body fat is a tough ask," says Louis Rennocks, cofounder of the IRL and online boxing studio Boxx and weight loss coach. "It's about being consistent and disciplined. It's not going to happen overnight, but set yourself small goals and you will get there.
"I aim to lose 1 to 2lbs per week over the period of 10-12 weeks, and I increase my activity levels by walking more and increasing the intensity of my gym sessions," he continues. "You'll need to cut out junk food and takeaways for a while, stay away from sugars and alcohol. It's a marathon not a sprint."
To get a six-pack, you have to commit. Hard. Willing to make some drastic lifestyle changes in pursuit of killer abs? Below, you'll find six examples of a typical male physique, which should help you identify how close you are to that coveted six-pack – or alternatively, how far you still have to go.
We've also included some guidance on how to measure and lower your body fat percentage – in case you're sick of making that 'the only six-pack I've got is in the fridge' joke – and reveal whether body mass index (BMI) should factor into your calculations.
What Body Fat Percentage Do I Need to See Six-pack Abs?
What 30% Body Fat Looks Like
For men aged 20 to 39, anything above 25 per cent body fat is classed as obese. For men 40-years old and above, it's 28 per cent. Generally considered to be excessive for men and women, 30 per cent body fat makes puts you in the 'at risk stage', which can lead to heart disease and cardiovascular issues. We're sorry to say, you'll see no signs of six-pack abs at 30 per cent body fat.
What 25% Body Fat Looks Like
Again, this is the milestone to identifying whether or not you currently have an unhealthy physique. Not as dangerous as being above 30 per cent, but men with around 25 per cent body fat are still carrying significant excess weight. However, they may be carrying an acceptable amount of muscle mass, too.
Generally, a man with 25 per cent body fat will still look overweight, as the muscle beneath will be covered in subcutaneous fat.
What 20% Body Fat Looks Like
This is when things start to look a little more promising. In this bracket, men are likely to look a little 'skinny fat' — a result of a poor muscle-to-body-fat ratio — and a little softer.
But there's more to life than a six-pack, and a body fat percentage of up to 20 per cent is considered healthy and will help stave off diseases that are associated with higher levels of body fat.
What 15% Body Fat Looks Like
At around 15 per cent body fat, men will tend to start seeing muscular shape and definition, while noticing changes in body composition and fat stores. Your arms and shoulders are more vascular too. You're now on-track for a six-pack.
What 10% Body Fat Looks Like
As a general rule of thumb, 10 per cent body fat is the safest place to be. You're lean enough to show muscle — including your six-pack — and you can see your veins from your shoulders to your hands, but you’re not so shredded that you’re becoming translucent. You need fat, after all, and having at least some body fat is absolutely vital for your body to operate normally.
Go below 10 per cent body fat and you enter the realm of bodybuilders, Love Island stars and elite-level athletes…
What 8% Body Fat (Or Under) Looks Like
…which brings you to single-digit body fat, our next and final stop.
Obtaining the coveted single-digit body fat percentage is usually reserved for the likes of race-car drivers gunning for optimum weight, fitness models getting ready for a shoot — who, most likely, have also dehydrated and carb-depleted for the last week — or Hollywood actors for specific scenes. What you must remember is that whilst single-digit is an aesthetically pleasing look for many, for the majority it's not practical to live by. In fact, even bodybuilders will often dip out of single-digit body fat only to shred hard in the weeks leading up to competition.
Muscle loss, organ shrinking, nervous system damage, dehydration and fragile bone structure are all very real risks of low body fat. If this is a goal of yours, you have to approach with caution and supervision.
How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage
If you're hoping to discover the best way to calculate your body fat percentage, bad news: there isn't one. Still, by tracking an incorrect body fat reading, you'll know whether you're going up or down. So, that being said, here are five ways of calculating your body fat percentage.
Body Fat Calipers — Calipers measure the thickness of your subcutaneous fat. Measurements can be taken from 3 or 7 points on the body.
Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis — A safe electrical signal is sent through your body, the system then calculates your fat percentage based on how your body responds.
Body Circumference Measurements — Institutions like the US Army calculate body fat percentage by using a calculation that requires recruits' circumference measurements, age and height.
Hydrostatic Weighing — Also known as underwater weighing, this method estimates your body fat based on your buoyancy in water.
The Bod Pod — Again, this method estimates your body composition based on its density, but this time using air instead of water.
Issues with Measuring Body Fat Percentage
Each method of measuring your body fat percentage has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Calipers are super accessible, but even with a skilled professional taking the measurements, they're liable to human error. Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis is quick and easy, but the data doesn't show where your fat is stored. The Bod Pod is highly accurate and detailed, but it'll take a sizeable bite out of your wallet.
In terms of reliability, the greatest inaccuracies are typically found in home measuring methods. For example, Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis is pretty spot-on when it uses widely-published maths formulas, a study published in BMJ Open found – but the machine-generated calculations found in home body fat scales vastly under- or over-estimate a person's data. If you've got a set at home, try not to get strung up on the baseline digits – instead, focus on whether they rise or fall over time.
How to Lower Your Body Fat Percentage
Lowering your body fat percentage requires tactical management of both your diet and your exercise regime. However, in a nutshell, if you're in a calorie deficit – burning more calories than you consume – your body fat percentage will fall. Start by using an online TDEE calculator to work out your daily calorie expenditure and reduce that by around 100-200kcals to begin crafting losses.
To crank things up a notch, try adding some high intensity sessions into your routine. Give the following workouts a crack and your six-pack should be on show in no time:
How to Calculate Your BMI
You might be wondering how BMI fits into the picture. A BMI calculator pits your weight against your height to ascertain whether you're a "healthy" weight, though some online calculators factor in additional information such as age, gender and activity level.
At its simplest, though, the formula divides your weight (in kilograms) by your height (in metres), and the results are categorised as follows:
Underweight (BMI lower than 18.5)
Healthy weight (BMI between 18.5 and 24.9)
Overweight (BMI between 25 and 29.9)
Obese (BMI 30 or above)
Issues with Measuring Your BMI
There are some serious limitations in attempting to quantify your gym progress with a BMI calculator. This one-size-fits-all approach fails to take into account some pretty crucial data about your body composition – your ratio of muscle and fat, particularly visceral fat (the dangerous kind that wraps around your organs), as well as your lifestyle.
By BMI's calculations, the strongest, fittest bloke on the rugby pitch could be overweight. A professional bodybuilder? Obese. Similarly, someone with a lower weight and high proportion of fat to muscle (think: dad-bod) could be considered "healthy", even if they rarely exercise and smoke a packet of cigarettes a day.
Why Calculations Aren't Everything
Speak to an Expert
As body composition metrics go, tracking your body fat percentage can certainly be useful for honing a washboard stomach, but it doesn't provide a reliable snapshot of your wellbeing. Much like the BMI calculation, your body fat percentage doesn't reflect how well you sleep, how stressed you are, or how nourishing your diet is – all crucial factors that contribute towards your progress in the gym, and your general physical and mental health outside of it. Think about it this way: it's no use carving out a six-pack if you're too burned out to maintain it.
If you have any concerns about your BMI or body fat percentage, speak with your doctor, a certified personal trainer or registered dietitian. They will be able to provide sound, safe advice to help you hit your goals in a responsible manner that fits your needs and lifestyle.
Struggling to find personal trainer or dietitian? As with most things, word of mouth and reputation go a long way. Failing that, speak to your local gym as they should have contacts that are certified. It's also very important to look at the qualifications, as
There are several ways to find a certified personal trainer or registered dietitian in your area. First, call around to the local gyms and ask about the credentials of their trainers. When speaking with a trainer, ask to see their their qualifications. They should include certifications such as:
NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
ACE (American Council on Exercise)
NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine
ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine)
Bonus if they have a college degree in exercise science, kinesiology, or sports medicine. You can also locate trainers through the websites of the certifying bodies.
For example, ACE has a section on their website that allows you to search for trainers in your area.
If you want to work with a dietitian, the most important credential to look for after their name is RD, which stands for registered dietitian. Many RDs will also have several other credentials that indicate further training and expertise.
Similar to ACE, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a tool that allows you to search for a registered dietitian nutritionist.
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