Are six packs built in the kitchen or the gym? The truth is it's both. Getting shredded requires a combination of building muscle and losing fat, so depending where you are in your fitness journey, this can take a while.
There is no quick fix for getting defined abs; you cannot spot reduce fat or out-train a crappy diet. And there are no magic supplements or specific diets that change this. Achieving a shredded look requires some serious hard work, time, and dedication. However, getting there doesn't have to be complicated.
Learn exactly how to fine tune your nutrition for maximum results with the free RD-written guide to meal prep for fat loss. Complete with custom macro recommendations for cutting, food lists, and menu planning tools.
How Long Does it Take to Get Abs?
Many start a diet with the hopes of looking a certain way but don't realize that weight loss alone just means you will be a smaller version of yourself. If you really want definition, you've got to build the muscle underneath first. So depending on how much lean mass you have, how often you are working out, and the type of training you are doing, how long it will take you to get ab definition will vary. Genetics can also play a role.
For many people, getting shredded requires them to build muscle mass or "bulking" before focusing on fat loss. And that's really it in a nutshell; there are only two requirements for getting a six-pack:
- Build abdominal muscles
- Lose body fat
And you can't just focus on losing belly fat alone; getting shredded requires losing total body fat - to see more abdominal definition usually requires a lower body fat percentage - around 15% or less for men and 20% or less for women.
This overall process can take many months, if not years. The reality is, many people cannot build a beach body in six weeks, but you can still make drastic improvements in your fitness and health. And with enough dedication and patience, you will eventually get there. Having this understanding going into it is key. It allows you to be realistic with your expectations and will help ensure you don't get discouraged or give up when results don't come overnight.
How to Lose Body Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time
The holy grail would be to short-cut the process of bulking and cutting back to back and just do both at the same time. This is somewhat possible but requires some interesting physics.
It is possible to reconfigure your body composition over time, but your weight will change. And the process may take a little longer than if you went through the traditional cycling of massing and cutting. According to research, it may also be more easily achieved in untrained individuals with a higher starting body fat percentage - since they are prone to lose fat more efficiently (1).
One study suggests that with high protein intake and a well-planned strength training program, you may be able to increase lean mass while simultaneously losing body fat (2). Researchers found that as long as protein intakes remain high (up to three times the RDA), and you are participating in regular strength training, you may not only be able to preserve lean mass in a calorie deficit but can help increase it slightly. Although this approach is likely not efficient long-term, it is difficult to achieve, and the amount of muscle gained may not be as significant as what you would experience on a traditional bulking diet.
Do Fat Burning Supplements Work?
I'm going to give you the number one secret to optimal fat loss; it is cutting calories. That's it. If you don't get that part right, it's pretty damn near impossible to lose body fat.
But companies and "experts" are still going to talk to you about raising your metabolic rate and speeding up the fat burning process, through supplements and special diets, but these are false promises.
Based on what we know about the human body and existing research, you cannot hack your metabolism; it is largely determined by your body weight (mainly lean mass) and basal metabolic rate (BMR). And even though some supplements like caffeine, might cause minor increases in BMR, the amount is typically so small it doesn't outweigh the need for calorie control (3).
Fat burning supplements are often dangerous, ineffective, and expensive. That's because a majority of them work one of few ways - increasing your body temperature or your heart rate, in the hopes of helping you burn more calories, or improving fat oxidation - although calorie control is still needed to lose body fat overall (4,5). Research has yet to conclude that any supplements promote more fat loss than diet alone. Bottom line, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Your Complete Guide to Getting Ripped
Now that we've gotten common misconceptions out of the way, we can dive into what does work in helping you get more shredded. Here are ten steps, backed by science, that will assist you in getting those abs to show and the chiseled physique you're dreaming of.
Step 1: Strength Train to Build Muscle
Probably the most important thing you can do for a more toned body is to increase your lean mass. Burning fat is crucial, but the more muscle you have underneath, the more ripped you'll look. Not to mention, muscle is your primary fat burner - driving your BMR and daily calorie needs more than anything else (6).
Having more muscle mass means your calorie needs are higher - because you weigh more. And muscle takes up less space than fat, helping you look lean even at a higher body weight. So increasing your lean mass means you can eat more calories in a deficit and still lose body fat, compared to just calorie restriction for weight loss alone at a lower lean mass.
Moreover, your abs are a muscle, and just as with any other muscle in your body, increasing the size of your abs and strengthening them can promote better definition in your stomach. But don't just focus on core exercises, increasing your lean mass overall can help give you better results and make the process easier. Plus, many compound lifting movements and heavy lifting, in general, incorporates your abs. If you haven't been lifting weights or including any strength training in addition to your ab workouts, you may want to start.
For how often you should be training, weight training three times a week has both been associated with more muscle growth than less frequent training (7,8,9,10). And the amount you can lift may not matter according to studies, heavy weights for low reps and high-frequency light weight lifting are both associated with positive muscle growth (11). In other words, just strength training at any weight multiple times a week is going to support lean mass.
Best Core Building Exercises:
- Leg Lifts
- Oblique Twists
There are endless variations of these simple exercises that include hanging, weighted, decline, etc. Including a variation of these basic functional movements at least 3 days a week and increasing the difficulty can help build your ab muscles over time (12,13,14).
If you are looking to bulk first, stick to a moderately high calorie diet and weight train for a few months before moving on to a calorie deficit in step 2. If going right to a cut, keep weight training and working your core consistently.
Step 2: Cut Calories to Lose Fat
Whether you are bulking first and then cutting, or working to change your body composition all at once, controlling your calorie intake is essential.
The way calories work is that they provide 100% of the energy your body needs each day. You get calories from foods and beverages and burn calories through daily movements and bodily functions. If you are eating more calories than you need, they get stored as reserve energy, also known as fat. And if you eat less than you need, you must tap into these reserves, and essentially burn body fat for fuel. Thus, cutting calories consistently is the most effective way to lose body fat.
It's also important to not cut your calories too low. While this can help speed up the process temporarily, you may end up losing precious lean mass. Research suggests that this may be more important for trained individuals and those with less fat to lose, compared to those with less lean mass and more body fat to begin with (15,16,17).
You can also figure out your calorie needs by getting a body fat test done - this will give you a more personalized and accurate estimation of your calories needs, as well as your approximate lean mass that you can use in step 3 to determine your protein needs. A body fat test will also be your best indicator of how your progress is going overall, compared to the scale that is not measuring body fat alone.
Overall, you should aim to cut calories for about six weeks to three months at a time and then take a break if needed - this will keep you from getting diet fatigue and make the process much more sustainable.
Stick to your calorie goals for at least three weeks and reassess your progress. If you aren't feeling or looking leaner, consider cutting a little lower. And if you are starving and having trouble sticking to your diet, consider increasing your calories a little.
Step 3: Eat Enough Protein
Whether you are looking to gain muscle or lose weight, increased protein intake is thought to be beneficial. This macro is key in supplying the necessary nutrients to build, repair and maintain your lean tissue - all of which is needed when strength training (21,22). Protein is also protective of your muscle in a calorie deficit, helping you lose more body fat and less lean mass (23).
Aim to get at least 30% of your calories from protein, or one gram of protein per pound of lean body mass - slightly more if in a calorie deficit. Or to roughly estimate, eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Step 4: Eat a Moderate Amount of Healthy Fats
Eating fat will not make you fat unless you are eating too many calories. However, limited research implies that some people may be more susceptible to changes in body composition from fat intake than others (26,27). After all, fat is more likely to be stored as body fat in a calorie surplus compared to other macros.
Fat is also calorically dense, meaning it can be easy to go overboard and add more calories than you realize. So, unless you are following a specific, high-fat diet like keto, controlling your overall fat intake could be important in helping you maintain calorie control and promote more fat loss (28).
The type of fat you eat also matters, with research suggesting healthier, unsaturated fats are less likely to be stored as fat compared to saturated fats (29). Including some healthy fats is also thought to be appetizing and satisfying, since fat provides appealing flavor and mouthfeel to foods, making it easier to stick to your diet (30). Moreover, healthy fats offer important health benefits that should not be ignored.
Aim to keep fat at 20 to 30% of your total calories and opt for more healthy, unsaturated fats to keep you feeling satisfied and obtain potential health benefits.
Step 5: Try Carb Cycling
Contrary to popular opinion, carbs alone do not cause weight gain. And if you are hitting the gym hard, you're workouts could benefit from adequate carb intake. Instead of going low carb, consider cycling your carbs.
Carb cycling is the process of timing your carbohydrate and calorie intake around when your body needs it most - when you are working out, on high output days, and when you are generally more active. In theory, this would allow you to utilize carbohydrates more efficiently, supporting your workouts and energy needs, and reducing the chance of fat storage from higher carb intake.
Carb cycling may be protective of lean muscle when carbs stores are replenished strategically on higher carb days and have positive effects on appetite control at later times (31,32,33). In addition, it is thought to promote more fat utilization when carbs are limited, helping you burn more body fat in a calorie deficit (34,35).
Additional benefits include positive effects on overall calorie control without having to be ultra-restrictive. Since your body does not regulate calories in 24-hour increments, it is more of a rolling accumulation over time, cutting carbs and subsequently calories on certain days of the week, can help you decrease your weekly calorie average. And timing lower calories and carbs on days you are less active, means you are less likely to negatively impact your workouts, and more likely to control appetite and protect lean mass on higher activity days.
Consider swinging your macros from one day to the next, allocating more carbs on heavy lifting and high intensity training days, and lower carbs and calories on light days or rest days.
Another approach to nutrient timing is by utilizing more carbs in pre and post workout meals and stacking more carbs during the time of day you are more active.
Step 6: Use Portion Control
Even if you are meal prepping and tracking all of your intake, it can still be a challenge to get accurate portion control if you are not weighing or measuring your food.
Every calorie counts. It can be easy to estimate your portions incorrectly, especially underestimating, when you aren’t weighing everything. Eyeballing or measuring cups work great for a while, but eventually, those extra calories add up.
For example, just pouring a small amount of oil in a pan to cook your food may not seem like a big deal, but you could be adding a hundred calories or so to your meal without realizing it.
Consider purchasing a food scale and learning what weights align with your portion and calorie goals to be as accurate as possible when prepping and tracking your food.
Here are some examples:
- 3 ounces of brown rice = 96 calories, 2g protein, 19.5g carbs, 0.7g fat
- 4 ounces of brown rice = 127 calories, 2.6g protein, 26g carbs, 1g fat
- 4 ounces of sweet potato = 97 calories, 1.7g protein, 22g carbs, 0g fat
- 6 ounces of sweet potato = 146 calories, 4g protein, 39g carbs, 0g fat
- 4 ounces of salmon = 161 calories, 22g protein, 7g fat
- 4.5 ounces of salmon = 181 calories, 25g protein, 8g fat
- 4 ounces of chicken = 136 calories, 25g protein, 2g fat
- 6 ounces of chicken = 170 calories, 38g protein, 3g fat
Weighing your food portions will ensure you are tracking as accurately as possible and will ultimately help you stay on track better.
You can also set yourself up for more success by systematizing your diet. Eat at roughly the same times each day and make your diet more routine in general. This will help cut down on any added variables that may throw you off, including temptations and being stuck hungry somewhere without healthy food on hand. It also does wonders for your portion control.
Step 7: Add High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
If your morning jog or the elliptical isn't getting you results, it may be time to up your intensity. Increasing the intensity of your cardio or conditioning workouts can not only help you burn more calories in the gym but may have additional fat loss benefits.
Some research suggests that high-intensity interval training or HIIT workouts may promote fat loss and improve stamina faster than endurance training alone (38,39,40,41). This level of output is thought to create a significant shift in your metabolic output that continues a high calorie burn for after your done training (42). And HIIT training may offer unique benefits in burning more belly fat in specific (43).
Add two high intensity training days to your workout routine to support fat loss and help you lean out.
Step 8: Get Some Sleep
Rest is a crucial component to both muscle building and fat loss. When you are using your muscles, you are tearing them down - which supports strengthening and growth, but the actual building of muscle happens during times of rest, like when you are sleeping.
Sleep is also essential for recovery in general, helping us keep our energy levels high and mood stable, both of which can effect our desire to workout and stick to a healthy diet if not managed properly.
Aim to get at least seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep each night.
Step 9: Control Stress
When high amounts of stress are negatively impacting your life, it can lead to increased fat storage, mainly abdominal fat (48,49,50). And while calorie control will help counteract some of this, stress can do a number on our willpower and cravings making sticking to your diet that much harder.
Learning to combat daily stress or at least channel it in a more positive way could be key to helping you lose more body fat and get better results.
Some common tips for stress reduction include:
- Get more sleep
- Try yoga or meditation
- Go for a walk outside or take breaks when you can
- Go on a vacation
- Talk to someone
- Start a journal
- Improve your time management or organization
Step 10: Stay Consistent
All of the steps above are meaningless unless you practice them consistently. And being consistent simply means repeating the same behaviors on a regular basis.
The goal is not perfection, nor is trying to stick to a diet perfectly realistic for most people. Instead focus on getting it right a majority of the time. Consistency coupled with patience and enough time will ultimately lead you to your desired results.
In order to stay consistent, track your calories daily and keep on eye on your weekly averages, stick to a reoccurring eating and exercise schedule, and don't forget to measure your progress with body fat testing and progress photos - these will be much more valuable than the scale alone. Progress photos are also a great way to keep you motivated to stick to your plan.
Six Pack Abs Diet
Balancing everything it takes to get into the best shape of your life can feel overwhelming. Especially if you struggle with stress, time, family and other outside factors that can hinder your motivation or block your progress. There aren't a lot of solutions out there to simplify the hard work that goes into building muscle and training to get shredded, but there are meal plan solutions that can help you get the diet part right.
If diet is where you continue to struggle, grab this free meal prep toolkit for fat loss to dial in your nutrition and start losing more body fat. Pairs perfectly with Trifecta a la carte proteins, carbs and veggies to help you customize your diet to your specific macros and make meal prepping as easy as possible.