In this article I answer the question: Are we all born with a 6-pack of abs just waiting to happen?
Or is it that all those fitness models (Photoshop & perfect lighting aside) just got the luck of the draw when Someone upstairs was handing out body parts?
Compare them to the shirtless bodies of 10 average Americans next time you’re at the pool or the beach.
Where are those people’s abs?
It got me wondering all sorts of things, so I did the research necessary to (sort of) scientifically answer the question, “Does everyone have abs?”
Does everyone have abs?
Everyone has abs whether we can see them or not.
We’re all born with the same four abdominal muscle groups, but due to our genetics there are big differences in the shape, length, & thickness of these muscles amongst humans.
Genetics also has a big influence on body fat distribution, which can hide your abs.
Lifestyle choices such as diet & exercise are the biggest influence on whether your ab muscles are visible or not.
The most common reason you can’t see them is because they’re covered by fat.
Up ahead we’ll explore the two main influencers on what our abs look like, genetics & lifestyle choices.
And since now we know they’re there even if they’re not visible, we’ll look at a couple of science-backed ways to get them to show themselves.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
How our genetics affect our abs
This section discusses the ways our genes have a strong influence on how well our abs present themselves to the world.
Body fat is used for many good things
Our bodies need to store some fat, since it is used for a lot of beneficial things (1).
Some of those benefits of our fat include:
- storing energy, vitamins, & other nutrients;
- keeping us warm;
- protecting our organs;
- helping move protein to the right places;
- & many more chemical & metabolic processes.
Most of our fat is stored right under our skin
Harvard Medical points out that 90% of our fat is stored right below our skin (2).
This means that this fat layer lies between our muscles and our skin’s surface.
And in the next section we’ll see how this normal body function can interfere with having abs on display.
Genetics & body fat distribution
Medical science research has determined that there is a strong genetic influence on a person’s body fat distribution. (3)
Put another way: where your body stores its fat is somewhat predetermined by your genes.
And for some people, their body likes to store its excess fat in their midsection where their ab muscles are.
This can make it easier for the abs to “disappear”, as even a thin layer of fat covering the ab muscles fills in the spaces between them.
This reduces that defined look, the one where each muscle stands out on its own.
6-pack, 4-pack, or 8-pack abs
Another area where our genetics play a role in how our abs look is the rectus abdominis muscle.
If you’re unfamiliar with its biological name, this is the muscle that also gets called the six-pack, if it’s visible. (4)
We’re not all born with a 6-pack
The rectus abdominis muscle is split into horizontal pairs that run vertically from your ribcage down to your pubic bone.
The top 3 pairs are the ones that have the six-pack nickname.
However, that’s only IF you’re born with 3 pairs.
You see, we’re not all born with a six-pack, though the majority of people are (5).
Some of us are born with rectus abdominis muscles that are split into 4 pairs; this would turn into an 8-pack.
This fourth rectus abdominal section – if there is one – is located just below the belly button.
And some people have only 2 pairs, and thus can only end up with a 4-pack.
Rare cases exist where someone even has a 10-pack. (6)
In any case, however many you were born with is how many you have to work with.
Of course, the only way to know how many sections of muscle are in your “pack” is to build up their muscle size while losing fat & lowering your body fat percentage at the same time.
As you’ll read in a bit, building ab muscle & reducing overall body fat are the two mandatory requirements for being able to have a whatever-pack that is visible.
Abs can be symmetrical, staggered, or crooked
Genetics is also responsible for the wide variety of possible shapes that the rectus abdominal muscles can have.
In other words, we humans do not all have the same perfectly aligned rectus abdominis muscle sections. (7)
The paired sections of muscle in the 6-pack area can have different sizes between them.
Sometimes the “stacks” aren’t even, because one side has a longer section than the one its paired with.
And finally, sometimes the sections aren’t exactly horizontal, but crooked.
Check out all these different-looking ab muscles
Below are a few examples that illustrate genetic variations.
Compare the top 3 to each other since they have similar muscularity, and do the same with the bottom three.
Note the different shapes, sizes, & alignments of their respective rectus abdominis “six-pack” areas.
Ab muscles come in different sizes
The last genetic influence to mention regarding how someone’s abs look is the muscle itself, in terms of its size & muscle density.
As Healthline reports:
“Your genetics also determine their symmetry, length, and size.” (7)
You’ll see this influence on the individual sections of your abdominis rectus after you’ve been working on them and building their muscle mass.
It also could be added that sports science research has found that how well our muscles (including our abs) respond to our workouts also has a degree of genetic predetermination to it. (8)
Bottom line: What we inherited from our parents has an influence on what kind of abs we have structurally, and what kind of abs we could potentially develop.
However, smart choices with our diet & our training program make a huge difference on how good our abs look – regardless of what kind we were born with.
Our lifestyle affects our abs’ appearance
As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, the term lifestyle here specifically refers to the diet & fitness program choices we make.
In fact, diet and the right training routine can overcome any less-than-perfect genetics.
In other words, you may not have been born with the potential for a perfectly symmetrical six-pack with ideal ab muscle thickness, but you can still use diet & your workouts to develop very good-looking abs.
Let’s talk about that for a bit here.
How diet influences how abs look
“Abs are built in the kitchen” is a decades-old bodybuilding cliché that’s pretty much right on point.
But I think it’s only partly true, since I also put a decent amount of ab influence on our training choices too.
But what that phrase is getting at is: if your diet is crappy, forget about seeing your abs.
And that is definitely an accurate statement.
If you’re eating the wrong type of food &/or the wrong amount of food, you may end up covering up your ab muscles with a layer of fat or two.
I’ll get into it in more detail in a bit, but for now just know that a low body fat percentage is one of the requirements needed in order for your abs to be noticeable.
How workout choices affect how abs look
Abs are muscles and so in order to make them grow, they need to be worked with some form of resistance training.
The training routine you use should be of sufficient intensity to stimulate growth.
Assuming your diet’s on track, doing a ton of cardio can lower your body fat percentage for sure.
That can take care of reducing the fat layer between your ab muscles and the world, but if they’re underdeveloped they’re not going to (literally) stand out.
How do you get abs?
There are only two things you need to do in order to develop visible abs, and they’re both easy concepts to understand and not real hard to do either.
I think the challenging part of a six-pack quest is supplying the dedication required to stick with this 2-part plan.
To get good-looking abs, you need to:
- lower your body fat percentage;
- build muscle, including your ab muscles.
1. Lower your body fat percentage
If you want to lower your body fat percentage safely & quickly, I’ve written an article on how you can do that simply by following proven medical science-backed recommendations. It’s posted here on heydayDo.
In order to have abs that are noticeable, your body fat percentage will need to get down to the proper range.
Most experts agree that the defined look range usually starts somewhere below 15% for guys, and a little higher for women, 15-19% (9).
Women need more body fat than men for normal functions like fertility & menstruation.
Again, there’s no exact percentage number that works for everybody due to the genetic differences I discussed earlier in the article.
But generally speaking, body fat at 10-12% for a man (assuming some muscle has been built) is a very good-looking 6-pack.
Women’s abs can look great in that 15-19% range, and still be healthy*.
*see my explanation of this in the FAQ section at the end of the article
Diet & exercise together = weight loss
Multiple research studies have shown that losing weight is more effective when combining exercise & diet, rather than doing either one of them alone. (10)
As far as the right/best weight loss diet strategy goes, I covered that topic in step-by-step detail in my article How To Safely Lose Weight Fast, which is posted here on heydayDo.
Weight loss alone isn’t a good idea
If you go on a weight loss program to lower your body fat and you don’t also have a strength training program, you’ll lose muscle too (11).
That’s not what you want when you’re trying to build muscle to get your abs to show.
So your best bet is to include some form of resistance training to go along with any weight loss dietary changes.
Plus, a bonus of adding muscle to your body is that as you do, you will boost your metabolism which will help you reduce your body fat even quicker. (12)
2. Build muscle, including your ab muscles
The other half of the six-pack plan is to build those ab muscles.
Eliminating the layer(s) of fat on top of your ab muscles will allow them to be seen.
But if you don’t work on growing them, there won’t be anything to look at – you’ll just have a nice flat stomach, which is always nice too.
But it’s not defined, so if that’s what you’re going for, you’ll want to train accordingly.
Build your whole body
You could get a six-pack dropping your body fat percentage to the right level and keeping a solid ab workout program going.
Think about this though: If the rest of your body isn’t toned, it might look out of balance if you have ripped, muscular abs while the rest of your muscles are flabby & skinny.
May I humbly suggest that you consider developing muscle tone for your whole body so it complements your awesome abs.
If you need a little strength training guidance, I have a few different full body workouts here on heydayDo you can check out.
I put them in the following articles:
FAQs about having abs
Here are answers to a few of the commonly asked questions regarding abdominal muscles.
Is having a six-pack unhealthy?
Achieving a six-pack can cause an unhealthy state in some people if extreme dietary restrictions are used.
But there’s no issue going for defined abs if a sensible diet & workout program are followed.
Health becomes an issue only when someone has a body fat percentage that is too low for their body to maintain all of the necessary metabolic functions it uses fat for.
This is especially true in the case of women.
For example, the muscular, “ripped” six-pack look on an athletic or bodybuilding woman usually puts her body fat percentage several points below 15%.
And for women, achieving that level of definition comes with a cost.
Research studies link extremely low body fat in women with a host of potential physical & mental health problems. (13)
Two of the main health risks are infertility & loss of menstruation (14).
Other symptoms include:
- elevated blood pressure;
- slower heart rate recovery;
- excessive muscle fatigue;
- decreased immunity;
- gastrointestinal disturbances, loss of appetite.
- decreased self-confidence;
- mood changes, lethargy;
- lack of concentration;
- anxiety, restlessness, and aggression;
- sleep disturbance.
list courtesy of: Southern California Reproductive Center
How long does it take to get abs?
The length of time it takes for someone to change their body so that their abs are visible varies widely.
This is because each person:
- is starting with a different body fat percentage;
- is working out differently;
- is following a different diet;
- has a different level of commitment;
- has different genetics.
Also, there’s a range of body fat percentages amongst people where you would be able to see their 6-pack, 4-pack or 8-pack, whatever they were born with.
There’s no exact body fat percentage number that applies to everyone because of those genetic differences I mentioned.
So as you can see, there are a lot of variables that determine how long it takes to “get abs”.
But as an example, let’s look at some known statistics and reverse engineer our way to an approximate timeframe.
Research studies have shown that over ⅔ of American adults are overweight, and that the average body fat percentage of women is 40%, and of men in the U.S. it’s 28%. (16)
According to physicians, for someone who’s dieting & exercising to lose weight the rate of body fat loss will be in the range of 1-3% per month, depending on several different factors. (17)
In general, a six-pack for men will show up once their body fat is in the 10-15% range.
This assumes that the person has built some muscle in their abs.
For women, defined abs are visible in the 15-17% range, roughly speaking.
Thus for the average Americans mentioned above & assuming those guidelines, it would take anywhere between 6-18 months for men and 8-24+ months for women to get visible, defined abs.
The specific amount of time it will take ultimately depends on those 5 bullet points I listed at the beginning of my reply.
If you’re new to ab workouts, you might be interested in reading Best Ab Exercises For Beginners At Home, an article I wrote here on heydayDo that comes with instructional videos.
I hope that my article on our abs is useful to you, and that the guide on building a six-pack is helpful too.
I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.