How to Diet to Get Visible Abs

You want abs & you already know that nutrition is an important part to getting them, but where should you start? Check out this visible abs diet guide.

Remember that episode of Oprah where she gave everyone cars and yelled, “You get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car”?

Today’s article is kind of like that. Except you don’t have to pay taxes on a car.

Basically this article is “You get abs, and you get abs, and you get abs”.

Now I know what you are thinking, “OMG… another one of those ‘X hacks to get abs’ articles. This is so old”.

Well good thing for you I hate stale subjects, cliché writing, and nonsense.

This is a different take.

I am going to cut through all the garbage and tell you straight up what you need to focus on.

No glitz. No glam. No BS list of foods you shouldn’t eat.

Just the straight truth.

1. Decide Your Path: Build Abs or Reveal Abs

I’ve spent a solid decade coaching people and one of the biggest things I have to walk through with clients is really establishing where they are at.

Most people are under the assumption that they can just diet down and reveal their abs. The real story is that most people don’t even have that much muscle there to reveal.

So before you go into any fine detail or planning you need to take a real hard look at your current situation and decide whether you need to build abs or reveal abs. For most of us, if you haven’t been training hard for a long time, you are probably better off building abs before you try and reveal them. I mean…. if you have almost no ab muscles you can reveal… well… nothing.

Shouild You Build Your Abs or Reveal Them?

This is a really hard thing to give a hard, objective metric on. There isn’t really a lean mass number or fat free mass index that tells you whether you have adequate abdominal muscle to try and reveal it.

An honest self-assessment based on images, body comp tests, or hiring a highly qualified coach for an objective assessment can pay huge dividends.

In most cases it is a combination of build and then reveal… in some cases it's reveal and then build… and in very few cases is it just reveal.

So before you go onto the rest of this article go get that assessment done and then come back.

2. The Building Path to Visible Abs

If you decide that you need to build abs there are a few diet principles you need to adhere to if you want to build a solid set of abs.

These include a caloric surplus, adequate protein, and for the love of god, eat some carbs.

2a. How Many Calories Should You Eat to Build Abs?

If you want to maximize your training to grow a meaningful amount of muscle, the first place to stop is making sure you are in a calorie surplus. Even a small one, 5-10%, over an extended period is sufficient to help you maximize your gains.

Related: 6 Pack Science - A Guide to Help You Get a 6 Pack

There are several ways to figure out your caloric needs for building your abs but this is the simplest:

  1. Use this super handy BMR calculator to serve as your starting point.
  2. Track your body weight for 2-3 weeks.
  3. Determine if weight is staying the same or increasing slightly.
  4. If stable, add in more food.
  5. If slowly gaining you are in a good spot.

2b. How Much Protein Should You Eat to Build Abs?

If you want to grow muscle it's essential that you meet your protein needs. Most evidence suggests that ~0.7 to 1.0 grams per pound per day is a solid window in which protein is being used pretty optimally for your gains. 

How much should you consume at a time? Great question!

Well, in a recent review paper two well-known researchers (Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon) concluded “Based on the current evidence, we conclude that to maximize anabolism one should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/day.

Using the upper daily intake of 2.2 g/kg/day reported in the literature spread out over the same four meals would necessitate a maximum of 0.55 g/kg/meal”.1

Now to translate that to us weirdos that use imperial measures, that means that maximizing anabolism at each meal likely occurs around 0.2 grams per pound per meal at the ~0.7 grams per pound per day recommendation and ~0.25 grams per pound per meal at the ~1.0 grams per pound per day recommendation.

M&S Athlete Cooking Protein

2c. Are Carbs Needed to Build Abs?

One of the biggest things we know about building muscle is that volume and intensity of training matter, with volume playing the dominant role in determining muscle growth.

In training, carbohydrates are one of the most effective ergogenic aids there is and they can help you train longer and harder, allowing you to accumulate more volume and build more muscle2.

Now, can you get by not training with carbs before or during? Absolutely. For most of us, training sessions under an hour don’t need carbohydrates. but they don’t hurt. And if you are training longer than 60 minutes you will likely benefit from them.

3.  The Revealing Path to Visible Abs

If you are a stacked brick house and have a 12 pack under the surface just waiting to be revealed then we get to take a little bit different path…

But it is eerily similar to the building path, just with a little more nuance.

3a. How Many Calories Should You Eat to Reveal Your Abs?

Science is all about proving other people wrong… no seriously. If you prove everyone wrong about something you usually win a Nobel Prize for it (which, by the way, comes with a million dollar prize). 

Now try as we might, us scientists have yet been unable to prove the second law of thermodynamics wrong. We just simply can’t figure out a way for people to lose substantial amounts of body fat without being in a calorie deficit over a long period of time.

I mean…. God have we tried. 70 years, thousands of studies in humans, hundreds of thousands of studies in mice who have been genetically manipulated like crazy… it all tells us the same thing.

You want to strip some fat off? At some point you have to be in a calorie deficit. That is just the way the universe works.

Now to figure out our calorie deficit we need to follow the same strategy as the building path:

  1. Use this super handy BMR calculator to serve as your starting point.
  2. Track your body weight for 2-3 weeks.
  3. Determine if weight is staying the same or increasing/decreasing.
  4. If stable, subtract more food.
  5. If slowly losing you are in a good spot.

This sounds simple, kind of boring, and not super sexy… it is. It is also the most important thing you need to do.

Healthy Food Choices When Building Abs

3b. How Long Do You Have to Diet to See Your Abs?

Losing a meaningful amount of body fat and going from zero abs to 6 abs takes an extended period of time.

I hate to break it to you but every single 3 weeks to 6 pack abs title on a fitness magazine lied to you. It takes more than 3 weeks and you have to stay consistent.

Let’s use some math to illustrate the point. Let’s make some assumptions.

  • 1 pound of fat is 3500 calories (it isn’t quite that but for this illustration its close enough.
  • You weigh 200 pounds and you are 20% body fat, meaning you carry 44 pounds of fat.
  • You need to get to 10% to really see your abs.

This means you need to lose 20 pounds of body fat to get to where you want to go (10% of 200 is 20).

That means to lose 20 pounds of body fat you would need have a net deficit of 70,000 calories.

At a 500 calorie a day deficit (basically skipping a decent lunch), you would need to accumulate that same deficit for 140 days, which is 20 weeks, or 5 months.

So consistency REALLY matters.

3c. How Much Protein Should You Eat While Trying to Reveal Abs?

When you diet you lose mass, and not all of it is fat mass. You also lose the hard earned muscle you crushed yourself in the gym for.

When dieting, higher protein intakes helps spare muscle mass3. So, ensuring you hit those targets mentioned earlier (0.7 to 1.0 grams per pound of of body weight per day) is super key.

Related: 6 Ab Workouts for a Visible & Brick Like 6-Pack

Also, protein appears to provide more satiety than fat or carbohydrates and helps people manage hunger much better than lower protein diets while dieting4. Managing hunger can help you stay adherent and more consistent over the long haul.

3d. Should You Cut Out Carbs to Reveal Your Abs?

I realize low-carb diets are all the rage. That is cool. It’s trending… kinda like Miley Cyrus did in 200… I can’t even remember when that happened.

Low-carbohydrate diets work for fat loss. Plain and simple. It is VERY clear that they are effective. You can use low carb diets to help control calories and create a sustainable caloric deficit.

Athlete Considering a Low Carb Approach for Abs

But here is the cold hard truth. There isn’t anything magical for fat loss about restricting carbohydrates. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

No, the insulin fairy isn't the key to fat loss.

No, going ketogenic won’t accelerate fat loss.

So you can use a low-carb strategy or you can use a moderate carbohydrate strategy to get to your abs. Both options work.

The Bottom Line About Dieting for Abs

Most people jump straight to revealing abs before they have ever built them. If you are newer to training make sure you have abs to reveal before you go that route.

Calorie balance is the first place to start when we talk about building abs or revealing them. Then you need to lock your protein down, 0.7 to 1.0 grams per pound per day is a solid range to work in.

When it comes to carbs, if you are building muscle low-carb is not an effective strategy. If you are trying to shred down, low-carb can be an effective tool, but it’s not any more effective than a moderate carb approach at an equal deficit.