Are 6-Pack Abs Unhealthy?

9 min readDec 12, 2020

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Six-pack abs are the holy grail of leanness — male or female. We see pictures of “shredded” athletes and wonder if we’ll ever achieve that level of fitness. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), you’ll need to lower your body fat to about 14 to 20 percent for women and 6 to 13 percent for men to achieve an “athletic body fat” range. For comparison, average body fat levels are considered 25–31 percent (women) and 18–24 percent (men). fat is essential for maintaining good health. Experts believe fat has two main purposes. One is to store excess calories for later use when we’re hungry and need energy. The other is to release hormones that control metabolism.

There are five types of fat; brown, visceral, white, subcutaneous, and belly. Subcutaneous fat lies directly underneath the skin and is typically what keeps your ab muscles (no matter how well developed) from revealing themselves to the world.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “abs are made in the kitchen,” you’ll understand no amount of sit-ups or crunches will get you to a six-pack level of athletic prowess. Mostly, abs come from eating less, leading to a host of problems few people ever discuss publicly.

When Having a Six-Pack is Unhealthy

ACE reports men will need to achieve around 10 percent body fat and women 15 percent for abs to show, and this doesn’t mean fitness-model level definition. Considering 2 to 5 percent for men and 10 to 13 percent for women is essential for bodily tissues, like bone marrow, the spinal cord, and various organs, getting low enough to maintain extreme definition is very hard to do.

It’s also rough on the body. To achieve such a low body fat percentage you’ll have to follow a strict diet and exercise regimen, often foregoing much of a social life, as eating out and drinking alcohol will get in the way. Some people may win the genetic lottery and get by without being as strict, but those individuals are few and far between.

Athletes are often at greater risk than the general population for mental health issues. Extreme dieting and over-exercising are two of the biggest factors. You may see Insta-influencers showing off how great they look, but their bloodwork would likely show clinically low sex and thyroid hormone levels and high levels of stress hormones. states,

Lower fat levels in the body can have adverse effects on your body including:

Reduced bladder control

Irregular bowel function

Hormone imbalance

Weaker immune system

Muscle aches and pains

Inadequate cushioning around joints and organs, which increases the risk of injury

Increased fatigue, tiredness and mood swings

For women, the consequences can be more severe. Many lose their period, a condition referred to as athletic amenorrhea. And a certain amount of body fat is needed to maintain a healthy reproductive system. Fat is the primary energy source for fetal development.

Sam Leahey, director of sports science at Precision Sport Science, told Men’s Health,

These [abs] are not markers of health and wellness. Mortality issues aren’t correlated with how many abs you can see in the mirror or the level of skin fold at the abs.

Sure, you may gain the admiration of your followers, but if you’re not careful, you may find yourself too tired and moody to enjoy it. If your goal is health, other markers can mean more for longevity like VO2 max, lean body mass, and leg strength.

The Pursuit of Abs Isn’t All Bad

If you are motivated and properly informed, going after a chiseled physique can be a healthy goal.

Noelle Tarr, a personal trainer and former triathlete, points out,

A lot of people who do sports are dedicating a lot of time to that, and that brings them joy. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing six-pack abs — if that makes you happy.

My friend and personal trainer, Cymron Bancil, notes that once you achieve the physique you want, it’s time to push calories up and get as much food through the system as possible. Having well-defined abs may be a goal for certain times of the year or for fitness competitions, but taking time to push calories higher and feed your training will allow your body to thrive.

I advocate periods of eating enough to grow muscle (a surplus of calories) with periods of focused fat loss (a deficit of calories) throughout the year. If you’re constantly focused on eating less, you never allow your body to gain muscle.

Gaining lean body mass will go farther in promoting long-term health than having a shredded physique. Cycling periods of restriction with more freedom also allow you to enjoy the social aspects of life, which is good for your mental health.

Bottom Line

A lucky few will find they can stay very lean, remain healthy, feel good, and enjoy training while also having Instagram-worthy abs. Most will need to get to a higher level of body fat to reap the same benefits while training at a high level. At my leanest, I can maintain around 17–18 percent body fat. When I’m less strict, I’m typically around 20–22 percent, but it isn’t crazy hard to get lower. I also haven’t tried to get to 15 percent, as I’ve found it’s not worth it to me.

There’s a reason we admire people who can show off their six-pack abs. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it shows a dedication and work ethic rare in our overweight society. However, it can be beneficial to know there’s a dark side to training and eating yourself to extreme leanness. Like most things in life, balance is key.