Can You See Sculpted Abs If You Have a Low Body Fat Percentage?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

When imagining a “good physique,” the image in your head may have defined, visible abdominal muscles and an overall well-proportioned body.

Many fitness goals focus on losing weight to prevent obesity-related health conditions. The assumption is that once enough fat has been burned, six-pack abs become visible.

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However, some individuals struggle to gain and maintain weight and still don’t see well-defined six-pack abs.

If this describes you, you probably have an ectomorph body type and need to focus on building muscle and possibly burning small amounts of fat to see visible abs.

This article explains the three main body types and reviews nutritional and exercise programs to help those who are struggling to gain muscle mass develop visible, impressive abdominal muscles.

The three main body types

According to the theory of somatotyping, there are three overarching body types, and most people fall largely into one of them (2).

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They include the following:

  • ectomorphic
  • mesomorphic
  • endomorphic
Ectomorphs

In general, those with an ectomorph body type tend to be thinner and have less overall body mass, including lower overall body fat and muscle.

If you’re an ectomorph, you may seem to be able to “eat anything you want” without gaining much weight.

You may also be frustrated when your mesomorphic peers seem to look good with less effort while you grind away hours on the treadmill or do hundreds of crunches in hopes of chiseling your abdominal muscles.

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For the purposes of this article, gaining muscle as an ectomorph is the primary focus.

However, the principles that will turn you into a muscle-bound, six-pack sporting ectomorph apply to all body types.

Mesomorphs

Mesomorphs tend to be evenly proportioned and have an athletic build.

When comparing untrained individuals, mesomorphic individuals also tend to be naturally stronger than ectomorphs (3).

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If you’re naturally athletic and have always had some muscle without lifting weights, you’re probably a mesomorph.

Endomorphs

Endomorphic individuals typically have higher percentages of body fat but also naturally more muscle mass.

Additionally, in many cases, endomorphic body proportions are well suited to maximal strength sports like powerlifting.

Endomorphs typically gain strength and muscle the easiest of the three body types, but they have a harder time losing body fat.

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Genetics appear to be the primary factor in determining your somatotype.

The good news is that despite your somatotype, you can gain muscle, reduce body fat, and develop visible abdominal muscles via resistance training and proper nutrition.

Regardless of your genetic predisposition, your body will respond to resistance training over time by increasing lean muscle tissue, provided you are supplying it with the necessary nutrients.

Additionally, with adequate protein intake and a moderate, sustained caloric deficit, you can burn body fat and reveal your hard-earned muscle gains, regardless of your body type.

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While the maximum amount of muscle you can gain is genetically determined, everyone has the ability to add muscle and improve their physique through resistance training methods such as barbell lifts, dumbbells, and weight training.

Your predisposition toward muscle and fat gains is genetically determined. Your body type — ectomorphic, mesomorphic, or endomorphic — determines your relative ease of muscle gain and fat loss.

How to achieve visible abs

The only proven and reliable method of gaining visible muscles anywhere on your body is a combination of gaining muscle and burning body fat.

If you have an ectomorphic body type, you may need to focus more on building muscle, especially in the beginning of your training.

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However, in the long run, to get well-defined abdominal muscles, you’ll likely also need to reduce your body fat percentage by burning fat.

The combined process of building muscle and burning fat is known as body recomposition.

The traditional approach to these processes is focusing on each respective goal in separate training and nutritional programs.

However, for novice trainees following resistance training and evidence-based nutrition plans, gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is common.

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Furthermore, some research suggests that even certain advanced athletes can gain muscle and burn fat at the same time (4).

Gaining muscle

The most important factor in obtaining well-developed, visible abs is increasing your overall muscle mass, which will also increase the size and definition of your abdominal muscles.

Unfortunately, ab exercises alone are insufficient for any physique improvements in the abdominal region (9).

Still, gaining muscle is a relatively straightforward process, particularly for novice fitness trainees.

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Your body builds muscle in response to the demands of resistance training.

For optimal muscle gain, you have to perform strength and weight-training exercises using an amount of weight that only allows you to perform 8 to 12 repetitions before failure (5).

Furthermore, the exercises must involve the muscles you’re trying to grow. For example, bench pressing will improve your pectoral mass, triceps, and shoulders, but not your glutes and quads.

Performing compound exercises with free weights, such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead press, has many benefits, particularly in regards to overall muscle growth, core strength, and abdominal development.

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Nevertheless, from a pure muscle-building standpoint, machine-weight exercises, such as the lat pulldown and chest press machine, lead to muscle gains, provided you use adequate amounts of weight (6).

Optimizing your diet

Alongside weight training, try to follow a diet that promotes optimal muscle building. General recommendations include eating 300 surplus calories per day and 0.8–1.5 grams of protein per pound (1.7–2.7 grams per kg) of body weight.

A high protein intake is vital for overall muscle growth, and you’ll need to eat far more protein than the typical minimum daily recommendations espoused by most government nutrition organizations (7).

Alongside the lifting and nutritional requirements for muscle building, you need adequate recovery by getting enough sleep, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, and including rest days for maximal muscle growth.

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Muscle fiber development from dietary protein occurs while you rest, not during workouts themselves, so you must plan accordingly.

Burning fat

Burning body fat is both simple and difficult.

From a biological standpoint, your body relies on fat stores as an extra energy source during periods when your calorie intake is lower than your daily energy needs.

As such, the basics of burning fat simply require you to eat fewer calories than you burn.

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That said, for some people, this is an incredibly difficult endeavor for various physical, psychological, and social reasons.

Body recomposition — or burning fat and gaining muscle simultaneously — is the only proven way to change the visible musculature you see on your body.

How your body type affects body recomposition

Fortunately for ectomorphs, the challenge often lies in not eating enough calories, or not eating enough of the right nutrients to sustain lean muscle mass while minimizing body fat.

During periods of calorie restriction, your body will search for amino acids, which are the building block of all proteins, to sustain itself.

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Without adequate protein intake, your body may break down your muscle fibers as a source of amino acids for metabolic function.

Given that burning fat requires a calorie deficit and your goal is increasing the overall amount of muscle on your frame, a high protein diet is just as important — if not more important — for building muscle.

Typical fat loss guidelines call for a calorie deficit of about 500 calories per day, in conjunction with a protein intake of about 1–1.5 grams per pound (2.4– 2.7 grams per kg) of body weight (8).

Within these guidelines, there are many different dietary strategies for burning fat, and some work better than others for certain people.

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If you’re an ectomorph, your biggest challenge will likely be in the muscle gaining phase, while burning fat may come easier.

That said, understanding the overall process of body recomposition is vital to properly approaching your physique goals.

Visible abdominal muscles are a function of your overall body fat percentage. Diet and training programs can improve your body composition by helping you gain muscle and burn fat, leading to visible abdominals.

Ectomorph’s plan for visible abs

The following is a sample 3-month workout program for visible abs and an overall improved physique. Perform each workout once per week on non-consecutive days.

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The first 2 months are focused on muscle building, and the third month is focused on burning fat.

The only difference in the fat-burning month is a reduction in overall calorie intake paired with a slightly increased protein intake.

During the first and second months, aim to eat a 300-calorie surplus and get at least 0.9 grams of protein per pound (2 grams per kg) of body weight.

During the third month, eat at a 500-calorie deficit and aim for at least 1.2 grams of protein per pound (2.4 grams per kg) of body weight.

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You can use an online calculator to estimate your daily calorie needs.

The exercises below promote overall muscle growth and will improve your abdominal muscles as well.

In all cases, you should use a weight that causes failure near the goal number of reps and increase the weight as you get stronger.

Perform 1 or 2 warm-up sets before starting your working sets (warm-up sets are not part of the sets prescribed in the program).

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Working out three times per week training major muscle groups and following an optimal diet will build muscle and burn fat. This will improve the appearance and definition of your abdominal muscles.

The bottom line

Visible abdominal muscles are primarily determined by your overall body fat percentage. The more overall muscle you have on your frame, the larger, more defined, and more impressive your abdominal muscles will appear.

You can improve your body fat percentage via a combination of increasing your muscle mass and decreasing your body fat.

Those with an ectomorph body type will likely need to place more emphasis on the muscle-building component.

Nutrition for muscle gain and fat loss is key to achieving results. Focus on a moderate calorie surplus or deficit, respectively, and ensure your protein intake is high. These principles apply to both men and women.

The best training methods for improving abdominals are full-body workout programs that increase the overall muscle mass on your frame. Ab exercises alone will not improve your abdominal physique.

With muscle gains and decreased body fat, you’ll have a greater chance of seeing the results you want.


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