How many calories you need to get a six pack is a simple question to answer, though not quite as simple as some people claim. Our goal is obviously to get your body fat percentage down to less than 15, ideally less than 10, to allow your six pack to look its best. The common advice is that if you’re a man you should have 2,500 calories a day, and if you’re a woman you should have 2000 calories a day, so to reduce your body fat you just need to have less.
Not only is this wrong, but basing how many calories you eat on this could actually cause your body fat to increase.
So How Many Calories Should You Be Having?
This depends on how many calories you use in a day, which we’ll call your Totally Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which is calculated using two things. The first is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is just the minimum amount of calories your body needs each day, assuming you did no activity whatsoever. It’s calculated using your height, weight, age, and sex but don’t worry if the sum looks complicated because I’m going to talk you through it:
Women: BMR = 655 + ( 4.35 x weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 x height in inches ) – ( 4.7 x age in years )
Men: BMR = 66 + ( 6.23 x weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 x height in inches ) – ( 6.8 x age in year )
Falling below your BMR can cause the body to go into what is known as Starvation Mode. This has several effects, one of which is that your metabolism will slow which and in turn lower your BMR so you require less calories. Plus your body will become a lot better at storing fat and you’ll have less energy.
The second thing we need to know to calculate how many calories you require is how active you are. Now unless you do indeed sleep all day or sit around doing very little, which I doubt, your TDEE is going to be higher than your BMR because this figure is based on how active your lifestyle is. The more active you are, the higher your TDEE, the more calories you need.
Because you now know your BMR, just multiply it by how active you are on average, according to the following list. This is how many calories you need to maintain your current weight.
Inactive (little or no exercise & desk job) = BMR x 1.2
Lightly Active (light exercise 1-3 days a week) = BMR x 1.375
Moderately Active (moderate exercise 3-5 days a week) = BMR x 1.55
Very Active (hard exercise 3-5 days a week) = BMR x 1.725
Extremely Active (intense daily workouts & physical job) = BMR x 1.9
To show you what I mean I’ll use the example of a man who is 25 years old, 6 feet tall, and weighs 220 pounds which is just under 15 stone. The calculation to find his BMR would look like this:
66 for being a man
6.23 x weight in pounds = 1,370.6
12.7 x height in inches = 914.4
6.8 x age = 170
So 2181 is the answer to how many calories are needed in this example, but only to equal his BMR. Because he doesn’t just lay in bed all day and has a moderately active lifestyle, in other words he has a job that doesn’t involve too much sitting down and goes to the gym 3 times a week, his BMR needs multiplying by 1.55 to work out his TDEE.
2181 x 1.55 = 3380.55
So the man in this example needs 3380.55 calories a day, but if he has this amount he WILL NOT get a six pack. Why not? Because as I said earlier, a body fat percentage of 15 or even 10 is necessary to see even the best set of abs, and at his current weight the man in the example needs to lower his. To get there safely, effectively and sustainably he will need to lower his calories, but still be above his BMR.
The simplest way to do this is just to have 500 to 1,000 less than his TDEE, the slightly more complicated way is to have 10% – 20% less. This is useful if your BMR figure and your TDEE figure aren’t that far apart.
In this example, 2380 is how many calories the man should have to lower his body fat percentage. But like everyone else, he needs to re-calculate his BMR and his TDEE every 4 – 6 weeks until he reaches the weight he intends to stay at, or whenever his regular activity level changes.
An Alternative To Reducing Calories
If you find it hard to eat less calories because you enjoy high-calorie foods, or just enjoy eating a lot, you might have already realised there is a way to lower your body fat without necessarily having to eat less. If you exercise more, or just increase your activity level in general, maybe by walking to work and talking the stairs instead of the elevator, your BMR and TDEE will also increase.
In other words, how many calories you need to get a six pack basically depends on your size and how active you are.