Going vegan is a healthy choice that can lead to a positive body transformation—but that doesn’t mean you’ll get ripped just by going vegan. For me, a healthy vegan diet only took me so far.
So how do you actually get six-pack abs on a vegan diet? The key to six-pack abs for anyone is losing fat, so your abs become visible. Let’s look at how to do that on a vegan diet.
Four steps to six-pack abs as a vegan:
- Start by eating a healthy vegan diet based on whole foods.
- Emphasize more low-calorie foods, especially vegetables.
- Add exercise to increase your calories burned.
- If needed, track and adjust your calorie deficit with an app.
I’m going to cover the basics of getting six-pack abs below and how those principles are applied on a vegan diet. I’ll also talk about my own personal experience of how I got a six-pack. Then I’ll cover a few related questions you might have about vegan muscle growth in general with plant-based food.
The Key to Getting Six Pack Abs as a Vegan Is Fat Loss
For almost everyone who’s trying to get more visible abs, the key is shedding the layer of fat currently hiding them.
Most of us already have enough muscle in our abs that we could at least slightly see them if our body-fat percentage was low enough.
There’s a common saying that “abs are made in the kitchen.” From my experience, I’ve found that to be true. Generally speaking, you can’t exercise enough to make up for a bad diet.
A vegan diet is good for fat loss because it can help you eat fewer calories without trying that hard. Many people lose weight naturally when they go vegan. If you cut out processed junk foods as a rule, then a vegan diet especially tends to lead to fat loss.
So for some of you, going vegan will naturally lead you to a six-pack, and you won’t necessarily have to change anything else specific about your diet or exercise habits.
But for me personally, and for many people, a vegan diet doesn’t get you all the way to a clearly visible six-pack. I’ll cover more on the details of what worked for me below.
When a Vegan Diet Alone Isn’t Enough to Get You a Six-Pack: More Tips
The following tips are just different ways to get your energy balance tipped toward fat loss. You don’t need to use them all. But add a few of these tips together, and you will likely see results over the coming weeks/months:
- Eat more vegetables, especially green vegetables. Eat a lot of them. Fill at least half of your plate with veggies at every meal. Then, even if you stuff yourself, it’s mostly just fiber and water and nutrients—all good stuff.
- Drink a lot of water. If you normally drink soda, juice, or other calorie-rich beverages, switching to mostly only drinking water can lead to weight loss. Mineral water, sparkling water, or other zero-calorie beverages can also work for fat-loss. But just plain water is the cheapest and healthiest.
- Intermittent Fasting (IF). In practice, this often just means skipping breakfast, only eating between noon and 8pm (or an even smaller window like 4pm to 8pm). Personally, IF does help me eat less per day. I get hungry in the mornings—but I just drink some sparkling water to hold me over. Some people do “alternate-day fasting” where they eat normally one day and then fast the next day. It sounds extreme, but our human ancestors supposedly fasted like this regularly.
- Switch from processed grains to whole grains. Whole-grain bread can help you get full on fewer calories than white bread. The fiber is also healthy for other reasons. The slower-digesting carbs won’t spike your blood sugar or insulin as much. Switch from white rice to brown rice. Switch from white pasta to whole-grain pasta.
- Have soup. Soups are generally low in calories, and because of their temperature, they are usually eaten slowly at the beginning of a meal. This slow, low-calorie addition to the beginning of a meal has been shown to reduce the average amount someone will choose to eat during the rest of the meal.
- Eat from a smaller bowl/plate. For me, I know I always finish whatever I put on my plate. So part of my solution for portion control is just using a smaller bowl for my meals. Then I serve myself less and don’t overeat just because the food is sitting in front of me.
- Exercise. You can’t fix a bad diet with exercise, but exercise can still add to your efforts. Strength training can help raise your resting metabolic rate to increase fat burning all throughout the day. Extended periods of cardio, even just going on a long walk, can also massively help.
Many people find that adding a 1-hour walk to their routine every morning is the best way to accelerate fat loss. Listen to audiobooks so you’re learning while getting that exercise.
And I’ve been saving the most effective strategy for last… Here it is:
The #1 Most Sure-Fire Way to Burn Fat and Get a Six Pack
I saved this for last because I know a lot of people won’t want to do it. But it’s actually the most certain to work because it’s the most scientific and the least subject to your own self-deception: Count your calories using an app like Cronometer.
It’s a cliche that people hate counting calories. But I swear, it has made all the difference for me in getting those abs.
Sure, it takes a little time and effort. And it may not be for everyone. But it does give you actual data—numbers—that you can go off of. And that’s priceless when you’re dedicated to troubleshooting a fat-loss plateau, for example.
Using an app like Cronometer, you can enter all the foods you’re eating. You can save the meals you regularly have, so you can quickly enter them again. You can estimate calories for the foods that are a little more confusing, like when you’re eating out.
Calculating Your Calorie Deficit to Lose Fat
One pound of fat is around 3,500 calories. So if you eat at a deficit of 500 calories per day, that will usually result in around one pound of fat loss per week.
That is a common, healthy speed of fat-loss to shoot for, and you may achieve it without even feeling too hungry along the way.
If keeping a 500-calorie deficit per day is too difficult, you can try for just a 250-calorie deficit. That will result in a half-pound of fat-loss per week. So it takes a bit longer, but it still works.
Smaller calorie deficits can also allow you to keep building muscle at the same time, if you’re strength training. So many people prefer a small deficit.
You can calculate the baseline of calories you burn every day using a calculator online. And then just keep your daily intake a few hundred below that.
The number you’re looking for is your “Total Daily Energy Expenditure” (TDEE). That’s how many calories you burn in a day. It differs based on a few factors, mainly body size. Here’s a TDEE calculator.
Tracking Your Progress on the Way to a 6-Pack
There’s a common saying: “What you measure, you improve.”
That’s part of why I like tracking calories—but I also track my weight and, less frequently, other measures of body-fat percentage.
If you’re weighing yourself to track your progress, you should weigh yourself every day, not just once per week. Then each week, calculate the average for that week. This is much better than weighing yourself once per week. Here’s why…
As you’ll see when you get on the scale each day, your weight actually goes up and down kinda randomly day to day.
The overall trend should be gradually down. But some days it’ll go up a pound or two because you ate a salty meal and now your body is temporarily retaining more water.
So don’t worry about the day-to-day fluctuations. Pay attention to the average for each week.
Tracking your weight is simple enough, but how do you calculate body-fat percentage and track that?
Tracking Body-Fat Percentage
There are actually some scales that automatically calculate your body-fat percentage with an electrical signal. They are convenient and nifty, but I don’t actually recommend them. I got one and found it to be unreliable.
Instead, I recommend two simple and affordable tools: Measuring tape + body-fat calipers.
These are the industry standard, each with thousands of reviews you can read on Amazon. They’re “cheap,” but they work.
It may take a little while to get confident with using these measuring tools. But there are many tutorials online. What measurements should you track?
These are 3 easy ones you can track without any assistance:
- Inches around your waist. With the tape, measure at the fattest point, so around your belly button. Don’t suck it in or push out, just be relaxed.
- Skin-fold on your abs: Use the body-fat calipers to measure how thick your skin-fold is about 1 inch to the side of your belly button, pinched side-to-side.
- The “suprailliac” skin-fold: This is a skin-fold just an inch or so above your hip bone, so on the side of your belly.
There are calculators online where you can calculate your body-fat percentage based on various caliper readings around your body. But I stopped using those after a while.
The truth is, you don’t need to know your exact body-fat percentage. All you need to know is that those 3 measurements are gradually going down. I personally just take each of them twice a month, on the 1st and the 15th.
If you want to know your body-fat percentage, I’d just use pictures as a guide. Or there’s a video I’ve embedded down below, in the section on how long it takes to get a 6-pack.
What About Exercise? Doesn’t That Matter for Abs?
Exercise is not as important as diet for six-pack abs, but it can play two valuable roles:
1. Exercise can add to your calorie deficit to speed up fat loss. If fat loss is mostly determined by calories in versus calories out, then it makes sense that it helps to add to your “calories out” by exercising.
A good long walk, jog, or bicycle ride can add 300 or more calories to your deficit. Or it can add to the amount you can eat while still maintaining the same deficit.
Strength training not only increases your “calories out” due to exercise on that particular day. Building muscle also increases your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy your body burns each day just to sustain itself.
Basically, your body needs to “feed” that new muscle it has, so some calories go toward that every day. So that’s another way that exercise can help with overall calorie burn.
2. Exercise can build your abdominal muscles so they’re more easily visible. We all have abs to some degree already—abs are needed for various daily tasks we all perform. But if you strengthen them, they can be visible even with slightly more fat covering them.
Therefore, it does make sense to add some ab exercises as you’re trying to get your six-pack. I’m not going to include tons of “how-to” information for these exercises here. They’re easy to find on YouTube.
But here are some exercises to consider doing besides your basic crunches and sit-ups:
- hanging knee raises or leg raises (my favorite, great for lower abs—requires a bar to hang from)
- mountain climbers
- bicycle crunches
- planks and side planks
- farmer’s walk
Building An Overall Vegan Ripped Physique—Not Just Six-Pack Abs
If you think about the typical physique that people want, especially men, the abs don’t complete the whole picture.
Usually, when people say they want six-pack abs, what they really want is a strong, lean physique in general. It’s that combination of strong and lean that people want.
To get your abs visible, it’s the lean part that needs to be honed. But I’ll cover some general quick principles here for building out your strength and muscle mass, as well, to make a well-rounded physique as a vegan.
- Focus on compound exercises in your strength training. The bench press, squat, deadlift, and overhead press are the four main exercises to efficiently build your strength and muscle mass. Three more are pull-ups, rows, and push-ups. Compared to “isolation exercises” like the bicep curl, which only target 1 muscle, these big compound exercises give you the most bang for your buck when exercising.
- Get enough protein. More on vegan protein sources below, but 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day is the rule of thumb I’ve used. And I’ve seen real differences when implement high-protein vegan meal plans.
- Progressive overload: Keep a workout journal so you can track your use of progressive overload. Progressive overload is the very simple idea that your muscles grow in response to increased demand. So gradually keep increasing the amount of weight, reps, or sets. Or else do the same workout in less time (shorter rest periods). Any of these will force the muscles to continue to grow.
- Rep ranges: If you use a light weight, you can maybe do 20-30 reps of an exercise, and if you use a very heavy weight, you can only do 1 rep. Without getting into all the details here, I recommend choosing weights that allow you to do between 4 and 12 reps in a set if your goal is muscle mass.
- Length of workouts: A 30- to 60-minute workout is plenty. If you spend 2 to 3 hours in the gym, you risk overtraining, which will be difficult to recover from effectively. Do an efficient workout with at least a couple compound exercises (listed above), and finish within about an hour.
If you want more advice on muscle building, follow these vegan fitness and bodybuilding athletes. They make Youtube videos, podcasts, and Instagram posts with this information tailored specific to a vegan lifestyle: Derek Simnett, Frank Medrano, Nimai Delgado.
Also, he’s not a vegan, but I honestly think Greg from Kinobody has some of the best advice when it comes to fitness for the male “movie star” look.
How to Get Enough Protein to Build Muscle as a Vegan
If you read around the internet about how much protein is required to build muscle on a vegan diet, you will see wildly different numbers suggested.
I don’t think the science is very conclusive at this point. But the most convincing guideline to me is 0.8 grams of protein per pound of your bodyweight.
For me, I know that amount of protein is definitely higher than I naturally eat on a healthy vegan diet. Usually, in order to hit that number, I need to put some extra effort into my protein consumption.
High-protein vegan foods and meals to eat for maximum muscle growth:
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Soy Curls
- Mock meats
- Beans and lentils
- Peanut butter
- Nutritional yeast
And then, of course, you can add vegan protein powder. There are a ton of great flavors and brands to try. My personal favorite so far has been Orgain’s chocolate flavor (Amazon link).
I try to only have a couple of scoops of vegan protein powder per day. That’s because it’s not balanced in a whole-food form like some of the other options listed above, so I suspect it’s not going to be as healthy overall.
But vegan protein powders can be delicious and can help you meet your protein needs for maximizing muscle synthesis.
One of the Biggest Myths for Getting a Six-Pack
A common misconception is that doing exercises like crunches and sit-ups will burn fat directly from your belly area. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Fat-loss is a total body process, and it has to do with the energy balance in your body as a whole.
When you’ve consumed more energy than you’ve burned, your body is going to store that energy for later. It will store some as glycogen, which is invisibly stored in your muscles as carbs to burn later.
But if there’s excess energy beyond that, your body will also store energy as fat. It’s a little more complicated than “calories in versus calories out,” but that is the general equation.
In order to lose fat from your belly, you just need to burn more energy than you’re eating. Preferably, do this with a healthy diet, and do it gradually, targeting gradual weight loss so you make sure to keep your muscle.
Will You Have Four-Pack, Six-Pack, or Eight-Pack Abs?
One of the things you can’t control by changing your diet or exercise is your genetics, which determines whether you have a four-, six-, or eight-pack. Some people also have a six-pack where the insertions of the muscles are not totally lined up (and other variations).
Don’t worry about these genetic variations, as you can’t do anything about them. All these ab variations look great when you get strong and lean anyway.
My Story: How I Got Six-Pack Abs as a Vegan
We’re all different, so what works to get abs will vary from person to person. But still, I’ll share what worked for me.
For me personally, eating a healthy “whole food” vegan diet keeps me at a healthy weight, around a 21 on the BMI scale and around 15% body fat.
At that level of body fat, for me personally, I can see my upper abs—but my lower abs are still covered with some fat, and I have slight “love handles” on the sides.
That ~15% body-fat level is where I tend to arrive naturally when eating a healthy vegan diet and doing occasional exercise. When I wanted to get a full six-pack, I had to put in more effort.
And I’ve heard similar things from other vegans who have lost weight: A healthy vegan diet helped them lose most of their excess fat… but their body was reluctant to burn that last layer of fat over their lower abs. They had to put in extra effort to really get ripped.
Calorie Tracking: My Sure-Fire Way to Lose Belly Fat
Fat loss can be a slow process, and it takes patience, even on a healthy vegan diet. That said, if you can see that you’re consistently running a calorie deficit by counting them with an app, you’ll be more confident as you go.
If you aren’t seeing results after a couple of weeks, you can just adjust your calorie by a specific number.
If you’re trying to lose fat without calorie tracking, you can still make incremental adjustments, but it’s a little harder to know with certainty that you’re eating fewer calories or how much weight loss you should expect from it.
I usually keep a calorie deficit of around 300 to 500 calories per day when I’m cutting, so I lose a half-pound to one pound per week.
In order to make the calorie deficit more enjoyable, I exercise on most days, whether it’s a long walk, a short run, or strength training at the gym. This allows me to eat a few hundred calories more and still be in a calorie deficit.
I also like intermittent fasting—I just don’t eat for the first ~5 hours after I wake up. I’ve just found that it makes it easier to eat a lower total number of calories over the rest of the day.
My personal source of inspiration was learning from bodybuilders who track their calories and macronutrient levels in order to tweak their own physique.
It makes sense to learn from bodybuilders about how to lose fat because they’re professional body sculptors. They treat the human body as a machine, and they’ve studied how to get a certain result by manipulating nutrient levels.
Pros and Cons of Getting Lean Enough for a Six Pack
Some people, including myself, can have particularly stubborn belly fat. So you really need to get lean before your body will burn that belly fat. Being that lean can be both good and bad.
On the one hand, getting lean is nice because it gives you more muscle definition and more vascularity. So in some ways, you look stronger even with the same amount of muscle.
But being lean enough to have visible abs can make some people look kind of gaunt in the face. Sometimes this can give a “chiseled jawline” look. But some people don’t like it.
Your family might think you’re losing an unhealthy amount of weight because your body might burn fat from your chin or face before that belly fat you’re really trying to lose.
Being lean enough for six-pack abs can also make you look scrawny if you don’t have much muscle. Having a bit more fat around your body sort of makes you look “bigger” in clothes, regardless of your muscle size.
Staying in a calorie deficit, which is needed to burn fat, also makes it a little harder/slower to build muscle at the same time.
As someone new to strength training, you can still build muscle while you’re in a calorie deficit. But it’s a bit harder for your body to prioritize new muscle growth when its energy stores are lower and it’s in a catabolic state (breaking things down, rather than building up.)
This is why many serious bodybuilders alternate between “cuts” and “bulks.” They get lean by running a caloric deficit during their “cut”—then they focus on building muscle with slightly excess calories during a “bulk.” The key is not going overboard with either the bulk or cut, but just shifting your emphasis a little to maximize effectiveness.
Is It Worth the Effort to Get Six-Pack Abs?
It’s kind of funny to put so much effort into getting great abs because most of the time, they’re covered up by your shirt. Most people won’t even know you have a six-pack.
But I know for me, it does provide significant satisfaction just to rub my own hand over my abs and feel the firmness. I’ve also gotten compliments from romantic partners and a few friends who see me shirtless.
But overall, I’m not shirtless at the beach every day or anything. And my overall muscularity is pretty average. So most people probably don’t realize anything amazing about my body through my clothes.
Getting a six-pack has mainly improved my own confidence—because I know I can transform my physical body if I put in the effort.
It’s also been good practice for my discipline, and I learned a lot about nutrition and fitness in the process. I will probably eat healthier for the rest of my life and live longer as a result.
Timeline for Getting a Six-Pack as a Vegan
Transforming your body from being overweight or scrawny to having a totally different physique is not an overnight fix.
If you do it right, you will see major progress in the first 3 months. Personally, I’ve burned ~13 pounds of fat in about 3 months with around a 500-calorie deficit. In that time, I went from about 15% body-fat down to having much more visible abs, around 11% body-fat.
A full body transformation may take 6 months, a year, or a couple of years depending on where you’re starting and how dedicated you are.
(Side note: I don’t recommend staying in an intentional caloric deficit for more than about 3 months in a row. If you have a lot of weight to lose, give yourself occasional breaks. Cut for 3 months, then eat at maintenance calories for a couple of weeks, then go back to the cut.)
How can you calculate your overall timeline to six-pack abs? This is possible to do, but instead of typing it all out, I’m just going to share a video (below) that explains it much better.
The video will help you estimate your current body-fat percentage and how long it’ll take to cut down and see your abs. Doing this calculation also requires tracking your calories. Without tracking calories, it’s really anyone’s guess how long it will take.
Staying Motivated on the Path to Abs
Remember: Six months or even two years is not long in the overall span of your life. Getting fit is worth the investment of time and waiting for the gradual pay-off.
Don’t get discouraged when you fail to see overnight results or when you fall off track and need to get back to it. As with anything worth accomplishing, there is a barrier to entry. There is a learning period that makes it hard to do that thing. Expect the challenges, and keep going.
Keep finding more sources of information and inspiration. Take your progress in any small increments you can get.
Overall, the formula is simple, as I laid out at the beginning of this post: Just lock-in that calorie deficit, be patient over time, and your belly fat will have no choice but to be burned off.
You’ll have your six-pack abs soon enough. Add in compound exercises and a higher protein intake, and you can have an overall much more jacked physique in a few months.
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).
2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.
If you liked this guide and don’t want to forget anything, save the Pin below to your Pinterest “vegan fitness or “plant-based diet” board!