Belly fat is stubborn. For many people, this is the area they carry their excess weight, and is exactly where they want to lose it when they set weight-loss goals. But of course, it’s also really tough to lose.
There are two types of fat that congregate around your tummy: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is what you can see on the surface, but visceral fat is what accumulates around your organs. Even if you’re at a normal weight, studies show that the visceral fat that builds up around the tummy can carry some serious health risks. Specifically, it’s been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even premature death and some types of cancer.
Spot-training doesn’t work.
You can do planks until you collapse, and it’s still not going to magically melt away belly fat. Sure, ab exercises can tone those muscles underneath. But working the muscles in one area doesn’t also tell your body, “Lose fat here.” That’s called spot-losing fat, and it’s just sadly just a fitness pipe dream.
“In order to tone and trim a certain body part, for example the waistline, overall body fat must be lost through healthy diet and cardiovascular, full-body work,” Whitney Findorff, LA-based personal trainer and Orangetheory Fitness coach, tells SELF. “Running through 500 reps of side crunches may strengthen the oblique muscle, but it will not decrease the fat stored on the waistline.”
So, what does?
The good news is that both types of abdominal fat can be reduced through exercise, and keeping up with a regular routine can prevent it from coming back. Cardio is great for overall fat loss, but when it comes to belly fat specifically, the best method is combining cardio with strength training—according to both research and fitness experts.
“Muscle is required to burn fat,” Findorff says. Muscle requires more energy for your body to maintain, so it helps your body burn more calories even after you put down the dumbbells. “Combining strength training and cardio can result in an overall decrease in body fat and increase in lean muscle mass.”
This may be why many experts believe high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a good exercise method if you want to lose belly fat. “HIIT includes short bouts of very intense exercise followed directly with active recovery, repeated several times, usually for up to 20-30 minutes,” explains Jacqueline Crockford, exercise physiologist and education specialist at ACE. Combining strength-training moves with intervals that get your heart rate pumping provides a full workout that fuses both cardio and strength into one intense, compact session—making it your best bet for torching calories and decreasing belly fat. “Several studies have shown that HIIT is effective in reducing overall abdominal fat and can help in the mitigation of symptoms of metabolic syndrome,” Crockford explains.
Findorff also says HIIT is the way to go, but suggests 45-60 minutes instead of just a quickie to see results. Celebrity trainer David Kirsch also notes that he’s found a longer duration is necessary for burning that stubborn fat. “I’d rather see intervals and spikes in heart rate for a longer sustained period of time, which I find to be most effective,” he says. “You can’t check the box that once you get your heart rate up, you’re done—you need to maintain that for a longer period for it to matter.” He suggests interval training that mixes high- and low-intensity moves, and engaging the whole body each time—it’s more effective than isolating individual muscle groups on certain days.
The bottom line: mix cardio and strength in the way that works for you.
There’s no research that tells us exactly how long and how often you need to exercise to burn belly fat—everyone’s body is different and may require more or less. But combining strength and cardio in a full-body interval workout that gets your heart rate pumping is your best bet for reaching your weight-loss goals.
And don’t forget: you can work out diligently, but if you’re fueling your body with unhealthy foods, you’re not going to see results. Proper nutrition is an essential part of any weight-loss routine, especially when it comes to losing abdominal fat.