Belly fat is what many exercisers want to lose the most – including beer bellies and muffin tops. No other body part seems to attract more attention than the abs. And yet, confusion and misunderstanding abound about the best ways to shape up the center of the body. Here, we address smart ways to slim and strengthen the core; but note, these methods yield the best results when done together and consistently over time.
First, understand that muscle and fat are two distinct substances and cannot be converted from one to the other. Subcutaneous fat lies on top of the muscle, and is responsible for the dreaded muffin top. Contrary to popular belief, cranking out hundreds of crunches won’t necessarily eliminate the fat in your belly. You may strengthen your abs, but they still will be covered by this layer.
The best approach to belly fat is multi-faceted: cardio exercise, strength and core training and diet.
- Cardio exercise
To burn body fat, perform cardiovascular exercise consistently for 20-60 minutes, 3-5 times weekly, at a rigorous pace of 75-85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Cardio includes jogging, running, cycling, swimming laps, the elliptical or cross-trainer, stairclimber, rower, and various group fitness classes.
Another form of cardio is interval training, which is very effective in burning calories and fat during workouts, as well as increasing metabolism afterwards, so you keep burning calories at a higher rate, even when the exercise session is finished. Formulas for interval training vary, but typically include alternating high-intensity intervals of 80-90% of MHR for 20-90 seconds with recovery periods at 65-75% MHR for 10-120 seconds throughout the workout. It can be as simple as riding a Schwinn Airdyne bike at 70% MHR for 2 minutes, followed by a 30-60 second burst of high speed; and then repeating the cycle. These regimens should be challenging for best results.
- Strength and core training
While cardio can help eliminate the muffin top, strength and core exercises build the core muscles that contribute to a lean, toned appearance. Plus, the more muscle you have, the greater your metabolism, which means you will burn more calories at rest rather than simply store them as fat.
It’s best to perform exercises that work the major muscle groups in the upper and lower body, as well as the core, 2-4 times each week. For the lower body, effective exercises include squats, lunges, plies and hip adduction and abduction. Upper-body exercises include push-ups, chest presses, rows, overhead presses, biceps curls and triceps extensions.
And for the core, which is most important when you are addressing the belly region, do planks, crunches, Russian twists, bicycles, knee tucks and extensions, side planks, V-sits, back extensions and more. The key is to perform a variety of exercises regularly to keep the muscles challenged. Pilates and yoga are terrific options to work the core and provide different workouts.
Of course, diet plays an important role in belly fat and muffin tops as well. That means reducing or eliminating foods high-calorie, high-fat choices such as sugary sweets, chocolate, fried foods and alcohol. The majority of what you eat should be healthy, low-fat items such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, beans and legumes, and low-fat dairy products.
Keep your metabolism humming along by eating regularly and not skipping meals, which will help you burn fat more consistently. And hydrate throughout the day with water, as dehydration can slow metabolism and make you feel hungry. Limit consumption of soda, fancy coffee beverages, smoothies and juices, all of which have loads of sugar and empty calories.