In a culture where six-pack abs are so often lauded, getting rid of excess belly fat is a common goal. The trouble is that belly fat can be particularly tricky to lose. The idea of spot reduction, where you can pick and choose which part of your body to lose fat from, is a myth.
Even life stages, like a woman’s reproductive status, can affect where and how fat is stored. The point is, while losing belly fat is often a fine and admirable goal (and can even help improve overall health), it’s important to approach it with a solid, well-thought-out plan — not a desire for a quick fix or unrealistic timeline.
My Holistic Approach to Belly Fat Reduction
Take my own history as an example. As a lifelong fitness educator with a master’s degree in exercise science and a true love of daily physical activity, I never really battled excess belly fat. While my body fat percentage would sometimes fluctuate, I tended to store extra fat around my thighs and butt, rather than my belly.
That changed at 39 years old when I had my first baby. I was less active during my pregnancy than in most of my adult life and, after an unplanned c-section and the sleep-deprived nature of adjusting to life with a baby, my body, hormones, and stress level didn’t “bounce back” the way I had hoped. For the first time in my life, I had belly fat stores that, despite breastfeeding and returning to exercise, just didn’t budge. That, along with a decrease in muscle mass from a break I took from strength training, gave me my first real taste of the challenge of losing belly fat.
So I took a holistic approach. Yes, I regularly performed the types of exercises that can help strengthen your abdomen and shape your midsection. But I also adjusted my eating habits by tracking what I ate and paying closer attention to portion sizes while focusing on eating whole foods and lots of fruits and vegetables. I looked for ways to improve my sleep (even with a colicky infant), worked to manage my stress levels, and took charge of my overall health. I also gave myself a lot of grace and understanding… which meant I gave myself a reasonable timeline for seeing the results I was aiming for.
While I didn’t lose all the belly fat I hoped before I got pregnant again, I was able to get back to a place where I felt good about my belly and body as a whole. I even threw on a bikini and went surfing for my 40th birthday. The experience has helped prepare me for what to expect following my second pregnancy, and has provided me with the personal knowledge to add to my professional and educational background on the subject.
While my exact experience may not be the same as yours, the science of fat loss and the ways exercise and lifestyle changes can impact results are still applicable. Regardless of age, sex, genetics, history, or lifestyle, science tells us that certain forms of exercise are more effective at promoting fat loss than others. So even if you’re up against additional challenges, like hormonal imbalances, a genetic predisposition to belly fat accumulation, or specific health concerns, approaching belly fat loss the right way can help enhance long-term results.
Of course, it’s important to remember the phrase, “long-term results.” Belly fat loss doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s essential to set a realistic timeline for trimmimg it that’s specific to your needs and circumstances.
For Exercise and Nutrition, Aim for Long-Term Consistency
When it comes to losing body fat, consistency is key. It’s essential to create a schedule and stick to it, giving your body time to develop strength and experience changes. Any exercise routine you feel confident you can stick to long-term is likely the best routine for you. If you like to run, commit to running regularly. If you prefer cycling, join a cycle studio or dust off your old bike. If you enjoy outdoor activities, consider joining a local hiking club.
All exercise is good and can help you gradually meet your goals, especially when performed consistently.
So how should you define “exercising regularly”? At a minimum, you should aim to meet the national guidelines for exercise, accumulating a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardio, or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio. That breaks down to 15–30 minutes per day, five days per week, depending on your intensity level. You should also aim to perform at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities per week.
That said, if fat loss is the goal, you likely want to bump up your weekly dose of exercise. A 2015 study published in JAMA Oncology found that previously inactive obese women who stuck to a 300-minute per week protocol of moderate-intensity exercise for a year experienced higher levels of fat loss than those who met the 150-minute per week goal.
Generally, there’s a dose-response relationship between exercise duration (or intensity) and health-related outcomes, including fat loss.
Aside from long-term exercise consistency, there are certain forms of exercise that appear to have especially positive results when it comes to body fat loss. So if you’re looking for the most efficient method for losing belly fat, come up with a plan for incorporating the following forms of exercise into your regular routine.
High-intensity interval training
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is one of the best ways to enhance abdominal fat loss. HIIT alternates between high-intensity bouts of exercise for a short period of time, followed by a low-intensity period of rest for short-term recovery before returning to high-intensity exercise again. Protocols vary widely, but it’s fairly standard for the high-intensity activity to last between 30–90 seconds, followed by rest periods in the same range. For instance, you might run (or speed walk) as fast as you can for a minute, then slow your pace for 30 seconds, continuing this cycle for your entire workout.
What’s important to note is that moderate-intensity cardio and HIIT can both result in similar levels of fat loss and changes in body composition. But, several studies, including one published in 2015 and another published in 2020 indicate that HIIT training (and a similar protocol, sprint interval training, or SIT) have a greater influence on abdominal fat loss (you know, belly fat), than moderate-intensity continuous exercise.
Even in studies where body fat loss and belly fat loss were similar across different exercise protocols, researchers often noted that HIIT (or SIT) training carried additional benefits. They’re a more time-efficient approach to exercise, and they tend to improve cardiovascular health to a greater extent as well.
“HIIT is effective for burning belly fat because it allows for maximum calorie burn in a short period of time,” says Vivian Yu, CPT, nutritionist, and owner of OneBody Personal Training. “A beginner can start an effective HIIT routine by incorporating exercises such as jumping jacks, burpees, and mountain climbers. It’s important to start at a manageable intensity level and gradually increase as fitness improves. Training frequency should be two to three times per week, with rest days in between.”
On rest days, you can engage in moderate-intensity cardio, like a 30- to 60-minute walk or bike ride to boost your total weekly minutes of exercise without overdoing your training.
A sample 30-minute HIIT workout might include:
5-minute walking warm-up, gradually increasing pace to a brisk walk or slow jog
10 rounds of HIIT including 60 seconds running, jumping rope, or performing jumping jacks followed by 60 seconds walking at a slow pace
5-minute cooldown including slow walking and active stretching
Compound strength training
Strength training is an essential component of overall fitness. Building and maintaining muscle mass helps support overall health, especially with age. Research shows that adults typically lose 3–8% of their total muscle mass each decade. This can result in a wide range of negative health outcomes, including reduced metabolism, loss of bone mass, increased risk of chronic diseases, and of course, increased levels of fat accumulation.
Include at least two strength training sessions per week to help maintain or build muscle mass, prevent reductions in metabolism, and reduce the likelihood of age-related fat gain. Even more to the point, a 2011 review study published in the Journal of Obesity found that regular resistance training helped reduce levels of visceral adipose tissue, more commonly known as belly fat.
The key to starting a resistance training program: Focus on performing compound exercises. These are exercises that target multiple muscle groups at the same time. For example, push-ups target the chest, shoulders, triceps, and even the core. Squats, likewise, target all the major muscle groups in the lower body, as well as the core and, depending on the type of squat, the upper back and shoulders.
Compound exercises are more efficient than, say, a biceps curl or lateral shoulder raise, which are intended to isolate a specific muscle group. By focusing on compound movements, you maximize strength training benefits in a shorter period of time.
“Strength training is particularly effective when it comes to burning fat and calories, especially when it comes to losing belly fat. Strength training helps by creating lean muscle mass, which will increase your metabolic rate and help you burn more calories even when you’re resting. Strength training builds a base of physical strength and makes it easier to handle more intense activities such as HIIT,” explains Caroline Grainger, ISSA-certified personal trainer at FitnessTrainer.
An efficient, total-body routine you can perform two to three times per week might include:
Push-ups (or modified push-ups)
Overhead dumbbell shoulder press
These are the exact exercises I regularly incorporated in my own weekly routine as I was working to reduce belly fat following my son’s birth. They’re simple, efficient, effective, and don’t require a lot of equipment or space.
Complete each exercise two to three times, performing 10–15 repetitions per set. Then, add the four core-strengthening options below.
Core-strengthening exercises help with definition
No, performing hundreds of sit-ups won’t help you lose extra belly fat. Remember, spot reduction is a myth.
That said, including core-strengthening exercises as part of your overall resistance training routine can help you develop strength in your abdominals, developing the definition in these muscles to help give you a more “toned” appearance. Rather than performing crunches or sit-ups, though, which are more akin to isolation exercises like a biceps curl, it’s best to choose more compound core exercises that target multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
When working toward my own belly fat loss goals, these are the four abdominal exercises I included in every workout routine:
I typically perform these core moves as a circuit, completing four rounds of a 45- to 60-second plank followed by 15–20 repetitions of each exercise. Just remember, bird dogs and wood chops target one side of the body at a time. It’s important to repeat the exercise on each side. You can do this every other round (ultimately only performing two sets of the exercise, per side), or you can target both sides of your body each round (completing four sets of the exercise, per side).
Belly Fat Loss Strategies Outside of the Gym
Getting active is an essential part of your belly fat loss, but the approach to fat loss should be holistic. Pay attention to the following lifestyle factors that can impact your belly fat stores and take steps to make changes and improvements where you can.
Some of the best things I did as I worked to lose my post-pregnancy belly were to prioritize getting enough sleep and to find ways to manage high levels of stress — this included sharing more of the parenting load with my husband and using the time he gave me to nap, meditate, or grab lunch with friends. These changes, along with a balanced diet, helped me get back to a body I felt comfortable in.
Track your nutrition: What you eat, how much you eat, and how these impact your body’s composition. Spend a week or two tracking your diet in a journal or with an app to get the full picture on how much (and what) you’re eating. Pay attention to “hidden calories” like the handful of jelly beans you grabbed from your co-worker’s candy jar, or the fries you ate off your child’s plate. Also, keep track of what you’re drinking, too. It’s easy to rack up (and ignore) the extra calories you consume with sugary coffees, sodas, and cocktails. Logging your nutrition for a week or two will help you better identify areas where you can make changes. You can also provide this information to a dietitian who can help you assess areas of improvement and work on a healthier diet plan.
Get enough sleep: Sleep impacts everything, from your energy levels to your hunger hormones. When you don’t sleep enough, you’re less likely to feel ready to work out, and you’re more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Use a smartwatch to track your sleep and gauge whether there’s room for improvement. Aim to sleep at least seven hours per night to best support your other health-related goals.
Pay attention to stress levels: High levels of stress, particularly chronic stress, can negatively impact your overall health and contribute to higher levels of belly fat accumulation. While some stress can’t be completely avoided, if you’re constantly plagued by stress, look for ways to manage it. Therapy, journaling, time spent with friends, regular exercise, and meditation are just a few strategies to help reduce stress.
One thing to remember is you don’t have to tackle your fitness or weight loss goals alone. Get a free consultation with a personal trainer who can help you lose weight.