When you get right down to it, there are two steps to losing belly fat. One: a good diet. Two: consistent exercise. Of course, that's a little more complicated and challenging than it sounds.
Belly fat is stubborn and frustrating, but it's not permanent. There are concrete and achievable steps you can take to chip away at the fat around your belly area, and we talked to experts from both sides of the aisle — exercise and diet — to plot out your plan for belly-fat-burning success.
How to Burn Belly Fat Through Exercise
When it comes to exercise, focus on staying consistent with a combination of strength and cardio workouts, said Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and fitness adviser for Bowflex. "Your goal is to burn calories through cardio and build metabolically-active lean muscle through strength training, burning extra calories all day long," Tom told POPSUGAR.
It's true: while you might be tempted to do all cardio, all the time in pursuit of that high calorie burn, it's really not the best way to burn belly fat. Building muscle is actually crucial for burning fat because the more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. And the higher your resting metabolic rate, the more calories you'll burn throughout the day, even after your workout is complete.
When it comes to strength training then, it's fine to start with bodyweight workouts as you learn proper form and get used to resistance training. As you get stronger, you'll want to add extra resistance and difficulty, either with plyometric (jumping) moves or with weights through progressive overload. Upping your resistance is crucial to continue burning fat and building muscle, said Heather Milton, MS, RCEP, CSCS, an exercise physiologist clinical specialist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center, in a previous interview.
You don't want to forget about cardio, though. Cardio conditioning burns tons of calories, increases your endurance so you can push through tough strength workouts, and balances your workout schedule to help you avoid overuse injuries. So what kind of cardio should you choose? Running is a classic choice that's known for blasting calories and will definitely help you lose belly fat, especially at high-intensity intervals (like this outdoor running workout), but walking is effective too, especially for beginners. Swimming is also good for weight loss if you mix in higher-intensity intervals. The most important part is staying consistent, Tom said, which means choosing the cardio that you enjoy the most.
And then there's high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. HIIT is one of the most efficient ways to burn belly fat, Tom said, because it combines strength and cardio in the same session. It's not mandatory — you can burn belly fat without HIIT workouts — but Tom said it's a good choice if you're pressed for time. Try it out with this week-long HIIT workout plan, which gives options for beginners plus cardio- and strength-specific sessions.
How Much Should You Work Out Per Week to Burn Belly Fat?
To boil all this down to a weekly workout plan, aim for "three to six quality workouts per week," Tom said, "a combination of both cardiovascular exercise and strength training." If you're just starting, take your time and work up to the the harder workouts and higher frequencies. Getting injured by jumping in too fast is the worst thing you can do for your weight-loss goals.
The more you work out, the better chance you'll have of shedding that belly fat. Still, Tom cautioned, it'll take time. "The abdominals are often one of the last places in which your body removes fat deposits, which is why a flat midsection is hard to achieve," he told POPSUGAR. "That being said, it can be done." Get started with this belly-fat blasting workout plan, which alternates cardio and strength training for maximum results.
Will Ab Workouts Burn Belly Fat?
One of the biggest myths of weight loss and belly fat in particular is that you can spot-reduce fat. In reality, it's impossible. That means that doing endless ab workouts won't automatically give you a flat belly, and might actually work against your goals; "a top mistake," Tom said, "is to spend too much time performing abdominal exercises, time that could be better spent burning calories or building lean muscle."
His rule of thumb: "Spend roughly 10 percent of your total workout time doing abdominal exercises." If you're doing an hour-long workout, that means just five to six minutes of ab work. For a 30-minute workout, that drops down to three or four minutes.
A good way to get in your ab work is to do it at the beginning of your workout. This activates your core and helps it stay engaged through the rest of your workout, so you can continue to strengthen your abdominals even while doing exercises that aren't core-centric. Engaging your core throughout your workout helps prevent injury as well. Here are a few key ab-activation exercises to add at the top of your workout.
Lose Belly Fat With a Low-Carb Diet
There's no doubt that exercise burns calories and helps you lose body fat, including around your midsection. But both Tom and dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick of Cleveland Clinic Wellness agreed that diet is more important than exercise when it comes to fat loss.
In other words, a healthy diet is crucial. For belly fat in particular, Kristin recommended a low-carbohydrate approach, and not just because high-carb foods (which include processed starchy carbs like pasta as well as sugary treats like ice cream and cookies) tend to be high in calories. There's actually a connection between high insulin levels and weight gain said Jason Fung, MD, a nephrologist (kidney specialist), in a previous interview. When your insulin goes up, as it does after you eat carbs and sugary foods, studies show that it can block leptin, the hormone that tells your body it's full, from reaching your brain. That means you'll keep feeling hungry and keep eating, even if your body doesn't need the extra calories. Eating lower-carb, Kristin explains, flattens out those insulin spikes and keeps your hormones and hunger cues functioning more normally.
The amount of carbs you can consume on a low-carb diet varies between people, but most experts consider it to be between 50 to 100 grams of net carbs per day (that's your total carb count minus fiber). And while tracking the total amount of carbs you eat is important for weight loss, you should also pay close attention to the kinds of carbs you're eating. Healthful carbs include whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, whole grain breads and pastas) and vegetables like sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts — foods that you want to keep in your weight-loss diet. Meanwhile, you should try to limit your consumption of unhealthier carbs like refined grains (such as white rice) and white flour products (like white bread, pasta, and pastries), especially those with lots of sugar.
Reduce Bloating For a Flatter Belly
Though it won't help you actually burn belly fat, you can keep your belly looking flatter (and feeling better overall) by reducing bloating, Kristin said. Here are 10 doctor-approved tips to do just that. You should also stay hydrated, avoid highly-processed, sodium-rich foods, and eat foods that combat over-retention of water, Kristin told POPSUGAR, such as:
Eat a High-Fiber, Low-Saturated Fat Diet to Lose Belly Fat
A recent study in ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal also suggested that a diet that's high-fiber, low-saturated fat, such as the Mediterranean diet, may help with belly fat loss as well. For the best results, Kristin recommended mixing both the low-carb and high-fiber/low-saturated fat diets. That means increasing your fiber intake by eating more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, while limiting processed carbs and saturated fats like red meats, baked goods, and highly-processed foods.
In particular, Kristin recommended eating healthy foods that help you feel more full, such as nuts, avocados, kale, and beans. Some of those healthy veggies (such as broccoli and cauliflower) can cause gas, so she advised starting with small amounts until your body gets used to them. Try this clean eating plan for two weeks of healthy meals to get you started.
"While diet trumps exercise in terms of overall weight loss," Kristin said, "to think you can specifically target belly fat without exercise is a myth." Diet might be more important, but exercise goes hand-in-hand; they work together to further your weight-loss goals and cut down belly fat. As Tom put it, "Burning belly fat comes down to taking a balanced, three-pronged approach: cardio, strength work, and improved diet." There's no magic shortcut, but there is a formula. Eat whole, healthy foods and work out consistently and you'll see results.