Yes, You Should Do Cardio to Burn Belly Fat — and Experts Agree That This Kind Is Best
Cardio isn't everyone's favorite workout, but if you want to burn fat and especially belly fat, do you need to do it? "Absolutely," said Davon Granderson, MS, an exercise physiologist at the Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Health & Wellness Center. "I would say that it is necessary to include cardio into your workout routine."
However, he cautioned that there's just no way to pinpoint and reduce belly fat specifically. "We can't spot reduce when it comes to our fat loss," Davon told POPSUGAR. Cardio and workouts in general will help you lose fat from all over your body, including your belly, but you can't target the belly area in particular. (Or your thighs, or arms, or any one spot.) "If we do programming in order bring our body fat percentage down, we're going to start to see the difference," Davon said, in your belly fat as well as all over your body. And to see fat-loss results, you need to think about your diet as well. Swap processed foods for whole foods, especially vegetables, work to maintain a slight caloric deficit, and limit alcohol and sugar for a start. (Here's more on decreasing belly fat with diet.)
So, back to the original question. Yes, you should do cardio to burn belly fat — but it's not the only workout you need.
Do I Need to Do Cardio to Burn Belly Fat?
In the simplest sense, cardio will help you burn fat because when you exercise, your body is using energy and burning calories, Davon said. To fuel your workout, your body will draw from its energy (calorie) stores: glycogen, or the glucose that your body stores after consuming carbs, as well as fats.
It follows that the most effective form of cardio is the one that increases your heart rate the most and burns the most calories. That means high-intensity interval training (HIIT), said Davon and fitness coach Nick Leyden, MS. "HIIT workouts burn a lot of calories in a short time and keep your body burning calories throughout the rest of the day, at a higher rate than just doing 30 or 45 minutes of steady-state cardio," Nick told POPSUGAR. That's due to the EPOC effect (excess postexercise oxygen consumption), a mode your body enters when it's trying to replenish the "oxygen debt" you have after a hard workout, Nick explained. Your body draws in more oxygen even after the workout is finished, which leads to slightly more calories burned for one to two hours after your workout.
HIIT workouts are more efficient as well. You can burn about the same amount of in-workout calories as you do during a longer, steady-state session, Davon told POPSUGAR, but in less time. This beginner's HIIT workout is a good place to start.
What's the Best Cardio to Burn Belly Fat?
If you're wondering what form of cardio is best for fat loss, good news: there are a lot. Davon's choice was swimming because it's a full-body workout that, thanks to the water, also incorporates some resistance. It's no-impact and aids in blood flow as well, which keeps your heart rate low. "We can work at higher intensities at a lower heart rate," Davon explained, "which means that we can stick in that zone for a little bit longer, which allows us to burn even more calories." Here's a beginner's swim workout if you're not sure where to start.
However, you can also opt for the elliptical, cycling, or running. Go with whatever you like best and will do consistently, and don't be afraid to mix it up; variety will challenge your body and help you avoid injury.
Should I Do Strength Training to Burn Fat?
If there's one kind of exercise that's 100 percent recommended for fat loss, it's strength training. The reasoning is pretty simple: when you strength train, you build lean muscle, which is metabolically "expensive," Devon said. "Our body is constantly creating energy for these muscles in order to function," he explained. In other words, "Building muscle is going to increase your metabolism and have you burning more calories throughout the day," Nick told POPSUGAR. "Putting on 5 to 10 pounds of muscle is one of the most important things you can do to increase your fat-burning engine."
That metabolic boost makes strength training somewhat more effective than cardio for fat loss, but cardio "can be a useful tool," Nick said, "especially when progress slows" and you need to up your calorie burn. You also shouldn't strength train the same muscle groups for two or more days in a row. "Allow for at least 24-48 hours of rest before we use those large muscle groups again," Davon said.
How Much Cardio Should You Do to Burn Belly Fat?
Both cardio and strength training should be included in your workout routine to improve your overall health, including your weight. Strength training builds muscle, giving you that extra metabolic push. Beyond simply burning calories, cardio is also key for your heart and lung health. It brings down your resting heart rate and blood pressure, Davon explained. To sum it up: you need both kinds of exercise to feel your best.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150-300 minutes of moderate cardio per week. If you opt for high-intensity work, Davon said, you can drop that down to about 75 minutes per week. You can break that down as you want: 30-minute moderate cardio sessions, like jogging or walking, for five days a week; two or three 30-minute HIIT sessions; whatever works for your schedule. To maximize your potential fat loss, include two to four days of strength training as well.
If you're just starting, remember to ramp up slowly with less impactful forms of cardio (such as walking), lighter weights, and simpler exercises that you feel comfortable doing. This will help you avoid injury. As you get more fit, you can increase to more challenging cardio workouts (like running, biking, or HIIT intervals) and increase your weights during strength training, which will help you avoid a weight-loss plateau. "If we can walk, jogging is going to do more for us," Davon explained. "If we can jog, running is going to do more for us. It's just a situation of moving up the steps."
If you're ready to get started, we recommend this fat-burning workout plan that includes both cardio and strength training for the best results.