Your digestive system, muscles and fat all compete for space in your abdomen, and when there is not enough room for them all below your ribs, your belly extends outward. Weak abdominal muscles and excess fat can both contribute to a potbelly, but achieving a flat stomach requires not only exercise, but attention to your nutrition and lifestyle, too.
1. Strengthen your rectus abdominis muscles. Your rectus abdominis muscles are the muscles in the center of your stomach that make up the washboard six-pack abs. Sit-ups, crunches, Swiss ball crunches, reverse crunches and hanging leg raises all train the rectus abdominis muscle group.
2. Engage your transverse abdominis muscles ("deep abs"). The deep abs compress the abdominal region when they contract, acting like a natural girdle. Exercises for the transverse abs include plank, scissor kicks, and any exercise that involves balance and stability such as Bosu ball exercises or lifting free weights.
3. Do cardiovascular exercise. Fitness expert Ish Cheyne explains that trying to "spot reduce" (lose fat in only one part of your body) is as impossible as emptying only half of a swimming pool. Cardiovascular exercise--like swimming, jogging or dancing--is the most effective way to burn excess body fat.
4. “Sucking it in” eventually leads to a flatter belly. You can strengthen your transverse abs and flatten your stomach at the same time by doing the “vacuum exercise” (sucking your belly button toward your spine) throughout the day. As your deep abs become stronger and build stamina, you will be able to do this all day without thinking.
5. Stand up straight. When you slouch, there is less space in your belly, forcing your gut outward. Standing up straight with your shoulders back engages your deep abs and pulls in your paunch, naturally flattening your stomach.
6. Eat small meals. When you eat a huge meal, your stomach can be distended for hours as your belly-bomb works its way through your digestive tract. Eating smaller, more frequent meals means there is less volume taking up space in your stomach.
7. Consume less sodium. Sodium makes you retain water, resulting in a bloated, swollen belly. Avoid salty and processed foods to lower your sodium intake.
8. Eat more fiber. Fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, helps relieve bloating related to constipation. Fiber also makes you feel full for longer, helping curb your appetite.
9. Drink less caffeine. Caffeine not only causes hunger and food cravings, it can also inflate your spare tire by raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism linked elevated cortisol levels to increased fat storage around the abdominal organs.
10. Get more sleep. A 2004 University of Chicago study suggests that lack of sleep can stimulate hunger and lead to higher cortisol levels, both of which are enemies of a flat belly. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get seven to nine hours’ sleep per night.
- Annals of Internal Medicine; Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite; Spiegel et al; University of Chicago; 2004
- Harvard Health Publications: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It