You might expect crunches, twists and side bends to be among the most effective exercises for reducing belly fat and love handles. These moves would seem to directly target those areas to whittle excess pudge away. Fat loss, however, is a complex process that only happens when you stimulate the right hormones and consume fewer calories than you burn.
While exercises that target your torso build stability and tone the muscles in this region, they won't help you get rid of the spare tire covering up the muscles and spilling over your waistband. High-intensity cardio and resistance training are your best calorie-burners to lose belly fat and love handles.
The Nature of Middle Fat
Fat that increases the circumference of your waistband and forms the pinchable handles at the sides of your torso is both subcutaneous, sitting just under the skin, and visceral, embedded deep in your belly and surrounding the internal organs.
While you may not like the looks of those love handles and soft muffin top, this fat is less dangerous to your health than the firm, deep visceral fat, which acts like an endocrine organ and expels inflammatory compounds into your system. Visceral fat is of concern because it raises your risk of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Exercise Is Key to Losing Belly Fat
Exercise is essential in losing belly fat. It helps you burn more calories every day and builds muscle, which further boosts your metabolism. When you start an exercise program, the first fat you lose is visceral fat.
Your waist size will shrink and you'll look slimmer. Your love handles, which are made up of subcutaneous fat, will shrink as well, but may hang on a bit longer; subcutaneous abdominal fat can sometimes be some of the last fat you lose.
Don't give up though — you will lose it if you stick with a healthy, portion-controlled diet and a regular exercise regimen that includes cardio and strength.
Your diet also plays a role in your ability to lose belly fat. Eat moderate portions of mostly unprocessed foods. Limit your intake of sugar, especially sugary drinks, refined grains and saturated fats to support your exercise efforts to slim your middle.
Aim to fit in a minimum of 30 minutes per day of moderate-intensity cardio, such as brisk walking or light cycling. Once you've reached that level, increase the duration to last an hour on most days. As your stamina improves, add in high-intensity intervals to boost fat loss — especially at your abdomen.
A paper published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011 showed that alternating short bouts of all-out exercise and recovery improved fat-burning capacity, overall weight loss and visceral fat loss. Examples of HIIT workouts include alternfiveting 30-second sprints with 30-second walks or alternating 4 minutes of hard cycling with 2 minutes of easier effort.
Always warm up for five to 10 minutes before doing the high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, section of your workout. Conclude each workout with a cool down too to promote muscle recovery and prevent venous pooling.
Comprehensive Strength Training
Crunches and abdominal twists work just one group of muscles. To lose belly fat, undertake a comprehensive resistance program that has you challenging all the major muscle groups with resistance at least twice per week.
Resistance training mobilizes visceral and subcutaneous fat in the abdominal region, determined another review of recent research published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011.
Such workouts may not make you lose a lot of weight on the scale, but it changes the distribution of that weight for the better — building calorie-burning muscle and helping you lose inflammatory fat.
Stick to moderate weights and just one set of eight to 12 repetitions for the first couple of weeks if you're new to resistance training. A fitness professional can help with form and program design.
Over time, build up to as many as three sets of an exercise for each major muscle group. Squats, chest presses, deadlifts, lunges, rows and dips are examples of challenging moves that address several muscle groups at once, potentially enhancing your results.
Keep doing abdominal moves, including planks and crunches, but don't rely on them exclusively for strength or belly fat loss.
Combine strength and HIIT together in one workout by alternating strength moves — such as push-ups or pull-ups — with high-intensity calisthenics — such as burpees and jumping jacks. You'll fit both types of workouts in with minimal time commitment and maximum results.
- Harvard Health Publications: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- Rush University Medical Center: Is There 'One Trick' to Losing Belly Fat?
- Yale Scientific: Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?
- AARP: How to Lose Your Spare Tire
- American Council on Exercise: Why is the Concept of Spot Reduction Considered a Myth?