Can I Lose Belly Fat by Lifting Weights?

Anything you can do to establish a calorie deficit will help you lose weight around your belly — from making healthy eating choices to doing walking meetings instead of sit-in-a-conference-room meetings and, of course, plenty of calorie-burning cardio. But people sometimes forget that resistance training burns calories too. In fact, studies have shown that including weight training in your workout regimen can have some serious belly-slimming benefits.

In the controversy over cardio vs weight training for belly fat loss, both types of exercise come out ahead. (Image: FatCamera/E+/GettyImages)

Tip

Incorporating weight training into your workouts can help you slim down your belly faster — but the subject of whether only lifting weights is sufficient to lose belly fat is controversial.

Two Types of Belly Fat

Did you know that there are actually two types of belly fat? If you can pinch a roll (big or small) of fat between your fingers, that's called subcutaneous fat because it resides just beneath your skin.

But you also have visceral fat within your abdominal cavity. It serves the practical purpose of padding your internal organs. Too much of it, though, can be harmful and pose serious health risks.

The good news is that both types of abdominal fat respond to the one tried-and-true concept that lies behind all weight loss plans: Establishing a calorie deficit, or burning more calories than you take in. There are actually two parts to that equation — increasing your physical activity so you'll burn more calories, and making healthy eating choices so that you don't cancel out all that hard work when you're in the kitchen.

Tip

Need some guidance on your diet? Take a hint from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and focus on eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, plus whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy and high-quality protein. Limit your intake of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugar, and control your portion sizes.

If you're a calorie counter, the NIH reports that women generally lose weight safely on a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day. Men who want to lose weight safely should strive for 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day.

Cardio vs. Weight Training

The general rule is that all physical activity helps you burn more calories, achieve a calorie deficit and thus lose fat from all over your body — including your belly. But should you do only weight training in hopes of losing that belly? That's a matter of ongoing controversy — and even one of the most definitive recent studies on which activities best reduce waist circumference couldn't give a definitive answer!

In that study, published in a December 2014 issue of Obesity, researchers followed a cohort of 10,500 otherwise healthy men for a period of 12 years to determine whether weight training or aerobic activity was more effective for reducing waist circumference (one of the best measures of abdominal fat). The data showed that weight training had the strongest association with reduced waist circumference, while aerobic activity had the strongest association with reduced body weight overall.

But it's complicated. Those same researchers reference a September 2011 systematic review published in Obesity Reviews, which found that aerobic activity was more effective than resistance training to reduce visceral fat.

A study published in December 2012 in the Journal of Applied Physiology found the same. It's also worth noting that the men in the December 2014 study who reported engaging in strength training also engaged in more healthy habits overall, including spending less time watching TV, more time doing aerobic exercise and eating a higher-quality diet.

Get Up and Move

The one thing researchers can say with certainty is that numerous factors go into how your body stores and loses fat, and all physical activity can help you lose it. That's borne out by numerous studies that show both weight training and aerobic exercise can help people lose body fat.

For example, a study published in a November 2017 issue of Obesity found that both aerobic exercise and resistance training — when paired with a weight-loss diet — decreased body fat mass.

So when in doubt, just get moving any way you can. And if you really love the idea of weight training for belly fat loss, feel free to make it a central part of your weight loss plan — because the most effective workout plan for you is the one that you like well enough to stick with over the long term.

But don't exclude cardiovascular activity from your exercise plan entirely. Not only does it contribute to losing belly fat as well, but you also need regular cardiovascular exercise to maintain good physical health.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week — or doubling that for even more health benefits. If you can stick to that level of activity, plus your weight training and a healthy diet, you should be well on your way to losing that belly fat.

Weightlifting Exercises for Belly Fat

So, which strength-training exercises are best for losing belly fat? Intensity is key, according to clinical research.

A study published in an October 2013 issue of the International Journal of Cardiology found that visceral fat loss was highest in subjects who combined high-intensity resistance training with moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity.

The next highest rate of visceral fat loss was in the group that combined high-intensity cardio activity with moderate-intensity resistance training. The group that did moderate intensity in both modalities also lost visceral fat, just not as quickly.

With that in mind, you're going to have more success — and burn more calories and build more muscle, which both contribute to your overall weight loss efforts — if you focus on compound movements that recruit multiple muscles at once, helping you raise the intensity of your workouts.

Just a few of the many strength-training exercises that fit that bill, using extra weights or even your own body weight for resistance, include:

  • Squats and leg presses
  • Lunges (which come in endless variations)
  • Bench presses, chest presses and push-ups
  • Lat pull-downs, pull-ups, pullovers and rows
  • Power lifts, including deadlifts, clean and jerks, snatches and more

Tip

Each of your muscle groups needs at least a full day of rest to recover after a strength-training workout. Therefore, you must either space your strength-training sessions out on alternating days or train alternating muscle groups on consecutive days.

For example, you could train your upper body on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, then train your lower body on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and rest on Sundays before starting over again.

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