If you want cardio to burn belly fat, choose a form exercise that raises your heart rate for an extended period of time. It's much more likely to help you slim down that muffin top than sit-ups.
But you can just hop on the treadmill, plod along for 30 minutes and expect a flat stomach. Picking the right kind of cardio is also important, and that means high-intensity and HIIT workouts.
Is Cardio the Best Way to Lose Belly Fat?
First things first, if you're going to spend time and effort doing cardio to burn belly fat, you want to be efficient, right? The first and most important factor in losing belly fat is your diet. So cut out refined sugars, processed carbs and empty calories and fill your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole-grain carbohydrates.
The second biggest factor is exercise, specifically cardio. When paired with a reduced-calorie diet, cardio helps you create a calorie deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn. Your body must then tap into fat stores for fuel, which helps you lose weight.
And while you can't specifically target belly fat (sorry!), losing weight in general will also, by extension, help you lose belly fat. Depending on your genetics, it may be easier or harder for you than someone else to lose belly fat, so refrain from comparing your progress to your friend's results.
Choose the Right Cardio to Burn Belly Fat
The type of cardio exercise you choose is less important than the intensity at which you perform it. While any activity is better than no activity when it comes to losing belly fat, moving at a high intensity or performing high-intensity intervals is most effective.
High-Intensity Cardio for Fat Loss
In a 2009 study published in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, older individuals who raised their heart rate to 75 percent or more of their maximum heart rate, a level considered high intensity, and burned 1,000 calories a week for 12 weeks lost notable amounts of visceral fat. Those who burned the same number of calories with low- or moderate-intensity did not experience the same reduction in belly fat.
For high-intensity cardio, warm up for five to 10 minutes at an easy pace with an exercise mode of choice — could be on a stationary bicycle, treadmill or outdoor track. Then work at an intensity that's 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate for 20 minutes or more at a time. Be sure to cool down for several minutes.
HIIT Cardio to Lose Belly Fat
And more specifically, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves alternating short bouts of all-out effort with short periods of rest or lower-intensity effort, turns on fat-burning mechanisms in the body.
A 2011 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Obesity found that this type of exercise is more effective than steady-state cardio performed at a constant moderate pace when it comes to burning fat, including subcutaneous and visceral fat.
For HIIT cardio, warm up for five to 10 minutes, and then structure your workout so you go hard for 30 seconds to four minutes at a time and recover for an equal or slightly longer period of time.
For example, sprint for 1 minute, then walk for one minute 10 times, for a total of 20 minutes. Cool down at an easy pace for three to five minutes to complete a session.
An easy way to figure your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. For example, if you're 35 years old, your maximum heart rate is 185.
Calculate Your Caloric Burn
Now that you know the style of cardio to lose belly fat, it's time to choose a method. Strictly speaking, you'll want to choose the cardio machine that you can burn the most calories doing. That often means the one you can push yourself the hardest on.
But the second most important criteria in choosing the best fat-loss cardio for you is the workout you'll stick with over time. After all, what good is a calorie-torching, belly fat-burning workout if you're not going to do it consistently.
You can't just do a few HIIT elliptical sessions and call it good, you need to make it a part of your ongoing fitness routine. Aim to incorporate high-intensity or HIIT cardio sessions two to three non-consecutive days of the week. For the best results, alternate with strength training (see below for more).
To make things a bit easier, here's a rank of the cardio workouts that burn the most calories (dependent on your intensity level, of course):
- Stationary cycling: 391 calories
- Running (6 mph): 372 calories
- Swimming: 372 calories
- Jumping rope: 372 calories
- Step aerobics: 372 calories
- Elliptical: 335 calories
- Rowing machine: 316 calories
- Circuit training: 298 calories
- Outdoor bicycling (12-14 mph): 298 calories
- Stair stepper: 223 calories
Complement Cardio With Strength Training
Even though you're after the calorie burning and fat-loss effects of cardio, strength training is also critical to belly-fat loss. A comprehensive strength-training routine that builds muscle in all the major muscle groups makes your body more efficient at burning calories.
Aim for a minimum of two resistance-training workouts per week that target the back, chest, arms, shoulders, legs, hips and abs. One set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise for each of these groups is sufficient, as long as you use weight that fatigues the muscle group by the last couple of repetitions.
Though you should strive to hit every major muscle group in your strength training workouts (especially important if you're a beginner), here are some of the best strength training exercises to lose belly fat:
- Bicycle crunches
- Stability ball crunches
- Stability ball knee pull-ins
- Standing side bends
- Boat pose
- Plank pose
- Mountain climbers
- Harvard Health Publications: Taking Aim at Belly Fat
- Yale Scientific: Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?
- Rush University Medical Center: Is There 'One Trick' to Losing Belly Fat?
- Influence of Exercise Intensity on Abdominal Fat and Adiponectin in Elderly Adults
- CDC: Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate
- High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss
- Harvard Health Publications: Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights
- Harvard Health Publications: Add weight training to control belly fat, say Harvard researchers