The dreaded lower back and stomach fat -- quaintly referred to as a "muffin top." The unsightly appearance of a spare tire hanging round your waist is reason enough to get rid of it ASAP. But there are health reasons for banishing belly fat as well. Deep belly fat, called visceral fat, is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer in woman.
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Along with a healthy diet, exercise is crucial. But abdominal and lower back exercises alone aren't going to help you -- spot reduction is a myth! Regular cardiovascular exercise, including high-intensity training, and total-body strength training are the best types of exercise to whittle your waistline on the double.
Fat Loss Facts
To lose fat, you need to create a calorie deficit. That means keeping the calories you take in through food and beverages below the number of calories you burn. The latter is a complex equation based on your gender, age, weight, height, genetics and how active you are. You can use an online calorie calculator to get a general idea, and your doctor or a nutritionist can work out a more specific number for you.
Controlling your calorie intake makes a big difference. So does increasing your activity level. Cardiovascular exercise burns calories while you're doing it, and some types can actually increase calorie-burning for 24 hours afterward. Harvard Health Publications recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
Strength training doesn't burn as many calories as cardio, but it's still important to help you lose the muffin top because it builds lean muscle mass. Muscle requires more calories to build and maintain than fat; the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns just maintaining itself. Muscle also takes up less room pound-for-pound than fat, so you get a leaner appearance around your midsection and all over your body.
Starting an Exercise Program
If you haven't exercised in a while -- or ever -- it's a good idea to start out slow and build up a solid base of strength and stamina. Beginners will burn more calories just brisk walking than more experienced exercisers because their bodies will be more challenged. And that added weight around your midsection will also increase your calorie burn at first because it adds to your body weight -- the heavier you are the more calories you'll burn.
Here are some decent calorie-burning exercises for the beginner and the number of calories you can expect to burn in 30 minutes if you weigh between 125 and 185 pounds:
- Low-impact aerobics: 165-244
- Stationary bike, moderate pace: 210-311
- Walking 4 mph: 135-200
- Jogging, <10 mph: 180-266
- Swimming: 180-266
Do two to four weeks of regular moderate-intensity exercise, then turn it up a notch for more calorie-burning, muffin-top diminishing power.
Higher Intensity Exercise
If you've already been exercising for a while but you're not seeing any changes around your midsection, you can cut calories and up your cardio intensity. High-intensity cardio burns more calories in the same amount of time. And, it's better at burning abdominal fat, according to a study published in 2009 in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders.
Here are some examples of vigorous exercise with calories burned in 30 minutes for people weighing 125 to 185 pounds:
- High-impact aerobics: 210-311
- High-impact step aerobics: 300-444
- Stationary bike, vigorous pace: 315-466
- Running, 12 min/mile: 240-355
- Running, 10 min/mile: 300-444
- Swimming laps, vigorous pace: 300-444
- Bicycling, 16-19 mph: 360-533
HIIT It Even Harder
When you have a solid fitness base, you can add in a couple of sessions a week of high-intensity intermittent training. HIIT has been shown to burn more calories and increase metabolism more than steady state cardio. And a review of research published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011 reported that it may also be better at targeting belly fat.
You can do HIIT in different ways. Breaking up a cardio session into periods of intense sprinting and periods of recovery is good entry point. You can also do a circuit with weight training that incorporates HIIT, but we'll get to that later.
Here's a sample HIIT workout you can do on a treadmill:
- Set the incline to .5 or 1 percent.
- Warm up at an easy pace for 5 minutes.
- Increase your pace to a sprint for 60 seconds.
- Lower the speed to an easy jog or brisk walk for 60 seconds.
- Repeat seven more times.
- Cool down with an easy walk for 3 minutes.
The key is to work to your highest potential during your sprint periods. That gets your heart rate up high enough to have the metabolic effects on your body that gets the results HIIT is known for.
Building a Leaner Midsection with Strength Training
Build lean muscle mass all over your body -- and a toned midsection -- with two to three full-body strength training sessions each week. It's important to target all your major muscle groups -- arms, shoulders, back, chest and legs, in addition to your midsection -- so that you develop balanced strength and muscle tone.
And, don't waist your time on isolation exercises, such as biceps curls. These exercises aren't good for fat loss. Focus on compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time. These exercises burn more calories while you're doing them and after you finish your workout because of an effect called post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Many compound exercises also require a lot of activity from your abs and low back because those muscles act as stabilizers. Bonus!
These are some examples of effective compound exercises to include in your workouts:
- Push-ups: regular or modified
- Pull-ups: assisted or unassisted
- Rows: bent-over, cable or reverse
- Squats: body weight, dumbbell or barbell
- Lunges: body weight, dumbbell or barbell
- Squat thrusts
- Bench press
High-Intensity Circuit Training -- The Fat Blaster
How lean do you want to get? High-intensity circuit training combines strength-training moves and high-intensity cardio with little rest in between sets for maximum calorie-burn and a metabolic boost. It's best for intermediate and advanced exercisers who are ready to say a final farewell to that muffin top.
The basic structure of a circuit workout is simple. Choose five or six compound exercises that work all the major muscle groups, plus one or two core exercises, and do three or four rounds of one set of each exercise. During the rounds, you'll move from one exercise to the next without resting in between. You can take a short rest -- 1 to 2 minutes -- at the end of each round.
For an extra boost, add in some cardio, such as a treadmill or rowing sprint, jumping rope or jumping jacks. Add this as an exercise, or in between each round.
You can do each exercise for a number of reps or for a period of time, say 60 seconds. Either way, the last rep of each set should be very challenging. If it's too easy, up the resistance.
Here's a sample workout for you to try:
- Jump Squats
- Jump rope
- Reverse row
Do each exercise for 60 seconds. If you fatigue, stop for a second or two, then keep going. No rest in between sets. One minute of rest in between rounds. Set a stopwatch or have a friend time you. Then kiss your muffin top goodbye.
Read more: 10 Most Effective Ab Workouts
- ACE: 7 Things to Know About Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)
- Harvard Health Publications: Abdominal fat and what to do about it
- Harvard Health Publications: Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights
- Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders: Influence of Exercise Intensity on Abdominal Fat and Adiponectin in Elderly Adults
- Journal of Obesity: High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss