If you're struggling with excess fat around your stomach and lower back, brace yourself for a combination of good news and bad news. The bad news is that spot reduction is a total myth, so you can't just magically lean out your midsection. But the good news is that a combination of increased physical activity and healthy eating really does help you lose weight from all over your body — including that spare tire that may be hanging on around your stomach.
Although you can't "spot reduce" lower back or stomach fat, you can follow a program of increased physical activity and a nutritious diet to help you lose back and belly fat — along with excess fat from everywhere else on your body.
Creating a Calorie Deficit
At its root, the whole point of upping your physical activity and moderating your diet is to create a calorie deficit, which means you're burning more calories than you're taking in. That forces your body to tap into its stored energy reserves — aka your body fat — for fuel.
Research suggests that quality matters a lot more than quantity in this case; in a 2018 trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, some subjects were placed on a healthy low-fat diet, while others took part in a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. Ultimately, the researchers found that both groups lost notable amounts of weight, even without counting calories. It was the shift to a healthy diet, as opposed to the type of diet or the number of calories, that mattered the most.
With that said, if you need a "plan" for healthy eating, a Mediterranean-style diet models many of the changes you should make for better health and weight loss, including eating more high-fiber foods like whole grains, plus nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein.
And, if you want a healthy calorie target to aim for, consult Appendix 2 of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, which gives calorie guidelines per day according to your age, gender and level of physical activity. As an example, a moderately active man between the ages of 26 and 45 needs around 2,600 calories per day; a woman of the same age and activity level needs approximately 2,000 calories.
A Plan for Cardio Workouts
Cardio is great for torching allover body fat, including that spare tire, but it's also an important component for health. Even a modest amount of cardiovascular exercise delivers many benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, a stronger immune system, better mood and improved cholesterol levels.
Your first goal for cardio should be to meet the minimum criteria outlined in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, which recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity each week. That's enough activity to kick-start fat loss and create healthy habits that last a lifetime.
When you're ready, ramp up to double that recommendation — 300 minutes of moderate cardio or 150 minutes of vigorous cardio per week — for even more health and fat-loss benefits. From there, continue adding physical activity until you start seeing the weight-loss results you're looking for. Generally, a weight-loss rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week is considered healthy and sustainable over the long term.
Belly Fat Burning Exercises
Anything that gets your large muscle groups moving rhythmically for at least 10 minutes at a time is helpful for burning belly fat. That means all the cardio machines in the gym, including treadmills, stationary bikes and stair climbers; group fitness classes; swimming or water jogging; and anything you can think of outdoors that breaks a sustained sweat, from mowing the lawn to inline skating, hiking or paddling a kayak.
But when it comes to losing fat from the abdominal area, you don't necessarily have to spend all day on an exercise machine. You can make your workouts shorter by upping the exercise intensity. One proven strategy is high-intensity interval training, or HIIT: Combining short, high-intensity sprints with periods of active recovery. A 2018 meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine found HIIT to be a time-effective strategy for reducing fat all over, including around the abdomen.
There is some variation in exactly what's considered a proper HIIT workout but, in general, you can turn almost any cardio activity into high-intensity intervals by alternating sprints with brief recovery periods. Keep moving during the recovery periods, just at a lower intensity than the sprint.
Back and Stomach Fat Exercises
Strength training is a critical part of any weight-loss program, for several reasons. First, building muscle burns calories, which helps with fat loss. Second, lean muscle is about four times more metabolically active than fat — which means you burn even more calories just by existing. And third, although you can't spot reduce any "trouble areas" in your midsection, strength training will help create a firm, sculpted physique that becomes visible as excess fat melts away.
But you shouldn't only strength train to target problem areas. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, you should do at least two full-body strength-training workouts per week. As compared to isolation exercises that work just one muscle at a time, such as biceps curls or triceps kickbacks, choosing compound exercises — in which more than one joint and muscle group work as you lift the weight — burns more calories, mimics real-world movements, and also helps you get through your workout more quickly.
So how should you work out your entire body? Choose at least one exercise from each of the following lists, and aim for eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Do a total of one to three sets for each exercise, using a weight that makes it challenging — but still possible — to maintain proper form through the entire set.
- Barbell bench press
- Machine chest press
- Lat pulldowns
- Cable rows
- Upright row
- Back flyes/reverse flyes
- Shoulder press
- Leg press
Targeting Your Core
Any comprehensive weight-training program should target your core too — and if you consider that a problem area, feel free to do a few extra exercises. Again, you won't be spot reducing (because that's impossible), but you will be creating a firm, muscular physique.
Choose two to four exercises from the following list:
- Bicycle/oblique crunches
- Reverse crunches
- Hollow holds
- Back extensions
- Front and side planks
- Hanging leg raises/captain's chair
- Glute bridges/hip thrusts
Also, your core isn't just your abs; it includes your hips, glutes and lower-back muscles as well, all of which can help with posture. You might be surprised by just how much a change in posture can help your body look stronger and slimmer, even before anything else has changed; and building a strong core will also help you feel stronger in all your other exercises.
- ExRX.net: Spot Reduction Myth
- The National Weight Control Registry: NWCR Facts
- Journal of the American Medical Association: Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion
- Harvard Health Publishing: Diet & Weight Loss
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Losing Weight
- Sports Medicine: Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass: A Meta-Analysis
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism
- Prescription to Get Active: Resistance Training for Health and Fitness