If you've got a little extra softness in your belly that you'd love to tighten, you're in luck — it's possible to tone a flabby stomach. With healthy eating and the right exercise, you can even create a stomach you'd be proud to sport in a crop top, at the beach or in skinny jeans.
First, clean up your diet and participate in cardio exercise to help shed excess fat. Begin to include regular strength-training to build muscle, which helps you look more toned everywhere, including your abs. Targeted abdominal exercises also help create definition in your belly that will be most apparent when you do lose extra fat.
Anatomy of Flab
The flab in your belly is likely subcutaneous fat, which lies just under the skin. This type of fat isn't as unhealthy as the firmer, girth-expanding deep belly fat, but that doesn't make it aesthetically appealing.
The problem with subcutaneous fat is that it's notoriously hard to budge. You can't spot-reduce it, but it will shrink when you reduce your overall body fat levels. Men should aim for about 10 to 12 percent body fat and women, 20 to 22 percent to see a noticeable loss in subcutaneous belly fat and acquire an overall fit appearance.
The stomach is a problem area for a lot of people, too. If you tend to gain fat first in your abdomen, then it may be the last place you see lean out when you've adopted healthier eating and exercise habits.
Clean eating means you eat foods that are largely unadulterated by chemicals and processing. Choosing mostly whole foods, such as lean proteins, fresh produce and unsaturated fats, helps you reach a healthy weight and discourages fat accumulation in your belly.
Limiting carbs is also important to reducing belly flab, a 2015 study in the Journal of Nutrition showed. Overweight and obese participants who limited their carb intake to 41 to 43 percent of total daily calories lost more abdominal fat than participants who reduced fat, but kept carbs at 55 percent of calories. To lower your carb intake, trade out oatmeal, sub sandwiches and pasta bakes for an egg and mushroom omelet, green salad with chicken and roasted salmon with steamed green veggies.
Any physical activity helps increase your calorie burn to encourage fat loss. But, to lose belly fat, you'll probably need to do something more intense than a casual evening walk with family.
A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed that when overweight participants did cardio exercise at a high intensity three times per week and at a low intensity two times per week, they burned more belly fat than those who worked at a lower intensity for all five sessions. It's not that the high-intensity exercisers simply burned more calories — all sessions were designed to burn just 400 calories regardless of intensity.
To determine if your sweat sessions qualify as high-intensity, use a heart rate monitor and work between 70 and 90 percent of your max heart rate (equal to 220 minus your age.) Alternatively, use a talk test — if you can sing easily at your work level, you're likely taking it too easy. During high-intensity work, sentences come out as two- to three-word strings.
Cardio isn't the only strategy on your quest to tighten up your tum. Use weights to change your body composition. The more muscle you have in comparison to fat, the tauter and leaner you look. Your belly becomes tighter too as subcutaneous fat is lost and muscle gained.
Aim for a minimum of two strength-training sessions per week — three if you want quicker results. Do these on non-consecutive days and use heavy weights that make you feel fatigued after eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise. Work all the major muscle groups at each of these workouts — hips, arms, shoulders, chest, back and legs.
Target Your Tummy
Finally, you get to the specifics about the area you're most challenged by — your stomach. Three to five exercises for your abs at each of the strength-training sessions is sufficient to develop muscle, which will then show up as a tight, defined belly when you lose the fat. To keep your torso functioning well and looking good, do at least one stabilizing, one rotational and one flexion exercise at each workout. Work up to three sets total of these moves.
Plank holds are among the most accessible stabilization exercises. To do a front plank, balance on your palms, or forearms, and your toes as you keep your trunk rigid from feet to head. Hold for 20 to 60 seconds at a time. Side planks are done by stacking your hips, shoulders and feet facing, again resting on your toes and either your forearm or palm.
Anti-rotation exercises are also important in stabilization. For example, do the Paloff press by loading a cable machine and position the handle at chest height. Stand with one side of your body facing the cable, grasp the handle with both hands and step out slightly to create slight resistance. Press the cable directly forward, resisting rotation toward the cable machine. Repeat for 10 to 20 repetitions a side.
Rotations train the obliques, which make up the sides of your abdomen. Twisting moves and side bends effectively tone these areas.
Bicycle crunches are effective at toning your sides, especially if you move slowly and attend to form. Lie on your back and place your hands behind your head. Lift your knees up and then rotate your right shoulder to the opposite knee as you extend the right leg; then switch. Alternate for 15 to 20 reps total.
Crunches are an example of spine flexion, but to increase the intensity, perform them on a stability ball. Support your lower back on the ball, feet solidly planted on the floor hip-width apart and crunch up and down.
A captain's chair also involves flexion, even though it doesn't look like your average sit-up. Position yourself into the apparatus — it looks like a very tall chair with no seat. Prop your forearms on the arm holds and press your back into the back rest. Allow your feet to dangle and, then, with control, draw your knees up and down to your chest. Repeat 10 to 12 times total.