Can Your Workout Actually Target Abdominal Fat?

Experts explain why you should forget crunches and adopt a whole-body approach when it comes to fitness.

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woman tying shoes in preparation for workout

Photo, iStock.

If you’re hoping to target your tummy with a new ab routine, you’re not alone. “I have been a trainer for 18 years and I would say about 80 percent of my clients ask me to help them lose belly flab,” says Tammy Slauenwhite, a canfitpro-certified trainer and owner of Go Fit Life in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Keeping your waistline in check is also important for your health. As our waistlines grow, so does the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers, thanks to so-called visceral fat. “It packs in and around organs like your liver and pancreas and they just don’t function well when that happens,” says Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

This doesn’t mean you should try every ab workout on Instagram to eliminate ab flab, though. Research shows that ab exercises do little to actually get rid of abdominal fat. “Spot fat reduction is a total myth,” says Phillips. In other words, no matter how many series of crunches, oblique twists or side planks you do, you’re not really targeting the fat around your middle. To lose ab flab, you need a whole-body approach incorporating exercise and diet, say the experts. Here’s how.
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Adjust your diet

If  you’re looking to lose fat around your tummy, you’ll need to focus on losing weight overall. “There’s no belly fat targeting weight loss plan per se,” says Phillips. To shed pounds all over, including on your tummy, Slauenwhite says it helps to adopt a meal plan loaded with low-glycemic whole foods. These include leafy greens, lean meats, fish and dairy. “Avoid high glycemic foods such as breads, crackers, granola bars, chips, sugary treats and processed foods,” she says. (And it’s always wise to consult your doctor or a dietitian before making drastic changes to your diet.)

Move for maximum burn from head to toe

When it comes to working out, Phillips recommends a combination of cardio and strength training, in whatever forms you enjoy (read: will actually do on a regular basis).

Slauenwhite agrees. “I encourage my clients to pick an activity that they love and we can structure it to maximize fat burning benefits,” she says. “If you like to run, you could do intervals where you run fast for 30 second to get your heart rate up high, then take a walking break in between of about 1 minute.” Do three interval runs a week along with two strength-training sessions and you’re set up for optimal fat burning all over your body. If you’re short on time and looking to pare down the number of trips you make to the gym, you could also do a cardio and weight-lifting routine together using the HIIT (High-intensity interval training) method, she says.

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Carve out a stronger core

Although both experts recommend full-body workouts, you should still work on conditioning your core (which includes your abdominals as well as the muscles surrounding your spine, pelvis, back and hips). You need a strong core for good balance and stability. Everything from swimming to power-walking can help to strengthen your midsection, says Slauenwhite.

But skip the crunches, sit-ups and stuff you learned in high-school gym class. “I do NOT recommend the old fashioned crunch,” says Slauenwhite. Crunches don’t target your abdominal muscles well and they tend to put strain on your lower back. There are plenty of ab-busting moves she does endorse, including “bird dog” (check out the video below to see this move in action) and a variation of plank called “stir the pot,” but she advises seeking some professional instruction from a certified trainer to make sure you’ve got the correct technique down.

Whichever workouts you choose, just get moving. “The main message is that you need to get your heart rate up and step outside of your comfort zone if you want to make changes to your body,” says Slauenwhite.