Anyone who’s ever set out to achieve the “six pack” ab aesthetic, whether unsuccessfully or successfully, knows that it’s not an easy feat.
In particular, burning excess belly fat typically poses the biggest challenge for many, but according to Marc Perry, founder and CEO of BuiltLean and top personal trainer in New York City, it’s because many people fail to recognize a simple but important concept about burning fat.
“Spot reduction is a myth,” Perry said. “It's not possible to target losing body fat off certain areas preferentially over others through diet or exercise.”
Several studies, as Yale Scientific points out, have shown that targeting fat loss with specific exercises does not work.
“Ultimately, fat loss comes down not to targeted exercises, but to the basic principle of how many calories you expend versus how many you take in,” Yale Scientific reporter Elena Perry explains. “Doing 100 crunches a day can effectively strengthen your abdominal muscles, but it probably will not make them any more visible unless you also take other steps to reduce your overall body fat.”
What other steps do you need to take?
“Because it's not possible to spot reduce, the best course of action is to follow a diet, nutrition and lifestyle regimen that helps maximize fat loss,” Perry said. “In order to maximize fat loss, the goal is to eat less calories than you burn while satisfying your hunger and maximizing calorie burn potential.”
Excerpted from his free Get Lean Guide, Perry says the following five habits help to maximize body fat loss, and ultimately aid in the process of burning belly fat.
1. Do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
“Intermittent bouts of high intensity exercise mixed with rest has shown time and again to burn more fat than moderate intensity exercise, whether using weights, or cardiovascular exercise,” Perry explained. “HIIT can be accomplished with cardiovascular exercise, or resistance training protocols.” An example, he said, would be alternating between 30 seconds on and 60 seconds off of cycling or kettlebell swings.
2. Get Enough Sleep
“Sleep is so important because the less you sleep, the harder it is to control your hunger and have enough energy to exercise,” Perry said. “There are two hormones that are particularly important for controlling your hunger, leptin and ghrelin.”
Leptin, he explained, acts as a “fat thermostat” that tells your body how much body fat you have, which helps to regulate your hunger. If you have more leptin, you’ll be less hungry.
“Ghrelin, also referred to as ‘growling ghrelin,’ is a hormone released when we are hungry,” Perry said.
Essentially, the higher your ghrelin levels, the more hungry you’ll feel.
He points to one study that showed that sleep deprivation led to a 45 percent increase in the desire for high-carbohydrate, calorie-dense foods.
“Another study showed that people who lost weight who were also sleep deprived lost more muscle than participants who got ample sleep,” Perry added.
See also: Are You Getting Enought Sleep?
3. Eat Whole Foods
“Both calorie quantity and quality matter,” Perry said. “Both are important because they are integrally tied together. The type and quality of calories you eat directly effects the number of calories you eat.”
Perry explained that whole foods, like apples, broccoli, almonds and chicken, are important because they satisfy hunger more than foods that are highly processed or high in sugar, like candy, soda or high-sugar cereals.
“If you want to lose fat, you must eat fewer calories than you burn while satisfying your hunger,” Perry said. “The solution is to focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods that fill you up. The less ingredients a food has, the better. If you notice a certain food gives you a stomach ache, or makes you feel bloated—grains, milk and beans for example can sometimes do this—then stop eating them.”
4. Track Your Progress
“Tracking your progress will help you identify improvements from consistent exercise and better eating so that you can link your efforts to positive results,” Perry explained.
Perry said you might consider tracking one or a few of the following metrics:
- Body weight
- Body fat percentage
- Body measurements
- Strength/ performance goals (like the number of pull-ups you can do)
- Number of daily steps taken, using a fitness tracker like FitBit
“If you stay motivated to exercise and maintain a calorie deficit, you will eventually lose all the stubborn belly fat you have,” he said.
5. Limit Alcohol Consumption
“Alcohol is technically a toxin that does not aid in the growth or repairing of the body,” Perry said. “When you consume alcohol, you practically shut down your body’s ability to burn fat. At best, drinking alcohol will slow your progress, more likely, it may add more belly fat to your frame and negatively affect your sleep patterns.”
Finally, Perry says there’s one more important things to understand about body fat.
“There are two types of stored white fat,” he said. “Visceral and subcutaneous.”
Perry said that visceral fat or ‘deep’ fat wraps around the inner organs, while subcutaneous fat is found directly under the skin.
“For people who have excessive belly fat, there is likely a combination of visceral and subcutaneous fat in the belly,” he added. “Visceral is considered the ‘dangerous’ fat that is associated with mortality, but it's also preferentially used as energy, which means you lose more visceral fat first before subcutaneous.”
Knowing this, keep in mind that burning fat stored more towards the surface of your stomach could take longer than expected, depending on your starting point. However, as Perry mentioned, if you stay consistent and motivated, you will eventually see results.