How to lose stomach fat and get six-pack abs
In my nearly 18 years in health and fitness, I've often come across the same question over and over again. "I work out every day, but I still have belly fat...why?"
When it comes to getting great abs, it's simply not enough to work out and eat healthy, despite what we're conditioned to think. While both those things are very important for your health, there are several other crucial factors that can't be avoided if a flat, toned stomach is your goal. The way you work out and the quality of the food you eat, as well as sleep, stress, and breathing, make a huge difference.
Here are seven things you should do and pay attention to in order to get a flat, defined, strong, and healthy midsection this summer:
1. Cardio isn't enough
That's right — how you work out matters. Fact is fact, and I'm here to tell you that cardio alone isn't enough to burn belly fat. Strength training increases muscle mass, and because muscle is far more metabolically active than fat (it needs more energy to live) you'll burn more fat (belly included). You must use resistance training — bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, machines, barbells, you name it. But you must load weight and continuously challenge the body to transform with muscle — muscle that will eat up fat.
2. Stress causes belly fat
Yes, you've likely heard it and it's real. Stress = belly fat. To understand why, there are three hormones you need to be aware of.
- Cortisol: A stress hormone that triggers fat storage. If you're placing your body under stress daily — this includes stress from home or work, as well as stress from incorrect workout structure, overtraining, yo-yo diets, or lack of sleep — you're triggering cortisol. Stress hormones are very much responsible for causing overeating and messing with your body's signaling system for energy use, fuel storage, and balance.
- Leptin: A hormone produced by your fat cells that plays a role in appetite control. It can also act to slow your metabolism. To help regulate this hormone you must exercise, stay active, and eat clean. Research has found excess body fat can cause a condition known as leptin resistance, meaning your brain isn't affected by leptin even though your body contains higher levels of it. Basically, when you have too much sugar and poor-quality foods, the hormone is overproduced and the body does not respond to it correctly.
- Insulin: Every time you down a carb-heavy meal or sugary drink, your blood sugar spikes. In response, your body releases insulin, whose job it is to pull extra glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream. Gaining weight can often lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which cells become less responsive to the hormone, and to diabetes.
All three of these hormones have a huge impact on weight gain and fat storage in your midsection, and regulating these hormones requires exercise, good sleep, a clean diet, and correct breathing—especially when you're under stress.
3. Breathing is crucial
Incorrect breathing during exercise — even your toughest workouts — can hurt your flat belly goals. When you panic-breathe during exercise, your adrenal glands release cortisol. That response, which is meant to give you a burst of energy for fighting or fleeing, causes you to accumulate and store fat in your belly.
Breathing correctly means breathing deep into your belly — never shallow "panic" breathing with your mouth. Aim to fill your belly with air by breathing in through your nose. No matter how hard your workout, never allow yourself to shallow breathe through the mouth.
4. Overtraining won't help
Just because you're working out doesn't mean you're getting the benefits. This means having a training plan, not just training at random. When you train, you should be doing a specific sequence of exercises, lifting weight, and having a goal-specific work-rest structure. Aim for daily activity.
Make sure to find a complete program, not a single workout. The program should have a good structure and tax you in the workload, but leave you replenished after, not hurting and exhausted.
5. Be patient
You get on a program, get excited, give it your all for a week or two...and then what? You don't see the results you'd like in the first week or so, you get disappointed and switch to a new program, diet or workout. Unfortunately, impatience is a leading factor in not reaching your goals.
Always remember that everyone gets results at a different pace. If you abandon a workout too soon, your body doesn't have the opportunity to make the changes you're asking it to make. If you pick a program, give it a chance; stick with it all the way to the end, be patient, and enjoy the learning process.
6. Fat-free foods are not your friends
Fat-free foods might seem like a good idea, but they're often full of hidden sugars, additives, and preservatives, all of which will trigger poor hormone response and hunger cravings. You must eat real, whole food! Look for good fats like avocados, salmon, and nuts. Eat fiber-rich foods, leafy greens, and fruit. Enjoy natural proteins and all-natural carbohydrates from sweet potato, kasha, quinoa, and whole grains. Be picky about what you put into your body and don't let a food label sway your judgment.
7. Looking for "perfection" is dangerous
The truth is that your abs might never look like those of your fitness mentor or an underwear model. But that doesn't mean they can't be defined, strong, and capable. Learn to look at your gains in terms of strength, function, and then looks, not just looks alone. We're all distinctly unique and so are our strengths and weaknesses. Recognize and respect your body, hard work, and results, and you'll develop a healthier, more positive, and less stressful outlook on fitness and life. And you'll make attaining physical goals like toned abs that much easier!
Dasha L. Anderson is a celebrity trainer and fitness expert in New York City, with a master's degree in exercise science and sports nutrition and a specialty in performance enhancement and injury prevention. She is also the founder and head certifying instructor of Kettlebell Kickboxing and has contributed to Self, Shape, Fitness Rx, and Epoch Times.