This is the second in a series of blogposts about fitness myths. Read the first post here.
This one is bound to make a few people sad. If you’ve been dutifully crunching away day after day, waiting for the flab to disappear from your midsection, then I’m afraid you’ve been wasting your time. Crunches, sit-ups, planks and other ab exercises will never get rid of belly fat. They may tone the muscles that lie beneath that fat, but you’ll never know for sure unless you start spending your exercise time more wisely.
Before we even address exercise, though, we have to talk about what will really make a difference – your diet. A flat stomach is made in the kitchen, not in the gym. What you eat and drink, and how much you eat and drink will have a much bigger impact on your waistline than any exercise can. That’s because you can’t out-exercise ice cream. Or pizza, or beer or strawberry daiquiris. Or the charcuterie plate, or sticky buns, or double mocha lattes with whipped cream, and certainly not homemade chocolate chip cookies. It would take 30 – 60 minutes of heart-pumping, grunting and groaning exercise to burn off a single serving of any of these high-calorie foods. That might not sound so bad until you consider that you’re not trying to burn off the calories you just ate, you’re trying to burn off the ones you ate a week or a month or a year ago – you’re trying to lose the flab! So shore up your diet first, and then you can worry about the next step to getting a flat stomach.
If losing belly fat is your goal, then there’s another little bit of reality you’ll need to come to grips with: you can’t pick where you lose your fat from. When you lose fat, unfortunately your genes determine where it comes off first and where it clings to for dear life. It is my opinion that a disproportionate number of us have genes that want to hoard fat around our bellies. This is not fair, but there’s nothing we can do about it except lose fat over our whole body first, and then whittle away at those last few pounds that bulge over the waistband. Accept this so that you don’t lose sleep over it and have to skip your workout the next day because you’re too tired.
This brings us, finally, to exercise. If you want to have a flat stomach, then you need to do cardio. Do cardio as long as you can, as hard as you can and as often as you can. More than two hours in a single session is great – it forces your body to burn fat, because it’s already gone through all of your glycogen stores. Not a masochist? Well then, just do what you can tolerate and/or fit into your life without getting too obsessive about it. And don’t go all-out every workout. It’s good to mix things up in terms of exercise type, intensity and duration. Variety will help you avoid injury and keep you from getting bored and the best kind of exercise for burning fat is the kind you’ll actually do. Make it a goal to do some exercise every day, and you’ll be off to a good start.
Building muscle is also a good way to burn more fat, because it raises your metabolism. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that muscle has some kind of magic fat-burning power where it burns the fat in closest proximity to it. My hunch is that this kind of thinking is behind all of those sit-ups people keep doing in hopes of getting a flat stomach. The truth is, you should try to build more muscle in your large muscle groups – legs, glutes, chest, back and shoulders – because it’s your overall muscle mass that boosts your basal metabolic rate.
Finally, if you’re starting to win the battle of the bulge and you want to tone up those abdominal muscles when they start poking through, then you’ll want to focus more on crunches, sit-ups and planks. Of course, it’s good and healthy to have a strong core, so don’t skip ab exercises altogether, but know that doing more than two or three sets of 12 – 15 repetitions two or three times a week is overkill and a waste of your time.
Good luck to you in your quest for perfect abs. If you ever get them, take a picture and post it here!