You want a trimmer waistline. You want to lose a few pounds of belly fat in a relatively short period of time. Shoot, you’d even love a set of six-pack abs.
That’s great, because when you reduce your percentage of body fat (especially when you lose visceral fat like belly fat), you reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease… and if you do it the right way, you improve your overall health and fitness. So while losing some belly fat will help you look better, it will also make you healthier.
Can’t beat that.
Reducing your body fat percentage isn’t easy, though. If it was, everyone would look like this. But if you follow the right program, you can. Stick to the following plan and reducing your body fat percentage — and some pounds of belly fat — is almost assured.
But first let’s get a couple of things out of the way.
One, it’s impossible to “spot reduce.” While you can target certain areas of your body in terms of building up the muscles in that area, you can’t decide to just lose weight in your stomach, or your thighs, or your rear… it doesn’t work that way. You can’t remove subcutaneous body fat from specific areas of the body by doing exercises that target those areas. Doing hundreds of crunches will certainly strengthen your abs, but that won’t reduce the amount of fat stored in your torso.
Want to lose pounds of belly fat? You’ll have to lose pounds of weight. Some will come from your stomach. Some will come from the rest of your body.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have certain areas where we’re predisposed to put on fat. If I gain a few excess pounds, most seems to appear on my stomach. Other people tend to put on pounds in their thighs or rear. They’re gaining weight everywhere, of course, but it seems to appear more readily in a certain area. On the flip side, if I lose five or six pounds, my waistline gets noticeably less soft.
But I’m still losing fat everywhere else: Chest, arms, legs, rear, face… everywhere. That’s how it works.
So don’t fall for the spot reduction myth. If you want to lose pounds of body fat you’ll have to reduce your overall body fat percentage, which almost always means losing weight. (Unless you’re way out of shape, it’s really, really hard to add significant amounts of muscle while also losing weight.)
Which leads us to point number two: If you want to lose belly fat, you’ll need to lose weight. If you stick to the following plan you won’t have to lose as much weight as you might think because your body will burn more fat for energy, but still. Reducing your body fat percentage will require losing some weight. Don’t go into this thinking you won’t have to lose weight, because that’s the surest way to fail.
So what is the best way to lose belly fat and reduce your overall body fat percentage?
1. Follow an intermittent fasting eating routine.
Intermittent fasting — here’s a thorough guide to intermittent fasting — is not a diet, although you can follow an intermittent fasting schedule in conjunction with a calorie reduction plan. It’s just a different way of eating — and a great way to burn more fat and change your body composition to and shift your muscle to fat ratio toward a greater percentage of muscle.
Here’s how it works.
Think of your body as being in two states: the “fed” state and the “fasted” state.
Once you start eating your body shifts into the fed state. Even after you’ve finished eating, you stay in the fed state for roughly 3 to 5 hours (depending on what you’ve eaten, how frequently you’ve eaten, your metabolic rate, and other factors.)
When you’re in the fed state, your insulin levels naturally increase, and when your insulin levels are high you typically don’t burn fat for energy because your body doesn’t need to tap into its fat stores — what you’ve eaten gives it plenty to work with.
After somewhere between three and five hours your body stops processing its last meal. There’s nothing left to absorb so insulin levels naturally decrease. Then, somewhere between eight and 12 hours after that last meal, your body starts burning stored fat. (Why don’t you start burning fat sooner? Biology is sometimes a pain in the ass; it’s like our bodies will do anything to hang on to fat. )
So, when you’re in the fed state your body doesn’t need to burn fat; it’s like the door to the fat store is locked. When you’re in the fasted state, the door to the fat store swings open.
But it takes eight to 12 hours to get into the fasted state. Start your day with breakfast at 7 a.m. and don’t have your last meal until your 9 p.m. snack and you almost never go into a fasted state. Fast for 16 hours, and you do.
And that’s how, over time, you can lose a few percentage points of fat even if you don’t change your exercise routine and don’t change what you eat; keep all the other variables consistent and intermittent fasting will cause you to lose fat.
Science says so; in one study, after eight weeks participants who followed an intermittent fasting eating schedule lost 3.5 pounds of fat while those who similarly exercised and took in the same total calories did not.
Plus, who can ignore Jackman science: To play Wolverine, Hugh Jackman followed an intermittent fasting eating regimen to put on over 20 pounds of muscle while also leaning out. (Proving it is possible to add significant muscle while losing fat… but it’s really, really hard.)
Yep: Intermittent fasting works.
The beauty of intermittent fasting is that there really is just one rule: Eat for 8 hours, then don’t eat for 16 hours. (Some people choose to fast for 18 hours; try that if you want, but, jeez, it’s a long time to go without eating.) When you decide to start eating is up to you. What you eat during that time frame is up to you.
Just figure out what works best for your schedule and your lifestyle. Most people wait a while after they wake up to start eating; for me, it’s easier to hold off for a few hours in the morning than it is to go, say, from 3 or 4 p.m. until bedtime without eating. Plus, if you work out in the morning before you eat, you get to double-dip on fat burning, since your body will use even more of your stored fat for energy.
Speaking of that double-dip…
2. Do some cardio first thing in the morning.
According to at least one study in which participants ate 30 percent more calories and 50 percent more fat every day than they normally would, the people who exercised before eating breakfast gained almost no weight and their insulin levels remained healthy.
That could in part be due to the fact that their bodies burned more fat throughout the day, not just during exercise, than the other people in the study.
Those findings add to the evidence that exercising when your stomach is empty causes your body to burn more fat, both when you exercise and throughout the rest of the day.
So if you want to be able to eat more and still maintain your current body weight, get up earlier and exercise before breakfast. If you want to lose weight, get up earlier and exercise before breakfast. And if you want to be in a better mood all day, definitely exercise before breakfast. Researchers at the University of Vermont found that aerobic training of moderate intensity, with an average heart rate of around 112 beats a minute — elevated, sure, but it’s not like they were hammering away — improved participants’ mood for up to 12 hours after exercise.
Lose weight and still be in a better mood? Who wouldn’t sign up for that?
I know what you’re thinking: Do that every day? I can’t do that.
One, yes you can. And two, if you shoot for seven days a week but only manage four or five days a week of twenty minutes of moderate cardio first thing in the morning, you’re still way ahead.
3. Do HIIT training at least three times a week.
High Intensity Interval Training is a routine that combines moderate intensity intervals with high intensity intervals. (Here’s a thorough look at the benefits of HIIT training.)
Why does HIIT training work better than conventional cardio for fat loss? When you do cardio at the same pace, your body adjust itself to the workload and tries to conserve calories. (After all, your body doesn’t know how long or hard you plan to work out.) Interval training forces your body to burn more calories — and tap into fat stores — because it has no choice. Science says so: One study at Laval University found people who performed HIIT cardio lost nine times more fat than people who performed moderate cardio at a consistent speed.
What does a HIIT workout look like? You could jog for two minutes, sprint for one minute, jog for two minutes, sprint for one minute… Or you could do a HIIT workout on a bike, or by running up stairs and then jogging back down…. The key is that you go relatively all out for a short period of time, then recover by maintaining a moderate level of intensity, then go again.
That means, of course, that you can’t just spin lightly on an exercise bike. You can’t just breeze along on the elliptical. You can’t just knock out twelve reps of dumbbell bicep curls with a five-pound weight while you check your email with your free hand.
You have to go hard.
Yes, it will hurt. It’s supposed to. But “pain” is relative. If you haven’t been exercising at all, mixing in a few 30-second jogging intervals during a 20-minute walk will hurt — and will help you get in better shape, so that down the road you’ll be able to do even more.
If you haven’t been exercising at all, doing four sets of 15 burpees will hurt — and will help get you in better shape so that down the road you’ll be able to do even more.
That’s the cool thing about working out. Improving you is all that matters. Start from where you are, and work on improving that. Improvement, any improvement, is success.
And as you improve, you’ll also burn fat.
4. Do some basic strength training.
Strength training increases your metabolic rate, both during exercise and after. A pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat. Strength training makes your muscles look better when the fat that was hiding them starts to disappear.
And besides that, it’s just fun to get stronger — you not only feel better, you move better. And you’ll feel better about yourself.
If you don’t want to go to a gym, that’s okay. If you want to get in better shape, this is the perfect plan for gaining greater strength and mobility.
And don’t worry that doing strength exercises — or lifting weights — will make you get all bulky. That’s another myth.
5. Do a reasonable amount of core exercises.
Having great abs — having a six-pack — is the result of having a low body fat percentage. You can do crunches for hours a day, but if you have excess fat on your stomach, your ab muscles won’t show through. If you’re not lean, no matter how strong or well-developed your abs, they won’t show through.
That means you want to work your core… but you don’t have to go crazy.
A reasonable workout would be, say, three sets of 15 hanging leg raises, three to four times a week. Hanging leg raises, done correctly, will work your entire mid-section.
Can’t do that many leg raises? That’s okay. Do roman chair leg raises. If you can’t do those, that’s okay. Do sit-ups.
But don’t automatically default to an easier workout. Try your best to do hanging leg raises. If you absolutely can’t, then try roman chair leg raises and again, try your best. Then work hard to get stronger so you can advance to a tougher abdominal exercise.
Do that — continually strive for progress — and your abs will look great when your belly fat start to go away. Plus, a stronger core improves your posture and naturally sucks your stomach in.
6. Lose some weight.
That means taking in fewer calories than you burn. That means making healthier choices. That means… well, you know what that means. You know what you should eat. We all do. White flours and white sugars are the enemy. Foods like white breads, cookies, white pasta, white rice, and white potatoes are out. (The same is true for “white fats” like butter and full-fat cheese.)
Replace the white stuff with vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins. You’ll lose a couple pounds (at least) just from taking this one step. Science says so.
Then make sure every meal is healthy. All you have to do is include a serving of lean protein (fish, poultry, egg whites, etc.) with two servings of vegetables or one serving of vegetables and one serving of fruit. Or if you’re a vegetarian, include foods with sufficient protein.
Will eating that way require some planning? Of course. Map out what you’ll eat tomorrow prepare it ahead of time. Then when it’s time to eat, you won’t have to make any decisions about what to eat — you’ll just eat.
Remember, decisions are diet killers. Eliminate as many decisions as possible.
But seriously: You don’t need me to tell you what you should eat. You already know. If you say you don’t, you’re kidding yourself. You know — you just prefer to think you don’t know.
Then, when you weigh yourself, do it at the same time every day so you eliminate variables. (I weigh myself as soon as I get out of bed.) While you won’t lose weight every day, you should notice a downward trend, and if you don’t, you need to adjust accordingly. Look back on what you’ve eaten and how you’ve exercised and determine where you’ve gone wrong.
If you’re honest with yourself the mistakes will be easy to spot, especially when you keep a food journal. The Hawthorne effect works: When we are being observed we change our behaviors … just in this case, you will be the one who is doing the observing.
Plus writing down everything you eat will keep you from any “mindless” eating and will keep you from underestimating — because we all underestimate — what you actually consume.
So write everything down. Then total up your calories at the end of the day. Ideally, you’ll eat 300 to 400 fewer calories than you did before you started, and at the end of the month that will be worth three to four pounds.
Some of that four pounds will disappear from your waistline. That, plus all the other changes you made, will add up to an even greater total weight loss, and along with it, a significant loss of belly fat.
And a much healthier you.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.