Our Top 6 Exercises to Reduce Belly Fat

Written by Tim Skwiat, MEd, CSCS, Pn2

Exercises to Reduce Belly Fat

If you’re like virtually everyone else on the planet, you’re interested in finding the best exercises to reduce belly fat. That’s probably how you stumbled upon this article. Well, I won’t burst your bubble right off the bat by saying “spot reduction” (exercise-induced localized loss of fat) is the “jackalope” of the fitness world. But, I think you will be surprised by my recommendations. Rest assured, however, they’re based on what I’ve found to work best with hundreds of clients.

Tipping the Scales

Before revealing the best exercises to reduce belly fat, it’s important to set the table. Sure, there’s WAY more to the weight-loss story than “calories in versus calories out” or “move more and eat less.” Yet a fundamental principle of human physiology is you have to consume fewer calories than you burn—on a regular basis, consistently over time—to lose a meaningful amount of fat.

Having said that, in the calorie balance equation, there are inputs and outputs, which unquestionably affect each other. That is, you can manipulate “calories in” by what you choose to eat (or not eat). On the other end of the spectrum, exercise is the primary means to increase your daily calorie burn.

Typically, when most people think about exercises to reduce belly fat (and exercising for weight loss in general), they think primarily about burning calories during a workout. In fact, if I were to ask 10 people what they thought were the best exercises to reduce belly fat, I would bet 8 (if not 9 or 10) would say one or both of the following:

  • Cardio
  • Crunches, sit-ups, or any number of the hundreds of ab exercises or gadgets

While you are more than welcome to add these to your belly-fat-burning exercise arsenal, they are not the most efficient means of reaching the end goal. You see, traditional, steady-state cardio only influences one aspect of your overall metabolic rate and burns calories only during the activity. And abdominal exercises, on their own, are not sufficient to reduce belly fat.1 In other words, when it comes to the best exercise for belly fat, spot reduction is as mythical as the jackalope.

The fact is there are better exercises to reduce belly fat! Not only do they burn a substantial amount of calories during exercise, they boost your metabolism and increase fat burning for hours afterward—even at rest.

Exercises to reduce belly fat

Diet is Key to Belly Fat

#1 Table Push Aways

 When asked what the best exercise is for developing six-pack abs, renowned strength coach Mike Boyle once said without hesitation, “Table push aways.” As tongue-in-cheek as that may sound, the fact is you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. Exercise alone is rarely enough to produce meaningful long-term fat loss, and as mentioned above, ab exercises alone are literally as effective at reducing belly fat as doing nothing at all.

While I’m reluctant to assign a percentage contribution for diet in weight management, the point is that it’s really, really important. The evidence—both scientific research and hours and hours of hands-on experience—shows very clearly that when you combine exercise with a reduced-calorie diet, you’ll drop MORE belly fat than if you did either on its own.2–4

High Intensity Interval Training

#2 Interval Training

 The great news is you don’t need to exercise hours on end to reap the benefits. More and more research suggests that high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—when you alternate between high and low intensities—is much more time-efficient than traditional aerobic exercise for improving cardiovascular fitness and health, insulin sensitivity and metabolic health, body composition, and more.5

If you’ve never done this type of workout before, you start by choosing an activity (e.g., walking/running, rowing, cycling), and, after an appropriate warm-up, perform 1 – 2 minutes of very challenging work (think near-maximum effort) followed by 1 minute of light recovery effort. Depending on your fitness level, you repeat this alternating pattern several times.

For instance, Abbie Smith-Ryan and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina have found that men and women performing ten 1-minute bouts (with 1-minute rest periods between) or five 2-minute bouts (with 1-minute rest periods between) three times per week for as little as three weeks experienced decreased body fat, increased lean body mass, increased insulin sensitivity, and improved overall fitness—with just 60 minutes of exercise each week!6,7

In addition to being time-efficient, HIIT has an additional advantage. It is one of the most effective ways to increase excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or as it’s more colloquially termed, “the afterburn.”8 In other words, HIIT boosts calorie and fat burning long after you finish your workout, giving you a serious metabolic advantage.

Resistance Training

#3 Resistance Training

Like HIIT, resistance training (RT) is another form of exercise that increases EPOC—for upwards of 38 hours after exercise, in fact.9 So, if HIIT and RT are effective at achieving the afterburn, what happens when you mash them together?

That’s a great question, and it’s one a research team from Italy led by Dr. Antoni Paoli recently examined. They demonstrated that a time-efficient high-intensity resistance training (HIRT) workout substantially increased metabolic rate and fat burning for up to 24 hours after exercise.10

The HIRT technique used in the study consisted of performing an exercise using a weight a participant could safely lift 6 times (6RM). After 20 seconds of rest, the participant lifted the same weight until reaching the point of failure (usually 2 reps). After another 20 seconds of rest, the participant lifted the same weight again until failure (usually 2 – 3 reps). This sequence counted as one set. Then, participants rested 2 ½ minutes before repeating a second and third time.

For the lower body, the participants performed 3 sets of leg press. For upper body, the participants performed 2 sets of bench press and 2 sets of lat pulldowns. That’s a total of 7 sets, and each training session lasted only 32 minutes (including a 10-minute warm-up on the treadmill).

In two separate studies, Dr. Paoli and his research team found a program combining HIRT with HIIT was more effective at reducing body fat than either traditional cardio or traditional cardio combined with low-intensity circuit training11,12, making it a killer combination of exercises to reduce belly fat.

Skinny Fat

#4 MRT

 Like HIIT and HIRT, metabolic resistance training (MRT) is much like a high-yield investment—arguably without the risk. That is, you’re going to expend a bunch of calories during the exercise, and you’ll also accrue a significant amount of interest—with the afterburn effect. In addition, in the long-term, RT (like MRT and HIRT) increases muscle mass, which is metabolically active and increases calorie burn at rest.

MRT is essentially a form of high-intensity circuit training. You’ll pair 3 – 5 exercises (some using barbells, dumbbells, or machines, and others using just bodyweight), and you’ll complete a designated number of reps before moving on to the next exercise with minimal rest between.

Example #1

A1. Dumbbell or Kettlebell Goblet Squats: 6 – 8 reps
A2. Low-Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 10 – 12 reps
A3. Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows: 10 – 12 reps
A4. Hanging Knee Raises: 10 reps

Directions: Perform exercises A1 – A4 in a circuit fashion, resting no more than 30 seconds between exercises. Perform 4 total circuits, resting 2 – 3 minutes between each.

Example #2

A1. Deadlifts: 6 – 8 reps
A2. Dumbbell High Pulls: 8 – 10 reps
A3. Pulldowns or Chin Ups: 10 reps
A4. Feet-Elevated Plank: 30 seconds

Directions: Perform exercises A1 – A4 in a circuit fashion, resting no more than 30 seconds between exercises. Perform 4 total circuits, resting 2 – 3 minutes between each.

Example #3

A1. Pushups: As many reps as possible
A2. Mountain Climbers: 20 seconds
A3. Kettlebell Lateral Lunges: 8 each (16 total)

Directions: Perform exercises A1 – A3 in a circuit fashion, resting no more than 15 seconds between exercises. Perform 3 total circuits, resting no more than 60 seconds between each.

Example #4

A1. Kettlebell Swings: 30 seconds
A2. Dumbbell Lateral Raises: 12 reps
A3. Lunge Jumps: 6 each (12 total)

Directions: Perform exercises A1 – A3 in a circuit fashion, resting no more than 15 seconds between exercises. Perform 3 total circuits, resting no more than 60 seconds between each.

Complexes

#5 Complexes

Barbell and dumbbell complexes are efficient, metabolically taxing (some might say, “nasty”) exercise combinations that pack as much bang for your buck as pretty much any exercise. What they lack in time and equipment, they more than make up for in intensity and metabolic demand.

The name of the game with barbell and dumbbell complexes is to choose a series of exercises that can all be completed with the same barbell (or set of dumbbells). You take minimal rest between exercises and a short rest between sets, or rounds.

Here’s an example of a barbell complex:

A1. Bent-Over Row
A2. Deadlift to Upright Row (i.e., Power Pull)
A3. Front Squat to Press
A4. Reverse Lunges (bar in back squat position)
A5. Squat Jumps (with no barbell or barbell in back squat position)

Perform all exercises in a row with no rest between them. (Okay, you can take a breath or two.) Perform each exercise for a total of 5 – 10 repetitions (reps may vary between exercises). After completing the last exercise, rest 90 seconds and then repeat. Perform a total of 4 – 6 sets.

Choose a weight that makes your weakest exercise challenging at the lower end of the prescribed rep range, and you can increase reps on exercises on which you’re stronger. Men will typically find 75 – 95 pounds is a pretty good starting weight, whereas women may use 35 – 45 pounds.

Here’s an example of a dumbbell complex:

A1. Squat to Press
A2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row (lunge stance)
A3. 2-Arm Dumbbell Swing
A4. Lateral Lunge
A5. Squat Jumps

Perform all exercises in a row with no rest between them. Perform each exercise for a total of 5 – 10 repetitions. After completing the last exercise, rest 90 seconds and repeat. Perform a total of 3 – 5 sets.

non-exercise activity thermogenesis

#6 NEAT

 The human body is phenomenal, incredibly resilient, and amazingly adaptive. While it’s beyond doubt that this is for our ultimate benefit—read: survival—when it comes to your desire to lose belly fat, this can put you at a disadvantage. You see, when you start eating less and/or exercising more, your body is programmed to initiate a series of physiological and behavioral responses in an effort to match the number of calories you burn with the amount you eat.

Huh? Simply put, the body begins to preserve energy to reduce calorie expenditure and increase calorie intake. In other words, your body is programmed to work against you and your best efforts to burn belly fat.

Arguably one of the most significant—and controllable—responses is a marked reduction in spontaneous physical activity, which is also referred to as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT accounts for all calories burned during non-scheduled exercise activity. And it includes all the activities that render us vibrant, unique, and independent, such as working, playing, dancing, taking the stairs, doing chores, fidgeting, taking a walk, and getting up and moving around throughout the day.

When you start eating less and exercising more, you subconsciously move less the rest of the day (i.e., NEAT decreases). The impact of NEAT on weight management is so powerful, in fact, NEAT researcher extraordinaire Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic has referred to it as the “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” of weight gain.13

So, while the above is a very strong list of exercises to reduce belly fat, the take-home point is that moving more throughout the day may be a “neat” belly-fat-burning exercise.

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