Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Which Exercises Are Best for Reducing Belly Fat?

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by David Creel, PhD, RD, who is a weight management specialist and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017). See all of David Creel’s articles here.

This week’s column is based on a question from a reader. Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.


Reader Question: which exercises are best for reducing belly fat?

This is a great question! If you want the short answer skip to the last paragraph.

Despite the promises of late-night infomercials, most exercise physiologists will tell you that spot reduction isn’t possible. Studies have shown that doing crunches won’t cause you to preferentially remove the layer of fat covering your six-pack (those crunches will give you a stronger core, which can help prevent or treat low back pain). Despite research showing we cannot target our fat loss, a few other studies give people a glimmer of hope that perhaps we can.

Scientists from Denmark have shown that we increase blood flow to subcutaneous fat (the soft stuff just under the skin) and stimulate lipolysis (fat breakdown) in tissue that is adjacent to a working muscle. But again, most researchers conducting well-controlled studies have concluded that crunches, bicep curls, and leg exercises won’t cause targeted fat loss in those areas.

Just to confuse things a bit, a recent small study compared two 12-week exercise interventions to see if spot reduction was possible when strength training was followed by cardiovascular exercise. Three times per week one group of women performed high-velocity upper body resistance training followed by 30 minutes of cycling. The other group did rapid lower body weight training exercises followed by using an arm ergometer for 30 minutes (sort of like pedaling a stationary bike with their arms). In this study, participants lost more fat in their upper body limbs if they did upper body strength-training exercises. Likewise, those who performed lower body strength exercises lost more fat in their lower body. The investigators found no difference in the amount of belly fat lost between the two groups. In short, this study suggests that we might be able to target fat loss by doing explosive strength training followed by cardiovascular exercise. These are interesting results that certainly need to be confirmed with larger studies.

My opinion: If you want to lose belly fat, focus on changes in diet and engage in regular exercise. Ideally, include cardiovascular exercise and strength training. For the most part, our genetics will determine where we lose weight as we burn more calories than consumed. The muscles we target will become stronger, but don’t expect crunches alone to flatten the belly or triceps exercises to cause the wiggly tissue on the back of the arm to dramatically disappear.