This is such a popular question, I wanted to create a resource for you. I know it’s enticing to do ab workouts every day, thinking that you’ll see your abs faster, but actually, doing workouts that target areas where you’re carrying extra body fat will not “melt the fat off” that area.
We cannot spot reduce fat – and I would caution you from taking any supplements that promise to do so, or use “cleanses” or other quick fixes like body wraps, as they are short-term strategies some of which have side effects you don’t anticipate like hormone impacts, and not give you real, long-lasting results.
You CAN get body fat off – and keep it off. Fat comes off our body systemically (which means all over our bodies), and in an order governed by our DNA. It will come off in the order it came on.
If fat burning is a focus for you, building muscle is one of the most effective ways to support that goal as with each contraction of your muscle, you’ll use more energy (and burn more calories). Adding muscle is what shifts body composition to a tighter, more “toned” shape, not fat loss alone.
I know it may not be on your radar to focus on muscle gain over fat loss because we’ve been so trained by diet culture to think about our “body fat” as the primary needle mover, but truly it is our valuable lean muscle tissue that has the biggest impact on our metabolism, long term health, and will help you become, and remain an efficient fat burner.
With that being said, let’s look at four often overlooked strategies that will directly impact your fat loss in a healthy, sustainable manner.
4 steps to follow CONSISTENTLY
1. Get Quality Sleep
Sleep is the most underrated, most important part of losing body fat and gaining muscle. When it comes to toning and sculpting your abs, quality sleep should be one of your top focus points.
Research shows that when we don’t get enough quality sleep, we are more likely to gain weight – specifically belly fat (1).
One study showed a group of people who had the exact same exercise regimen and diet were split into 2 different groups – 1 group slept well while the other group did not. The well rested group lost weight while the sleep deprived gained weight.
Furthermore, those who were sleep deprived had a 55% decrease in fat loss and an increase in the loss of fat free body mass (aka muscle tissue) by 60% (2)! This is why the foundation of my 4 Pillars of Health is SLEEP.
People who lack sleep produce more ghrelin (hunger hormone) (3), are more likely to consume sugary or caffeinated beverages (4), and have a 32% increase of carbohydrate consumption (5) – further perpetuating sleep patterns and creating a vicious cycle.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is essential to human growth and development, fat burning and muscle repair, and is most powerfully produced while you’re sleeping (6). If you’re lacking quality in your sleep, your body will miss the valuable time it takes to repair and will result in decreased strength and increased fat (7).
If you’re putting in the time to exercise and not getting enough sleep, you’re undermining your efforts. Just like you can’t out train a bad diet, you can’t out train bad sleep.
⭐️ Here’s a great resource to follow up with about sleep: How to Sleep for a Longer, Leaner, Healthier Life
2. Nutrition, Nutrition, Nutrition
Every time you eat, you’re creating the foundation and tissue that make up the actual shape and structure of your body – and every time you exercise, you’re simply putting the finishing touches on the beautiful physique you’ve sculpted with what you put in your mouth.
Healthy recipes from The Body Fuel System
One of the MOST important parts to uncovering your abdominal muscle (and really any area of your body you want to sculpt) is eating a balance of nutrients from whole food sources.
I know we talk a lot about the macronutrients – the carbs, protein and healthy fats you need – but you also need the MICROnutrients from greens and plants for essential body, brain and hormone functions. Vitamins and minerals are essential for cell growth, function and development. For so many reasons, it is essential that you take your eating just as seriously as you take your workouts.
I know we have this tendency to have an outside in approach to health and stick to our exercise plan more religiously than we stick to our eating but you can not exercise your way out of a nutrient deficient body that is not functioning at it’s best.
3. Actively Manage Stress
If you’re in the habit of putting this at the bottom of your list, it’s time to make it more of an active priority. Chronic stress has been scientifically proven to cause us to reach for comfort foods, undoing your efforts to have a balanced nutrition intake (8).
While stress is an important adaptive mechanism that protects us, constantly getting stressed by traffic, family situations and even negative thoughts about ourselves can lead to disruption in our hormone cycles and cause fat storage.
Elevated levels of stress cause the body to produce more cortisol. While cortisol is an important hormone, when it is chronically elevated, over time it affects where and how much fat is stored. And more often than not, that place of storage is in your abdomen (9).
Chronic stress greatly affects our brain which in turn lowers our immune response so we get sick more often, causes us to recover slower from injury, and results in a decreased ability to maintain a state of health and vitality (10).
In order for you to build lean muscle, lose unwanted fat, and have a great impact on you health it is imperative that you begin to actively cultivate habits that mitigate stress.
Practices like meditation, mindfulness and gratitude are all great ways to combat stress in the here and now. Journaling, getting therapy for unresolved (and ongoing) issues, and practices like neural feedback can also be very beneficial. The act of booking things for yourself you enjoy like a massage, acupuncture or even a facial can be a way to unwind, and also practice self-care. Taking a bath, reading a book, setting aside time for yourself and anything you find relaxing can all be ways to balance out the demands of your busy life.
⭐️ Here’s a great resource to follow up with about stress management: 5 Ways to Beat Stress and Get More From Your Workouts
a) Add Interval Training (explosive cardio): Whether that be High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) circuits, plyometrics, or Tabatas, explosive cardio is one of the best ways to maximize overall fat loss during your workouts (11).
Here are a few ways I add it into my workouts:
- Super-setting power resistance/strength moves with explosive cardio intervals – think jump rope, jump squats, etc.
- Adding finishing circuits to a weight lifting workout
- Doing bodyweight circuits that combine strengthening moves with explosive cardio
b) Add Resistance Training
Resistance (or strength) training helps to sculpt lean muscle, which makes you a more efficient fat burner and will change your body composition and shape (12).
Resistance training also elicits the release of HGH, (especially in training sessions that utilize many large muscle groups at once) (13) – so you’ll be a more efficient fat burner and muscle builder (but let’s not forget – this won’t work unless you’re sleeping well and managing your stress).
So be sure to balance your HIIT with some strength training to see amazing results – you are not going to get bulky just by adding some weighted objects to your workouts.
I personally take a combined approach, doing the best workout for the situation I’m in. If I’m traveling I’ll use my HIIT circuits and at home I’ll cycle between bodyweight workouts and weight-training.
These programs were designed to combine resistance training and explosive cardio:
- Home Workout Domination (8 week HOME workout program that can be done with minimal equipment)
- Lioness (8 week GYM or HOME with equipment program)
- 90 Day Challenge (12 week HOME workout program NO equipment- gravity and creative bodyweight moves will provide you with resistance)
c) TRAIN YOUR CORE 360 DEGREES AROUND, not just your front abs. Focus on training your ENTIRE core to see real ab definition
That means workouts like this awesome yoga core sequence, where we targeted the abdominal wall from the inside out, and all the way around.
We were working on the front, side, AND back muscles that stabilize our core and aid us in all the movements we do. Targeting the deep core stabilizing muscles is key to greater balance and alignment of our spine and pelvis.
The body is super smart and designed for balance. If you only focus on building muscle on one portion of your body, like only doing a lot of crunches, leg lifts or sit ups, you will actually only go so far in the amount of muscle you’re able to develop.
This is your body’s natural way of protecting you, as too much muscle on one side will put undue stress on your underlying bones and pull you out of alignment (read Building a Balanced Physique and Protecting Your Joints).
So what’s the recipe for burning fat off your stomach (or any part of your body, really)?
Get a good night’s rest, fuel your body with whole foods, practice self care and lower your stress, and top it all off with a combination of full body explosive exercise and resistance training!
All of my workout plans combine resistance training and explosive cardio – so you can build lean muscle, and lose body fat if you have it to lose. Wondering what workout program would suit you best? TAKE THE QUIZ!
- St-Onge MP. “The role of sleep duration in the regulation of energy balance: effects on energy intakes and expenditure”. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Jan 2013. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23319909
- Nedeltcheva, Arlet V et al. “Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity.” Annals of Internal Medicine. April 2011. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2951287/
- “Sleep loss limits fat loss, study finds”. uchicago news. October 2010. Web. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/sleep-loss-limits-fat-loss-study-finds
- Tokar Steve. “Study Links Shorter Sleep and Sugar-Sweetened Drink Consumption”. University of California San Francisco. November 2016. Web. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2016/11/404796/study-links-shorter-sleep-and-sugar-sweetened-drink-consumption
- Tae Won Kim, Jong-Hyun Jeong, Seung-Chul Hong. “The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism”. International Journal of Endocrinology. February 2015. Web. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ije/2015/591729/
- Godrey RJ, Madgwick Z, Whyte GP. “The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes.” Sports Medicine. 2003. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12797841
- Van Cauter E, Plat L. “Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep”. The Journal of Pediatrics. May 1996. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8627466
- Chuang JC, Zigman JM. “Ghrelin’s Roles in Stress, Mood, and Anxiety Regulation”. International Journal of Peptides. 2010 Web. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijpep/2010/460549/
- Epel ES et al. “Stress and body shape; stress- induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat”. Psychosomatic Medicine. September 2000. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11020091
- Morey, Jennifer N et al. “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function.” Current opinion in psychology. October 2015. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/
- Gillen JB et al. “Three minutes of all-out intermittent exercise per week increases skeletal muscle oxidative capacity and improves cardiometabolic health”. PLoS One. November 2014. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25365337
- Willis LH et al. “Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults”. Journal of Applied Physiology. December 2012. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23019316
- “Varying Weight Training Intensity Increases Growth hormone In Women”. American Physiological Society. December 2006. Web. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061201105951.htm