Which exercise burns belly fat? It’s easy to see why this is a common fitness question, with many people citing a firmer midsection as one of their top drivers for exercising.
There are many myths surrounding the subject that need to be debunked urgently. First and foremost among them, most scientific studies show that it is not possible to reduce body fat in one specific area (such as the abdomen) at a time.
However, you can lower your overall body fat percentage by increasing your activity level and decreasing your calorie expenditure (opens in new tab) consumption. We spoke to a physical therapist and biochemist to find out the most efficient way to do it — and to clear up some of the falsehoods about reducing belly fat.
Can you see body fat reduced?
No specific exercise, even those that target the muscles in the stomach, can be used to tackle belly fat. Physiotherapist Sammy Margo, of Deep Heat and Deep Freeze (opens in new tab)points to several studies that support this.
“A study (opens in new tab) those targeting belly fat with exercise for 6 weeks showed no difference in belly fat. Another study (opens in new tab) in 40 overweight and obese women found that resistance training of the abdominal muscles for 12 weeks had no effect on abdominal fat loss compared to diet change alone.
“A 12-week study (opens in new tab) in which 104 participants who completed a training program where they trained only one arm found that there was some overall fat loss, but not on the arm being trained. And several studies (opens in new tab) have confirmed that spot reduction is not effective for burning fat in specific areas of the body, including the arms and abdomen.
Sammy Margo has been a registered physical therapist for 32 years and has built her clinic over the last 28+ years. She trained as a registered physiotherapist and completed a Masters in Physiotherapy (MSc) at University College and Middlesex Hospital. She is also a qualified Pilates instructor and the author of The Good Sleep Guide.
The reason for this, and the fat loss process, is far from simple, Margo explains.
“The fat in body cells is in the form of triglycerides that are stored in body fat that can be used to provide energy,” she says. “Before they can be used for energy, triglycerides must be broken down into smaller molecules – free fatty acids and glycerol – which enter the bloodstream. These smaller molecules are used to produce energy.
“When you exercise, the triglycerides can come from all the fat cells in the body, not just the body area being exercised.”
Margo says there are a number of smaller studies that go against the grain and support localized body fat reduction. She says further research on the topic is needed to reach a more definitive conclusion.
Where do you lose and gain fat first?
Where you lose or gain fat depends on contextual factors such as your genes, gender and age, as well as your stress levels, hormone balance, genetics and lifestyle.
For example, a 2012 study published in the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) found that “gluteo-femoral adipocytes of women are larger than in men”. Or, in other words, women were found to retain more fat around their hips and thighs than men.
“Women tend to build up fat in their hips and buttocks; men usually build up fat in their lower abdomen or belly,” says Margo.
“Obesity tends to run in families, which suggests genes may play a role. Genes may also affect how much body fat you have and where in the body it is stored.”
She also says age plays a role, as “older adults tend to have more body fat.”
What Do Abdominal Exercises Do?
Even if you use the best ab rollers (opens in new tab) or perform abdominal exercises such as planks (opens in new tab)studies show that you cannot reduce belly fat by performing exercises that target muscles in this area during exercise.
Instead, you train your core muscles (opens in new tab) with abdominal exercises like sit-ups should be seen as a way to build a stronger, more functional body.
“These exercises can improve core strength, posture, and balance,” says Margo. “They can reduce back pain and improve flexibility. The jury is out on whether they can reduce belly fat, and indeed fat in all parts of the body.
Which exercise burns belly fat?
If your goal is to lose belly fat, the best way to achieve it is to lower your overall body fat percentage. To do this, you must expend more calories (through exercise and daily activities) than you expend in a day to achieve a calorie deficit (opens in new tab).
“All exercise contributes to a calorie deficit,” says Margo. “Try high-intensity interval training (HIIT) because it saves time. In a meta-analysis of 13 studies (opens in new tab), HIIT — like most moderate-intensity workouts — was found to improve body fat mass and waist circumference. Aerobic or cardio training (such as a session on the best treadmills (opens in new tab) or exercise bikes (opens in new tab)) also helps to reduce body fat. But HIT (opens in new tab) takes less time.”
Weight training (opens in new tab)while more often associated with hypertrophy (opens in new tab) goals, is another strong option for people looking to lose weight. A 2021 sports medicine (opens in new tab) study on the topic found that “resistance training lowers body fat percentage, body fat mass, and visceral fat in healthy adults.”
The key to losing fat in the long run is finding a form of exercise you enjoy so participating becomes a habit. The CDC (opens in new tab) suggests that “people who lose weight gradually and steadily (about one to two pounds per week) are more successful at losing weight”.
How to burn fat
If you want to lose body fat efficiently, you need to consider several factors, such as your diet and daily activity level (NEAT (opens in new tab)), as well as your time spent exercising.
“Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) describes the calories burned from all the non-exercise movements you do throughout the day, and it can make a difference in your weight loss,” says Margo. “Examples of NEAT are cooking, shopping, walking and gardening – basically everyday activities.
Besides increasing your exercise level and NEAT, the third important part of burning fat is finding a suitable diet. You’ll need to create a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you burn each day, but (particularly for those who exercise regularly) it’s important that this deficit isn’t so great as to be unsustainable.
Margo shared some tips on how to reduce daily calorie intake. “Increasing protein intake can reduce appetite and thus reduce calorie intake,” says Margo. It can also help maintain muscle mass during weight loss.
“…Make sure you get enough sleep (usually around 7am, though people vary in their sleep needs). Lack of sleep has been linked to obesity in general, as well as less fat loss on a low-calorie diet.”
Biochemist Tim Bond, a Tea Advisory Panel researcher, adds, “Fill in fiber as it has a prebiotic effect (increased production of short chain fatty acids in the colon that interact with hunger hormones and help promote satiety).
“Also, emphasize whole grains rather than processed grains and focus on the intake of fruits and vegetables and beans.”
Tim Bond has been a chemist, natural health expert and researcher in the food, beverages, including teas and herbal infusions, and natural health sectors for over 28 years. Tim has a national and international reputation, publishing peer-reviewed research papers on tea, herbal infusions and natural health and contributing to several books on the scientific and historical aspects of tea. In this researcher role, Tim covers all aspects of research and development for a diverse global base, including regulatory, health claims and sustainability issues. Tim also lectures at global food, beverage and natural health events.
Another recommendation Bond made was to try to reduce your stress levels, as research shows that “stress increases adrenal hormones like cortisol, which increase habit and increase central fat stores.”
How important is nutrition for fat burning?
A 2007 study published in the Nature Clinical Practice Endocrinology & Metabolism (opens in new tab) found that diet is a more important factor than exercise levels in weight loss, but a two-pronged approach that combines diet with increased activity levels is more effective than either method used separately.
“Both diet and exercise are important for weight loss,” says Margo. “To lose weight, it is necessary to create a calorie gap. That is, you need to burn more calories than you take in. It’s easier to create a calorie gap by eating less (e.g. cutting your calorie intake by 500) than by exercising.
“Movement is important. For example, strength training helps maintain lean body mass (muscle), which can speed up metabolism so you burn more calories even at rest.