Anyone trying to get leaner usually points to their stomach as the area they want to change the most. It makes sense, since the midsection is normally where the evidence of your overall body composition is most obvious. You may have great arms or lean and muscular legs, but the belly will give away how lean you really are. Most people can hide their bellies under well-tailored suits at work, then the moment they have to wear more fitted clothes they suddenly become more self conscious.
How Do You Get There?
Most people’s journey to the coveted six-pack begins with some dietary modifications and regular trips to the gym.
Maybe you’ve been working out for a while and eating pretty well. Things are looking better. You feel tighter and leaner. Yet there it is, that stubborn belly fat, sticking to you like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth (mmmm, peanut butter). Everything else seems to be moving in the right direction, so why won’t the belly fat go away?!
The belly is often the last place for fat to go, especially for men.
While women tend to lose fat last from the hips, thighs and butt, men will lose it last from the stomach area.
Men are also especially prone to visceral fat, the kind of fat that surrounds your organs and causes a distended abdomen. It’s also the dangerous form of fat, since it increases your risk of heart disease, Type II Diabetes, and insulin resistance.
Still, it is possible to lose that stubborn belly fat, if you do the right things.
If you’re struggling with belly fat, maybe you’re making some of these mistakes:
1) You’re Not Tracking What You’re Eating
Although I’m not a big calorie counter, I do think it’s important to have an idea of what you’re consuming on a regular basis. If you know that your weight isn’t budging, you’re probably eating more than you need to be to sustain your body.
So have a closer look at how much you’re eating in each serving, and each day.
Do You Know How Much You’re REALLY Eating?
Research shows that when people are recalling their food intake they underreport the number of calories that they’re consuming. Even when people are asked to weigh and measure what they’re consuming, their measurements are far from accurate.
Most people overreport protein intake (a key part of fat loss and muscle gain is having adequate protein intake) and underreport foods these perceive as unhealthy. If you’re not even trying to keep track of what you’re eating, and just hoping that eating “healthy” will get you the flat stomach you want, you’re even worse off.
Low-carb vegetables like kale, spinach, tomatoes, celery, cucumber, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini don’t matter much, and I rarely recommend that my Online Coaching clients limit those. The more the better, as long as your digestive system can handle the fiber.
The issue comes when you’re having a lot of protein from poor choices, like ribs or processed meat like sausages or burgers. The calories add up pretty fast, mainly due to the high fat content in the less-ideal overly-processed animal form.
What About Carbs?
The other area to look out for is your starchy carbs. Although it’s important to have some carbs, many people are eating too many for their relatively-sedentary lifestyle. Also, when we think of potatoes and sweet potatoes, the issue isn’t necessarily the carbs themselves but what they’re prepared with.
Olive oil and butter can certainly be healthy, but if you’re taking in several tablespoons in a meal without accounting for it then you’ll get into trouble reducing your body fat.
2) You’re Not Focusing on Building Muscle
Losing weight is actually relatively easy – at first. If you eat less and exercise a bit more then you’ll start to drop the pounds. Getting to an impressive body composition though, where you’ve got a lot of muscle (and water and bone) compared to fat, is a different story.
You need to build muscle to make your body more metabolically active, so that you haven’t got a significantly slower metabolism when there’s less of you. When you’ve got a higher percentage of muscle, your belly fat will start to come down.
The Right Way To Lift Weights
Building muscle takes a structured, progressive weight training program that you do at least three days a week. Ideally, most of your exercises will be compound, rather than isolation exercises, which use multiple muscle groups at once.
So prioritize squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, dips, and chin-ups over bicep curls, lateral raises, and knee extensions on a machine. More movement means more muscle growth, as well as providing the right hormonal environment to build and develop more muscle.
Should You Do Cardio Too?
If you spend too much time doing cardio you’ll lose some fat, but maybe some muscle along with it too.
That means that although you’re getting a bit smaller, the improvement to your body composition will be negligible.
That’s not to say you should avoid cardio, but it doesn’t provide the long-term benefits that weight training does and it can interfere with muscle growth, as well as negatively affect your hormonal balance (by increasing cortisol levels). Building more muscle with weight training means you’ll end up with less fat…and be less pudgy around your midsection.
3) You’re Not Sleeping Enough
I know you’re busy and have important things to do, but if skimping on sleep is the way you get by then your belly fat is likely to hang on.
It’s All About The Hormones
Growth hormone and testosterone are produced during sleep, and both of these hormones are associated with muscle building and fat burning. A consistent 7 hours (minimum!) a night, preferably going to sleep and waking up at the same time, will optimize your production of these hormones and make it easier for your body to tackle its belly fat.
Let’s also not forget that when you’re not sleeping enough you get TIRED.
When you’re tired, you don’t have the energy to workout at your maximum capacity. When you’re not pushing yourself hard in the gym, you’re never reaching your maximum muscle potential. That’s if you get to the gym at all.
Remember all those times you blew off the gym because you just couldn’t muster up the energy?
That kills your progress.
What Do You Eat When You’re Tired?
As far as your diet goes, being tired means you’re more likely to make poor food choices. It just seems easier to open up a box of this processed food or a bag of that processed food than to prepare healthy meals that serve your body well. Ever felt like all you want to do is sit on the couch and eat?
We’ve all been there at some point…and lack of sleep is often the catalyst for an evening like that. Sacrifice your TV or internet time and make sure you get your 7 hours of sleep (minimum!).
The route to a six-pack will be a lot easier to take when you’re rested and recharged properly.
4) You Drink Too Much Alcohol
Although a drink a day for women and a couple of drinks a day for men may be considered acceptable and not associated with increased health risks, if you’re looking to get rid of your belly then cutting down on alcohol is a good place to start.
Not only is alcohol 7 calories per gram, and easier to consume as the night goes on, but when you drink alcohol your body puts all of its other metabolic processes on hold until it gets rid of the alcohol. So if your body was planning to burn off some fat because you’ve had an intense workout, it will delay that process until it’s done with the alcohol.
There’s a reason that they call it a beer belly!
The occasional glass of wine or beer won’t be a big problem, but if you’re regularly consuming “a few” every weekend and some during the week then you’re probably not going to get rid of that big gut anytime soon.
Should You Ban Alcohol Altogether?
Cutting out alcohol initially could get you on the road to a flatter stomach quickly.
Many people, and in my experience it’s usually men, drink much more than they think they do. It’s easy to get caught up when you’re only out to “have a couple”. Two turns into three, which turns into four, which turns into “wait, how many did I have tonight?”. Do this once or twice a week and you’re talking about a lot of additional calories that your body won’t burn off.
And that’s without even discussing the extra food you consume later in the evening when everything seems that much more tempting.
5) You’re Stressed Out
Ongoing stress results in an increase in cortisol levels.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and causes you to store more fat in the abdominal area. We all have some stress in our lives, but how we manage it is what dictates the impact it has on our bodies.
What can you do to manage stress?
Meditation is a great start and you only need to do about 5 minutes a day. Practicing meditation regularly has actually been shown to change the brain in ways that help it respond differently to stress.
Stress Reduction Strategies
If you’re looking for some guidance on how to get started, read the blog post I wrote about meditation HERE.
Taking the time to do simple things like going for a walk, having a relaxing bath, talking to a friend, or reading a magazine can make a difference in your stress levels. And let’s not forget that not getting enough sleep is a big part of what stresses your body, even when you don’t realize it.
Getting enough sleep means that you’re better able to cope with stress. And you’ll also get all the benefits of more sleep that we discussed above.
What You Don’t Have To Worry About
I thought the word had gotten around that you can’t spot reduce your stomach, but I constantly see people with flabby bellies spending 20-30 minutes doing JUST abdominal exercises like crunches and V-ups.
That’s a complete waste of time!
Do Ab Training When You Really Need it
I’m not saying that strengthening your rectus abdominus is useless, but you need to be very lean for it to be noticeable and in the meantime you should use your time more wisely by weight training with compound exercises.
Doing tons of abs exercises during each workout is a better way to give yourself back pain than anything else.
People often ask me what the best abdominal exercise is.
Honestly, if you’ve got a layer of belly fat obscuring your abs then it doesn’t matter what abs exercises you’re doing.
Skip them altogether and use that time to push some heavier weights and prepare meals made of lean protein and vegetables.
That’s what really makes an impact.
If you’re struggling to get rid of belly fat, while the rest of your body seems to be improving, then any of the mistakes I mentioned above could be the cause. Have an honest check and decide whether there are lifestyle issues that you need to address.
You CAN get rid of your belly fat.
It takes patience, and consistency with your workouts and nutrition to see changes in your belly fat levels. Overlooking your food intake, sleep, and stress levels will keep you fighting a losing battle for a flat stomach. Address those missing parts of the routine effectively and you’ll be on your way to visible abs.