The most common question I get as a trainer is "how do I lose belly fat?". It doesn't matter what the goal is, to be healthy, to gain muscle mass, to be more athletic, to be leaner, all goals are followed by "oh and I want to lose belly fat".
The good news is that with a basic understanding of physiology, losing belly fat becomes easy. Loosing belly fat is a little more complicated than simple nutrition and exercise recommendations that you will hear everywhere.
Scroll down to the conclusion if you want a quick recap skipping all the sciency things, The major points will be all outlined down there.
Read on if you want a deeper understanding of how you can lose belly fat.
Before we touch on anything to do with belly fat, let me remind you of the most important rule about body composition: Caloric Balance.
This refers to the amount of calories you eat versus the calories you use. Calories come from the three macro nutrient groups: protein, fats and carbohydrates (carbs).
When the amount of calories you eat is lower than the amount of calories you burn, your body will lose weight. When the amount of calories you eat is greater than the amount of calories you burn, your body will gain weight.
It is impossible to lose belly fat in a caloric surplus. Period.
Now that we have this cleared, let's move on to the more specific details about belly fat and why it's so tough to get rid of.
Your fat cells in your body are not all the same. One factor that differentiates them is their ratio of adrenergic receptors. In order to get the fat out of the fat cells, your body sends norepinephrine (a hormone) that has to attach itself to the fat cells. Think of the adrenergic receptors as velcro for the norepinephrine to attach on.
There are two main types of adrenergic receptors on your fat cells: beta and alpha receptors. Beta receptors make it easy for norepinephrine to attach to the fat cells and alpha receptors make it harder. Some fat cells have more beta receptors, and some fat cells have more alpha receptors. Cells that have more beta receptors release fat more easily. Cells that have more alpha receptors hang on to their fat more.
As you guessed it by now, belly fat cells have more alpha receptors.
What does this mean for us? Belly fat is harder to get rid off than other areas. Harder, but very doable when we are smart about it.
As a trainer, I see a lot of people focused on one aspect of fat loss: burning more fat. This is great, but most people completely forget about the other part that I think is equally important: limiting fat storage!
Let's talk a little more about these two processes.
You can burn fat two different ways:
1. By exercising
2. By increasing you basal metabolic rate (more on that in a bit)
Exercise and burning fat
Burning fat happens when your body needs energy for a prolonged amount of time. When you exercise, one of the ways you body gets energy is by breaking down fat cells. This process is best when you exercise at lower intensities like 45% - 65% of your maximal exercise potential.
This type of exercise happens when you go to fitness classes, do cardio work, and go to the gym.
Basal metabolic rate and burning fat
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is how many calories your body needs to function at rest. Having a higher BMR means that you burn more calories at rest, which often come from your fat cells.
One factor that increases your BMR is the amount of muscle you have. Building a little bit of muscles can help you burn calories more often.
This is where strength training in the gym comes into play. Getting stronger will make your muscles require more energy, and thus increase your BMR.
To maximize fat burning, a combination of strength training and cardio training is the most efficient training regimen.
Here is a typical weekly training plan to maximize fat burning
Monday - Gym workout
Barbell back squat 4 sets of 8 reps, rest 2 min
Leg extension of hack squat 3 sets of 12 reps rest 2 min
Standing over head barbell press 4 sets of 8 reps rest 90 sec
Lateral raises 3 sets of 15 reps rest 30 sec
Pull ups or pull up assisted machine 4 sets of 8 reps rest 90 sec
Lat pull down 3 sets of 12 rest 90 sec
Tuesday - Cardio
Rowing machine 3 sets of 3 minutes, rest 1 min
Stationary bike: 3 sets of 3 minutes, rest 1 min
Incline treadmill walk or jog: 3 sets of 3 minutes, rest 1 min
Go fast during the intervals but not so fast that you cannot complete the 3 minutes.
You can also do all of these outside by running if you prefer.
Take any, high intensity group fitness class like boxing, circuit, tabata or other HIIT classes.
Wednesday - Gym workout
Barbell deadlift 4 sets of 8, rest 2 min
Split squats 3 sets of 12 reps per leg, rest 90 sec
Dumbbell bench press press 4 sets of 8, rest 90 sec
Dumbbell fly 3 sets of 15, rest 1 min
Barbell bent over row 4 sets of 8, rest 90 sec
Seated row 3 sets of 10, rest 1 min
Thursday - Day off
Friday - Cardio
Slow cardio for time. Either bike, swim or run for 45 minutes straight. Go slow, the goal is to be continuously moving.
Take any, high intensity group fitness class like boxing, circuit, tabata or other HIIT classes.
Saturday - Gym workout
Barbell hip thrust 4 sets of 8 rest 90 sec
Dumbbell walking lunges 3 sets of 20 lunges in total, rest 1 min
Inverted row 4 sets of 10, rest 90 sec
Chest supported row on incline bench 3 sets of 12, rest 1 min
Dips, use a machine or resistance bands to assist you if necessary 4 sets of 8, rest 90 sec
Push ups 3 sets of 15, rest 1 min
Sunday - Grocery and meal prep day
Go buy all the groceries you will need for the upcoming week. This day is a day off from the gym but it is a very important day.
This is a basic program that you can rearrange according to your schedule.
Sleep and belly fat
Possibly the most over looked component of losing belly fat is the importance of getting a good night's sleep. A good night's sleep is 8 hours. 6-8 hours is sub par and anything under 6 is simply not enough.
Sleep regulates two important hormones for targeting belly fat: growth hormone and ghrelin.
Growth hormone plays a huge role in burning fat. It signals the body that fat has to be burned in order to get energy. It is mainly produced by lifting heavy weights in the gym and during your sleep. Getting a regular sleep schedule and good quality sleep will ensure that this hormone is produced as much as possible.
Ghrelin is you hunger hormone. When you get hungry or get hunger pangs, that is the effect of ghrelin. It has been shown in humans that poor quality sleep is associated with higher levels of ghrelin in your blood. This means you are more prone to be hungry or get hunger pangs. Which is problematic because you are already in a calorie deficit.
Losing belly fat, or losing weight in general, is a lot easier when you are not hungry all the time which is why you should really start to pay attention to your sleep quality.
You can be on the best meal plan and training plan out there but if your ghrelin hormone levels are through the roof due to poor sleep, you will be hungry and grumpy a lot and your adherence to your plans will decrease quickly.
Burning fat is great but if you do nothing to stop storing fat, you will get stuck in a dead lock.
Storing fat is all about what you eat. Let's be clear though, I'm not going to tell you starve yourself in order to lose belly fat.
Let me take this time to, again, remind you of the caloric balance. If you are in a caloric surplus, it is not possible to lose any type of fat, let alone belly fat.
However, being in a caloric deficit is not as hard as it is made out to be.
Here are a few things I always tell my clients:
- You will not be hungry all the time
- You can still enjoy foods you like
- A basic understand of calorie value goes a long way
- You don't need a fancy diet or meal plan
The food groups, or macronutrient, that influences fat storage the most is carbohydrates. Before we start demonizing them, it's important to understand carbs and how they influence fat stores in our bodies.
When you eat a carbohydrate, it gets digested and then they go in your blood stream in the form of glucose molecules. The amount of glucose you have in your blood is commonly called your blood sugar. This glucose can be used as energy but if your body does not require energy right away, the glucose is stored as fat.
With this information alone, you can see that with a lower blood sugar we store less fat than with a higher blood sugar.
Now, different carbs influence blood sugar differently. Carbs differ from each other in various ways, but the one most important to us here is how fast you digest them and how fast they get turned into glucose and influence our blood sugar.
Generally speaking, carbs coming from whole, unprocessed foods take longer to digest and are slower to go into your blood. That is a good thing because your blood sugar will rise slowly.
Carbs coming from processed foods are quickly digested, go in your blood a lot quicker and elevate blood sugar a lot.
You may of heard of a hormone called insulin. One of the roles of insulin is to keep your blood sugar levels normal. When your blood sugar is elevated, insulin needs a place to move all that glucose, and if your muscles don't need it to produce energy, then insulin will remove the glucose and store it as fat.
It is thus important for us to maintain normal blood sugar levels to prevent our insulin to store it as fat.
Please understand that you can eat carbs! It's the type of carbs that is important. Whole, unprocessed carbs can be eaten without causing insulin to spike up.
These carbs include:
- Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, bulgur and steal cut oats
What about whole grain bread? For the purpose of this article, we are going to leave it out. I found that most bakeries put too many ingredients in their whole wheat breads that it is not worth having in when trying to lose belly fat.
Carb cycling is great way to arrange how you eat your carbs on a weekly or daily basis. Since you will be training at least 5 times a week, you can eat most of your carbs on the days that you train, and eat less carbs on the days that you don't. You can still eat carbs on the days that you don't train, just not as much.
To go even further, on the days that you train, you can eat most of you carbs before and after your workouts.
Remember that carbs make insulin go up. So by eating most of your carbs around your workout, you are increasing your level of insulin when your body NEEDS it to be higher. Your body wants insulin to be high during exercises because it needs the blood sugar to go into muscle cells, it needs the energy.
When trying to lose belly fat, it's important to look at the other 2 macro nutrients protein and fats.
Eating enough protein will make sure you are building your muscles properly. When you workout, you are breaking down your muscles. All those contractions and flexing you do in the gym basically breaks your muscles, this is the muscle soreness you feel after a good workout. You need to eat enough protein to repair these muscles and get them healthy for the next workout.
You don't need much more than 1.4 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight.
First, find your weight in kilograms, remember that 1 kilo is around 2.2 pounds.
So if I weigh 190 pounds that's 86 kilos.
My protein requirement is 86 kilos x 1.4 grams of protein = 120 gram of protein per day.
Good protein sources include:
- Grass fed meat
- Chick peas
- Protein powder
- Hemp hearts
Fats get a bad rap when it comes to weight loss. The truth is that healthy fats help you lose weight. The play an essential role in making sure your cells function properly and play a big role in regulating the leptin hormone.
Leptin is the satiety hormone. When you are full, your body produces leptin, which signals your brain that you can stop eating because you are full. Healthy fats increase you leptin levels.
This is important because you will be in a calorie deficit. So you need to eat foods that will fill you up as much as possible.
Good fats to choose from are:
- Sunflower seeds
- Any other raw, unsalted nuts
- Chia seeds
- Dark chocolate 90% cocoa and above
- Good quality olive oil
- Coconut and coconut oil
Whole, unprocessed foods have a rich nutritional value. This means that per calorie of food, you are getting a lot vitamins and minerals. This is important because since you will be eating slightly less than usual, you want to pick the foods that give you the most bang for you buck.
The foods highest in nutritional value are
- Egg yolk
- Dark chocolate (85%+)
- Sweet potato
- Legumes (peas, beans, lentils)
Picking from these ingredients listed in this section will help you get the most out of your nutrition. Here is what a typical day could look like.
1 cup of mixed berries
1/4 cup walnuts
Mixed green salad
1/2 sweet potato
Workout, strength or cardio
Post workout snack
1/2 cup brown rice
1 bell pepper
4-60z Grass fed steak
Tomato and cucumber salad
What about cheat meals???
I am a big believer that cheat meals are very important. We have lives, with social outings, dinners, family dinners and other occasions where healthy foods isn't always the option. Avoiding all "bad" food is simply not feasible and in my opinion not worth it.
Allow yourself one cheat meal a week.
The goal of this cheat meal is to not think about the rest of your week. Don't be like "Oh I shouldn't be doing this" or "This is going to f*ck me over". Just enjoy. As long as you don't over eat like crazy, having one cheat meal every week will actually help you on the long term by limiting cravings.
If you want to read more about food, check out these articles.
Tying it all together
Losing your belly fat is very doable when you focus on burning fat AND limiting fat storage. You will need to strength train (heavy weights in the gym) and do cardio (long steady runs/bike/swim or group fitness classes). You will need to pick your foods with special care because different foods have different nutritional value. Here are the steps that will help you lose belly fat:
1. Be in a caloric deficit
2. Do strength training as well as cardio. You should do at least as many strength workouts as cardio workouts in a week
3. During the strength workout, focus mainly on compound lifts
4. Sleep 8 hours per night on average
5. Eat foods high in nutritional value
6. Eat whole, unprocessed foods
7. Allow your self one cheat meal a week
8. Eat at least 1.4g of protein per kilogram of body weight
Remember that belly fat has more alpha receptors, so you will need to be patient and be diligent about all this. What made you lose your first 10 pounds will not make you lose your last 10 pounds. You will need to become a little more rigid in your training and diet as you get closer to your end goal to account for those alpha receptors.
An easy way to monitor your progress is to have a check in with yourself every week. Once a week, assess how your progress is going. Are you doing everything right? Are you being diligent with your training? Did you make the right food choices? Are you seeing or feeling progress? Is your sleep on point?
If you are seeing/feeling progress, great! Keep doing what you are doing. If you are not seeing/feeling progress, what is one aspect you can tweak next week?
Focus on just one thing to tweak, maybe it's your food, your sleep or your exercise, and then reassess your progress during next weeks check in.
You got this,