If I had to pick one question we get above all others at Fit Trainers, it would probably be: “How to lose the fat around my midsection? I want to get rid of my belly fat.”
This makes sense!
After all, everybody wants a flat stomach, and we get sold every day on products that promise results with minimal effort:
- “Use the ab-coaster 2000 and get a flat stomach in minutes a day!”
- “One weird trick scientists hate to banish belly fat forever”
- “Eat this super food to target belly fat and get toned!”
- “7 minute abs. Who the hell has time for 8-minute abs?”
I have no product to sell you. Instead, I’m going to give you the ACTUAL truth about about 6-pack abs, targeting belly fat, and how to get a flat stomach. I promise: by the end of this article you’ll know everything you need to know about a flat stomach, and a strategy to make it happen. The rest is up to you…
You already have abs. You just can’t see them!
The “get abs” and “target belly fat” industry is booming.
Whatever the product, workout, or service is, they are trying to sell you quick fixes for a flat stomach that will not get you a flat stomach quickly. That is, unless you also make another BIG change, which is what Saint from the NF community focused on to get to the above results (without any ab product, routine, or service), but I’ll get to that shortly!
Here are the things you need to know moving forward
Everybody has abdominal muscles. Yep, even you! They might be tiny, or weak, but everybody has 6-pack abs. They are just hidden under a layer of fat. Depending on how big you are, your strong abs could be buried under a lot of fat. No judgment, just reality.
Fat does NOT turn into muscle – they are two different things. Like oil and water, fat sits on top of muscle. You could have ridiculously strong abs ready to pop out, but if they are buried under a lot of fat, no amount of exercise will give you a flat stomach or make those abs pop, because it doesn’t address the fat on top of your muscles.
A flat stomach only appears when you have a low enough bodyfat percentage.The reason there are 1,000,000,000 ab workouts on YouTube is because people know there’s BIG money in the ab-industry for people desperate to get a flat stomach! And ab exercises are much easier to market as exciting than “eat better, get strong, move more, for a long long time.”
So, if you are somebody who tortures yourself for 30 minutes a day in the various ab machines or you’re doing 1000 crunches every day, it’s not doing what you think it’s doing. I’m giving you permission to stop cold turkey.
You CANNOT target or spot-reduce belly fat!
I REPEAT: YOU CANNOT SPOT REDUCE FAT ON YOUR BODY!
This applies to any area you might want to target with exercises, or any product that says it targets that area:
Doing Thighmaster workouts to target the inside of your thighs will not make the fat on your thighs disappear. Instead, it could make your thigh muscles UNDER the fat stronger. Despite what Carol from Step By Step tells you.
Doing more arm exercises to tone your arms will not make your arms less flabby. It could make the arm muscles UNDER the fat stronger.
Doing thousands of ab exercises will not shrink your stomach. It could make your ab muscles UNDER the fat stronger.
Now, please feel free to continue doing exercises that target these areas! This can actually help preserve muscle as you fix your nutrition (which is covered below). Just don’t expect the exercises themselves to reduce fat in that area.
Yup, this means all the “secret ab routines” you see about targeting certain abs (Upper abs! Lower abs! Obliques!) mean diddly-squat about getting rid of the fat on top of those muscles – those are only necessary when you are at a low bodyfat percentage. Which means you can stop doing 10 different ab exercises to hit the different muscles in your stomach. It’s not a good use of your time!
Next, you’re going to ask me (I promise I’m psychic): “Okay, if targeting areas of my body with certain exercise doesn’t make me lose fat in that area, then how DO I lose belly fat?”
Depending on your age, weight, sex, and genetic makeup, your body will lose fat in a certain order, from certain parts of your body, that you can’t control.
Historically, men tend to carry more fat in their stomachs and butt as they get fatter, and women tend to carry more fat in their thighs, hips, and stomach as they gain fat.
The opposite holds true during weight loss. As you lose weight, your body will lose fat in certain areas in a certain order based on your genetics and how your particular body type chooses to shed body fat.
Yes. That means we need to put a great plan in place to lose ALL fat, knowing that as long as we lose enough of it, we’ll ALSO lose belly fat along the way.
A Deep Dive Into Your Nutrition
Following the strategies we lay out below and throughout Nerd Fitness WILL get you a flat stomach (if you actually do the work), but it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be effortless. You’ll need to change your nutritional relationship with food and focus on a few key things:
1) Consume fewer calories than you are currently consuming. In order to do that, you need to know how much you currently eat, you need a plan to eat less, and then you need to track how consistent you are with that plan.
KNOW HOW MUCH YOU’RE EATING: Use an app like MyFitnessPal or DailyPlate to diligently track your calorie intake (I bet you’ll be surprised that you’re eating more than you realized), and then adjust your numbers down from there.
For example, if you want to cut back on beers you drink each week (a GREAT plan for getting a flat stomach) then you first have to record how many drinks you actually have, every day. An actual number. We all know you tell the doctor “a few drinks a week” but that won’t cut it here!
Your plan then should be to reduce that number – by one or one hundred (please don’t drink 100 beers a week). But, nonetheless, a reduction in beers consumed is the key here.
After a week, track your calories again, and compare actual numbers. Did you drink less? A plan is only as good as your ability to follow it. If you didn’t follow through, was the plan too complex? Goals too ambitious? Were you also trying to launch an interstellar satellite your first week of dieting?
We’re looking to cut back on calorie-high, nutrient-poor food first. Candy. Carbs. Sugar. Then move to counting calories, and then maybe onto more advanced/involved tactics like tracking your macronutrients and weighing and measuring food.
If you’re looking for big wins here, ditch the liquid carbs. Soda, gatorade, fruit juice, and alcohol are calorie dense, nutrient poor, and loaded with sugar/empty calories. We’ve had people in our community lose 50+ lbs (20+ kg) simply by cutting out liquid calories from their diet.
2) Consume more vegetables. We’re talking the leafy greens and similar vegetables in this case. No, pizza is not a vegetable. Recommended daily intake is 2 ½ – 3 cups of vegetables a day. Depending on your current intake, this might sound absurd.
I know some people who average zero a day.
If that’s you, it’s okay, no judgment – we all start somewhere. The great part about more vegetables in the diet is it tends to help #1: eating less calories. Vegetables take up stomach space, are low in calories and high in nutrients.
You may be one of those people currently eating zero vegetables – something you don’t need to track to know! OK, now let’s add some veggies into the day.
3) Eat better carbs at better times. Now we’re starting to get a bit more complex. When you are eating carbs, aim for starchy carbs – sweet potatoes, rices, squashes and such. Look for carbs that aren’t processed or liquid. The ingredient list should just be that item (e.g., “sweet potato”, not “cultured wheat starch solids, vinegar, soy lecithin”).
When we do have carbs, the body best handles them after a workout. The energy depleted and the hormonal changes that occur after a tough workout is the best environment to introduce carbs.
A note on low carb diets: With low carb diets, a lot of junk carbs (sweets, breads, alcohol) are also restricted in the process. This is good, and often leads to weight loss. Carbohydrates also hold water in the body, so we’ll also see water loss (and subsequent weight loss). All of this is exciting and people think “I’m never touching a carb again!”
However, your brain uses glucose and your muscles use glycogen as fuel sources. We get this glucose and glycogen from carbohydrates, so some carbohydrates are good.
We are NOT going to be talking about extremely-low carb diets – like a Ketogenic diet – here (which produce ketone bodies, which the brain then uses for fuel), as these are more extreme diets and one should seek advice from a doctor or nutritionist first. That’ll be a more advanced topic for another day.
4) Protein, protein, and more protein! The one constant in your nutritional strategy should be protein. Animal sources at every meal. This helps conserve the muscle you have as calories are reduced and you start to lose weight.
Just like vegetables, this can be as simple or as complex as you want it. Maybe you’re just making sure there’s a protein source at each meal (if it was lacking before). Maybe you’re figuring out rough portion sizes. Maybe you’re taking it to the max and actually weighing your food. The point is, you should be including it throughout the day and week.
A note on vegan/vegetarian diets: This is another topic that entire books and articles are written about, so we won’t dive into them here. Of course, it is absolutely possible to build muscle or lose fat on a vegan/vegetarian diet. Certainly you can get to a flat stomach, you just need to be diligent with your calorie tracking and macros, like we recommend you do above.
Just like you can be an unhealthy paleo person, you can also be an unhealthy vegetarian! My friend Matt runs NoMeatAthlete.com, and there are resources like VeganBodybuilding.com if you are looking for more resources in this realm.
5) Healthy Fats! If you are cutting back calories from junky carbs, restricting your carb intake to after your workouts, and you’re loading up on vegetables, then you might struggle to eat enough calories every day.
This is good, but too few calories can also be detrimental to progress (see below)!
Enter the fats. You’ve already got protein and veggies in the meal; healthy fats will round out a good meal. Avocados, olive oil, mixed nuts and the like are great sources. But, but, but! Understand that these healthy fats are calorically dense, so snacking on them all day tends to blow your calorie count way up (see #1).
If you’d like further reading, we recommend the following:
do not drastically change 100% of your diet right away. Do not go on an “ab blasting diet.” Instead, slowly adjust your food and build the habit of eating healthy. Remember, simple first. You have a much wider margin for error to start making progress at the beginning when you just want to start losing some weight.
By the time you get down to the teens on your body fat percentage, you need to be WAY more diligent, militant, and restrictive on your nutrition. Remember that it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen in “minutes a day” unless you’re spending those minutes eating a flawless diet!
A final warning on your diet: don’t go super low calorie and starve yourself!
There needs to be a reduction in your calorie intake to lose weight and body fat, but many take that and apply the logic: “If some calorie restriction is good, then a lot must be better!!”
Slow down. Restricting your calories too much causes a mess of your hormones and will halt efforts to lose body fat, as well as compromise your health (weakened immune system, malnutrition, turning into Grumplestiltskin, etc).
So remember, when it comes to your nutrition:
- Know where you are starting: Take starting photos (front and side). Track your calories for a few days.
- Know what you are doing/looking to accomplish: What your goals are, and why!
- Know how you are going to track/measure progress: Decreasing calories, more veggies and protein, etc. BE SPECIFIC!
- Start simple, and add complexity as you need to!
Hope you have enjoyed part 1 of the quest to a flat stomach, in part 2 we’ll dive deep into the exercies for a flat belly!