By Dr. Mercola
You may mistakenly believe that you need to do hundreds of sit-ups in order to get strong, ripped abs. While you might build strength in your abdominal muscles, you may never see defined abs unless you lose your belly fat.
Strong, toned core muscles do more than just make you look and feel good. They stabilize your spine and reduce your potential for back pain. Your core muscles act like an internal corset, holding in your gut and providing a sturdy base of support for your spine.
A strong core may also improve your ability to move easily and perform your activities of daily living with less discomfort. They help improve your balance and stability, which becomes especially important as you age.
It's important to keep in mind that no single abdominal exercise will challenge all the different sets of abdominal muscles, so a variety of movements is necessary. Strong back muscles also help to hold your stomach in.
Different Types of Fat
Your body uses different types of fat to perform different metabolic functions. But not all of these functions are healthy. The two basic types of fat are subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.1 In the video above, you'll discover the many ways added visceral fat triggers health problems.
Subcutaneous fat is the layer of fat over the top of your muscles and directly under your skin. Subcutaneous fat is what you measure using skin calipers to estimate total body fat. This is what jiggles when you move and causes cellulite.
Deeper, visceral fat wraps around your organs and is more metabolically active than subcutaneous fat. You may have visceral fat even though you have a body mass index (BMI) within normal limits. In other words, you don't have to be overweight to have an excess of visceral fat.
Although both subcutaneous and visceral fat correlate with metabolic risk factors,2 visceral fat is more strongly linked. Researchers call visceral fat a "unique, pathogenic fat depot,"3 increasing your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
There is substantial variation in the amount of visceral fat you may carry at a specific BMI. For this reason, waist circumference measurements are included in the evaluation of overall fat adiposity and risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity.4
When most of your fat is located around your waist, and not your hips, this increases your potential risk for disease. A reduced potential risk for disease is associated with a waist circumference of 35 inches or less for women and 40 inches or less for men.5
Nutrition and Exercise Are Needed to Lose Belly Fat
Although there are more than two strategies to lose belly fat, diet and exercise are the two pillars upon which all other strategies are built. Your body manufactures hormones, enzymes and fat, and builds muscle based on the foods you eat. You simply cannot exercise your way out of a poor diet.
Your diet is really the key to your success. All your exercise habits may be fruitless if you eat loads of processed foods, too many net carbohydrates (total carbs minus fiber) and the wrong kinds of fats. Kate Patton, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, is quoted in Health.com, saying: 6
"Refined grains like white bread, crackers and chips, as well as refined sugars in sweetened drinks and desserts increase inflammation in our bodies. Belly fat is associated with inflammation, so eating too many processed foods will hinder your ability to lose belly fat."
It's important to realize that not all calories have the same effect. Calories from different foods are metabolically different, depending upon the source. Research by Dr. Robert Lustig shows that calories from processed fructose are of particular concern.
According to Lustig, fructose is "isocaloric but not isometabolic." This means that identical calorie counts from fructose and glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, will cause entirely different metabolic effects.
One of the reasons for this is due to the fact that different nutrients provoke different hormonal responses, and those hormonal responses determine how much fat your body will accumulate and hold on to.
Research7 shows that calories gleaned from bread, refined sugars and processed foods promote overeating, whereas calories from whole vegetables, protein and fiber decrease hunger.
Burning Fat Uncovers Your Abs Quicker
A high-sugar diet promotes both insulin and leptin resistance, the latter of which is a hormone produced by fat cells. This hormone is as important as insulin in determining your risk for type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Your body may become resistant to leptin, just as it can become resistant to insulin.
If you become leptin resistant, your body doesn't recognize signals to burn fat or to stop eating. The result is sugar cravings and hunger, which can lead to overeating and increased fat accumulation.
As you cut down on net carbs, you need to replace them with healthy fats like grass-fed butter, olives and olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, raw nuts and pastured eggs.8 Once your body is well-adapted to burning fat as its primary fuel, it becomes very efficient at burning calories derived from fat.
My diet is 75 to 80 percent fat and I eat approximately 3,500 calories a day. That's well over the conventional recommendation of 2,400 to 2,800 for an active man of my age.9 However, I burn fat so efficiently, if I go below 3,500 calories a day, I lose weight.
If you currently burn sugar as your primary fuel, then rapidly and significantly increasing your healthy fat intake may not be beneficial and could result in weight gain. Your body simply isn't adapted to burning all that fat yet, and fat is very high in calories.
So go slow, and remember that one of the keys to making this metabolic switchover is to dramatically cut your sugar consumption. As long as you're giving your body sugar, it will use that first. Intermittent fasting can speed up your body's transition from burning sugar to burning fat as your primary fuel. You can also combine intermittent fasting with high-intensity interval training, (HIIT) which tends to be very effective for fat loss.
Lose the Fat
Although many consider visceral fat the more dangerous of the two different types of fat, it is also easier to gain and to lose. Use these strategies to lose both your subcutaneous and visceral fat stores to uncover your burgeoning six-pack abs.
✓ Reduce Stress
Cortisol is a steroid, produced in the cortex of your adrenal glands. These glands are located on the top of each of your kidneys. Cortisol is related to your "fight or flight" response, or the way your body gets prepared in an emergency situation. However, when you experience chronic stress, cortisol increases the amount of fat distribution in your abdomen.10,11
Find ways to reduce your stress levels. In my previous article, "10 Simple Steps to Help De-Stress" you'll find stress reduction suggestions you can use every day.
✓ Drink Enough Water
Believe it or not, water is one of the easiest ways to reduce your stress and reduce the physical stress on your body. More than 60 percent of your body is made up of fluids. Your kidneys need water to flush toxins out of your body. All of your organs, including your brain, need water to function.
Researchers have found that when your body is dehydrated, it will release cortisol. The cortisol will reduce your ability to deal with everyday stress, which in turn triggers the release of more cortisol.12 You'll know you are well hydrated by the color of your urine. It should be light straw-colored.
✓ Get Eight Hours of Sleep
Getting enough quality sleep each night can help you control stress. Loss of sleep can alter the production of hormones and affect your cortisol levels, as well as leave you less capable of dealing with your daily stress. In the overnight hours, your cortisol levels should drop which allows your body a time to repair and recharge.
Sleep deprivation may lead to a significant 45 percent increase of cortisol levels,13 which may compromise your immune function, disrupt your metabolism and contribute to cognitive impairment.14 For a comprehensive list of factors affecting quality sleep see my previous article titled, "Want a Good Night's Sleep? Then Never Do These Things Before Bed."
✓ Reduce Your Insulin Level
Your body produces insulin in response to carbohydrates. Insulin helps regulate your blood sugar by ushering the sugar into the cells to be used for fuel. Cortisol works with insulin to help regulate glucose in your bloodstream.15
However, cortisol also reduces your body's sensitivity to insulin, increasing your risk for type 2 diabetes.16 Reducing your carbohydrate intake, and thus your insulin output, may help reduce the amount of both visceral and subcutaneous fat your body accumulates.
✓ Optimize Your Vitamin C
People who have high levels of vitamin C in their bodies tend to have higher resilience against stress.17,18 Vitamin C also plays a role in stabilizing blood sugar levels, which also plays a role in the release of cortisol. Generally speaking, if you're eating multiple servings of vegetables and fruits daily, you're likely getting enough vitamin C. Remember, fresher produce tend to have higher concentrations of vitamin C.
What About Spot Reduction?
Doing abdominal exercises to burn belly fat won't work. You may build strong abdominal muscles through exercise, but they will continue to be hidden under layers of fat until you change your dietary habits. In order to have defined abdominal muscles, you'll have to peel away the top layer of fat.
The term "spot reduction" refers to the idea that you can change the layer of fat in one area of the body by doing exercises specific to that area. While it may not be true that you will remove the layer of fat, by improving muscle definition, it may appear as if you're losing fat.
For instance, if you have loose triceps that wiggle under your arm as you wave goodbye, you can improve the muscle tone through exercise. As the wiggle disappears, it may seem like you're doing spot reduction, when in fact you are tightening the muscle.
The same is true for abdominal exercises. You may experience a reduction in the size of your waist as you become more toned, but the muscles don't become more visible until you lose the subcutaneous fat. Several studies over many years have demonstrated exercise alone will not affect subcutaneous fat distribution over the belly or any other area of the body.19 ,20,21
Avoid These Mistakes
Choosing the wrong workout, doing the exercises incorrectly and doing exercises that don't challenge your body enough may all sabotage your efforts to lose body fat or develop strong muscles. The wrong workout can reduce the benefits you get in the amount of time you spend. Traditional cardiovascular exercises will typically not have a major impact on your waist size or abdominal muscles. It's actually one of the least effective forms of exercise for weight loss.
Many studies have confirmed that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) burns more fat than exercising at a moderate pace for your entire workout session.22,23,24 HIIT improves your muscle energy utilization and energy expenditure. This equates to better weight loss and improved fat burning potential. And since muscle tissue will burn three to five times more energy than fat tissue, it may also increase your resting metabolic rate.
With my Peak Fitness program, you'll lose more weight and reduce the amount of time you spend exercising. To complete this program you need 20 minutes, two to three times each week. The key to the program is the intensity. You can read more about my Peak Fitness program in a previous article titled, "Peak Fitness: Reap the Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training."
To build strong abdominal muscles, you may have to do more than a couple of crunches. The right process requires using effective exercises that target each of the different groups of abdominal muscles. While one simple routine cannot effectively challenge each of these groups, variations of the plank may help you develop the strong abs and back you desire. As you work to reduce your subcutaneous fat, increase your muscle mass using my 30-Day Plank Challenge.
In the video below, personal trainer Jill Rodriguez demonstrates plank exercises that you can do.