What’s your go-to exercise for six-pack abs?
If you’re like most people, you probably have wondered: do sit-ups burn belly fat?
But as you might have already guessed, sit-ups are not the best way to go when chasing down those shredded abs.
While they’re not useless, sit-ups don’t do what you think they do. No worries – I’m going to show you exactly what to do instead to get that tight stomach. (Hint: six-pack abs do not necessarily come from doing abdominal exercises.)
Do Sit-Ups Burn Belly Fat?
The idea that sit-ups trim your belly is based on one of the most persistent myths in the health and fitness world: spot training. Also called spot reduction, this concept pushes the fact that you can train one muscle group and burn off nearby fat.
But that’s not how the body works. The most definitive study on the topic (and pretty much the only one) was completed in the mid-1980s (1).
In that study, researchers had 13 men perform 5,000 sit-ups over the course of 27 days. Before and after this ab-athon, the team took fat biopsies from the stomach, butt and upper back of each man.
If spot reduction worked, only the subjects’ abs should have shown a difference in the biopsies, right? But that’s not what happened. Instead, fat decreased the same amount across all three spots.
That shows that rather than just burning fat from the area around the working muscle, your body pulls from fat storehouses all over your frame.
The fact that people still believe in spot reduction, though, proves the power of this myth.
Of course, you could still make a case for sit-ups. You might be thinking, “It’s still an exercise, and all exercises burn fat!”
And that is correct. But here’s the problem with that: Your abs are a really small group of muscles, which means that they don’t require a whole lot of fuel to work. So, each sit-up you do only uses a fraction of the fuel that you would need during an exercise that used a bigger muscle group – like squats or deadlifts.
“But my legs have nothing to do with my stomach!” you say.
Yes, they do. Remember: Your body burns fat from all over when it needs fuel. An effective workout that uses the big muscles in your legs, then, can stimulate fat loss in your core.
The Other Truth about Belly Fat
To really understand why sit-ups are bad tools for weight loss and how we can do better, it’s important to talk about why belly fat is hard to lose.
Simply put, your body likes it. Compared to other types of body fat, belly fat is a valuable source of stored fuel. And your body wants to have plenty of fuel available to it all times … just in case.
This fat-storage tactic is specifically designed for periods during which your brain thinks you’re in real danger.
Those signals come primarily from the stress hormone cortisol. When you’re under a lot of stress, your body releases more cortisol, and that makes your body store fat more easily than it normally would.
[Related: 3 Startling Ways Stress Causes Weight Gain]
And, as luck would (not) have it, that fat is mainly tucked around your waist.
That’s why belly fat is so hard to get rid of. Most of us are chronically stressed, both physically and mentally.
For example, maybe you have a lot of pressure at work (a mental stress). As a result you miss sleep (a physical stress). Now you’ve got a mental stress that turned into a physical one.
Or maybe you’re determined to work out and lose weight, no matter what. Even if it means missing sleep. So, you deprive yourself of much-needed sleep in order to hit the gym.
Not only does inadequate sleep make your brain stressed, so does exercise.
Very often, then, people end up storing belly fat even as they are zealously trying to do away with it.
Here’s How to Blast Belly Fat
So, if sit-ups don’t work and belly fat is such a stubborn enemy, what’s the best way to lose belly fat?
You’ve probably heard this before but it deserves repeating: Abs are built in the kitchen. Since body fat covers your muscles, the key to having visible abs is to lose fat.
When it comes to developing visible abs, men typically need to have a bodyfat percentage of less than 10 percent and women less than 18 percent.
Getting your diet under control is the key. This is a massive topic, but to put it in the most basic terms, your diet should be based on whole, nutrient-dense plant-based foods with some animal protein thrown in. Toss out added sugars and artificial ingredients.
What about workouts? As I covered above, the trick that most people miss is that you must use large, hungry muscle groups to burn the most body fat.
That means big, compound exercises strung together to create challenging full-body workouts.
Since we’re talking about burning fat, you’ve likely considered cardio at some point while reading this. And cardio can absolutely be a great tool.
If you do it right.
Unfortunately, most people go for long, boring steady-state runs when they’re trying to sculpt their abs. This is not only inefficient, but it can also be counterproductive.
After a certain point those long runs can cause huge spikes in the stress hormone cortisol. And as I mentioned before, that causes you to both store fat and burn muscle. Which, if you’re looking for cut abs, is a very bad thing.
What should your cardio look like?
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the way to go here. This type of training, which takes only between 20 to 30 minutes, is characterized by brief periods of intense activity separated by stints of active rest.
It has been shown to burn huge amounts of calories while also sparing muscle fiber. (2)
Plus, it’s just more fun.
The Case for Abdominal Exercises
This doesn’t mean that ab training is totally useless. If visible abs are a matter of body fat and diet, though, you might be wondering what’s the point of working them.
Here’s the thing: Even though you can’t spot reduce, you can spot strengthen.
So, even if your ab workout won’t burn off that troublesome belly fat, it will build the muscles hiding in there. That’s a good thing in terms of stability for your entire body.
Effectively training your abs is key in supporting just about every movement your body makes and protecting you from injury as you go about your daily routine.
And it’s true, once you burn off all that belly fat, you want some good-looking ab muscles.
Still, sit-ups aren’t my top choice for you. For one thing, they are rarely done properly, leading to injury and ineffective training. And it’s pretty unnatural movement for your abs and spine.
Think about it:
How often do you do any movement in daily life that even vaguely resembles the sit-up? Your abs, as mentioned, are designed to provide stability and balance. They aren’t really built to create powerful – or repeated – contractions.
So, if sit-ups don’t work then what are some effective ab exercises?
Do These 4 Ab Exercises Instead of Sit-Ups
The most effective exercises are those that use your abs the way that they’re meant to be used while supporting proper spinal alignment are key here. With that in mind, below are my top 4 picks that will get your abs into tip-top shape, fast (here are a bunch more):
Start in a push-up position, with your legs straight our behind you, your arms straight and your hands planted firmly under your shoulders. Your entire body should be straight and tight. To make it easier, you can perform this on your elbows instead of your palms, as well.
2. Side Planks
Begin in the plank position. Shift your weight over to the right so that all of your body is resting on that arm. Again, keep your entire body straight and tight. You can also perform this exercise your elbow. Once you’ve performed this on one side, switch so that your other side is also worked.
3. Stability Ball Knee Tucks
Start with your feet propped up on a stability ball, your legs straight out behind you and your hand on the ground under your shoulders. Keeping your spine straight and your core tight, draw your knees toward your chest. Slowly return to the starting position.
4. Chair Hold
This exercise may not look like much but it is extremely challenging. Trust me. Sit on a chair, stool or bench. With your arms at your sides, grab the side of the seat and straighten your arms to press your body upward. Keep your knees bent to a 90 degree angle and your spine straight. Hold this pose.
Try This Quick Ab Workout
Try doing the above exercises in the following circuit, one after the other, with no rest in between. Once you’ve gotten through to the end, take a minute break and hit the circuit again.
- Stability Ball Knee Tucks – 10 reps
- Chair Holds – 30 seconds
- Planks – 30 seconds
- Side planks – 15 seconds each side
So now that you know why sit-ups don’t burn belly fat, I want to let you in on a few more ab secrets in my FREE report, called The Flat Stomach Secret. In it, you’ll discover 7 unknown, smarter ways to lose belly fat and get amazing abs. Click the banner below to get it for free.
Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.