People exercise for lots of reasons – to get stronger, lose weight, increase their endurance, or get better at a sport, among others.
But often, they hope to get a secondary benefit from working out: they want a flat stomach.
But that’s old-school thinking and it’s not the best remedy for a flat stomach. Let’s see why it doesn’t work – and what you can do instead.
Say No to Steady-State Cardio
You may not be familiar with this term, but you know this type of workout.
Basically, it’s long (30 or more minutes) bouts of cardio that are done at a moderate pace. In fact, it’s the very kind of workout most of us think we should do to lose weight.
What’s wrong with steady-state cardio when it comes to exercises to flatten the stomach?
First, it’s important to remember that your body is adaptable – and that includes adapting to exercise. Generally, it only takes about two weeks for your system to make the changes needed to keep up with a particular activity.
If you’re constantly doing the same cardio exercise at the same pace for the same amount of time, your body is going to adapt. So that means you’ll either have to exercise longer or slowly ramp up the intensity as your body gets fitter in order to get the same effect.
And then we have the next issue: muscle loss.
Any time you exercise, your body perceives the exertion as a form of stress and a potential sign of danger. In response, your body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol level. And that’s a good thing.
Working together and circulating at the appropriate levels, these two hormones give you energy, increase your strength, improve your mental focus, and stimulate the burning of fat for fuel.
As is often the case, however, you can have too much of a good thing.
When your workouts get longer at a higher intensity, your cortisol levels can get too high and stay elevated for too long. When that happens, cortisol starts to do exactly the opposite of what we want: it starts to hang on to your carbohydrate (fuel) reserves.
That’s because carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source and are perfect for short, intense activity – like making a quick getaway in the face of danger. So, in order to protect that fast-acting fuel, your body starts to look for other fuels, and it turns to the amino acids and proteins that make up your muscles (1).
But, wait, it gets worse. Cortisol also encourages your body to store fat – particularly around your abdomen.
Repeated, long bouts of steady-state cardio can both eat up your muscles and cause your body to tuck away more fat around your stomach. Not exactly a recipe for a flat stomach.
Crunches Don’t Work, Either
As you probably have already surmised, crunches – and most other conventional abdominal exercises, for that matter – aren’t the best exercises to flatten stomach muscles.
That’s because spot reducing – or exercising just a small amount of muscle at a time – isn’t effective.
When you do spot training, the working muscle does not burn the surrounding fat for fuel. Instead, fat is burned all over the body, based on genetics, age, gender and a host of other factors.
Researchers have repeatedly debunked the idea of spot reduction, but there’s one study from the University of Massachusetts that I particularly like (2).
For the study, 13 male volunteers were asked to perform a total of 5,000 sit-ups over the course of 27 days. On average, that’s about 185 sit-ups each day, every day.
If spot training worked, the subjects would have lost a considerable amount of fat from just their abdomen. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the subjects lost weight equally across the entire body – as demonstrated by fat biopsies in the upper back, abdomen and butt before and after the trial.
Why does that matter? Because if sport training doesn’t work – and it doesn’t – then in order to get a flat stomach, you need to loss weight throughout your body. And crunches are a terrible way to do that.
Compared to other muscle groups, your abs are pretty small. Which means that they can operate on much less fuel than, say, your leg muscles.
If you’re trying to find the most effective way to burn through large amount of body fat, you’re going to want to activate as many muscle fibers as possible in the shortest amount of time.
The Best Exercises To Flatten Your Stomach
So, if the old-school cardio/crunch approach doesn’t work, what should you do?
Let’s start with replacing those long, slow cardio sessions with something a little more exciting: high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
[Related: How to Do Interval Training (The Right Way)]
Why? First, because HIIT burns more calories in a shorter period of time, and it also helps spare your muscle, which is really important not only for your health but also for your metabolism (3).
Muscle burns slightly more calories at rest than other body tissues, so the more muscle you have, the better.
Now that we’re clear on how great it is, how can you get started with HIIT?
There are numerous different HIIT protocols out there but they all have a basic principle in common: Periods of high-intensity work are broken up by chunks of active recovery.
In its most basic form, a HIIT workout might look like this:
- Sprint – 1 minute
- Jog or walk – 2 minutes
- Repeat for 20 minutes total
Total Body Exercises For A Flat Stomach
Because spot reduction doesn’t work, we need to burn fat across your entire body, and picking the right exercises to do that goes a long way to get you to your goals.
The best way to do that – to turn your body into a fat-burning furnace – is to activate your largest muscle groups, using big lifts against heavy resistance.
Key exercises include:
- Bent-over Rows
- Overhead Press
- Bench Press
Do you see the common link between all of these exercises? They all work numerous muscles, with lots of focus on your biggest, hungriest groups.
Take the squat, for example. Of course, the large muscles of your thighs are carrying most of the weight but they aren’t alone. Your entire core – including your back, stomach, hips, and shoulders – has to work to keep you upright and stable throughout the movement.
What about the bench press? Yes, your pecs are working hard to lift that bar but your triceps are also working to support those efforts. Your biceps and shoulders also help as stabilizers. Even your core is tight, trying to keep you balanced.
If you’re limited to bodyweight exercises, the same principle can be applied. Exercises like squats, pushups, and pullups all activate lots of muscle fibers all at once.
Even though these exercises all use your core to keep your body stable, you might also want to layer in some specific core and ab exercises to keep the area strong.
If you think about how your core works on an average day, its primary function is stability – something it mostly accomplishes through isometric contractions. An effective ab workout would focus on exercises that improve your stability, strengthen your core, and mimic movements that your core has to do in the real-world.
Here are a few prime examples of useful, effective ab exercises:
- Side Plank
- Mountain Climbers
Put It Together for a Flat Stomach
Combining high-intensity interval training, resistance training working your major muscle groups, and functional core exercises won’t just get you a flatter stomach – it’ll get you a fitter, healthier, and stronger body.
And when you combine those three tactics with a healthy, clean diet, your results will only be accelerated.
More Ab-Flattening Tricks
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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.