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Working out to lose that belly fat
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Working out to lose that belly fat

The classic abs workout only helps to tone up muscle, not shrink the fat. There's a better way to do that

Marta Fernández Vallejo

Madrid

Friday, 10 May 2024, 14:07

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The easiest place on the body for fat to accumulate is the abdomen, for both men and women, and it is also the most difficult place to eliminate it. Losing that tummy is, in fact, one of the most typical incentives for joining a gym, doing a workout that involves lots of sit-ups. Big mistake. Local fat build-up is not eradicated by stimulating the muscles in that area, although it does help to tone and strengthen them. The only way to reduce fat around the abdomen is through proper nutrition – burning more calories than you ingest – and doing physical exercise that also includes resistance training.

The popularity of exercises focusing on the core or our abs has increased in recent years, "mainly due to the rise of the cult of body image that exists in a society filled with social media. Posts featuring athletes, influencers etc are very common. They promote practically the same sets of abs exercises," says Prof Alejandro López, doctor in Physical Activity and Sports Sciences. These exercises are sold as a way to reduce that belly. "But we must fully understand how the core functions so we can use it to respond better to situations in our daily lives, protecting the spine, as a way to prevent injuries and improve sports performance," he adds.

They do work, when done with the correct technique and adapted to the individual. "Each person must strengthen the muscles of the torso based on their characteristics so as not to cause injuries," advises López. Taking the sit-up as an example - being the most common abdominal exercise: lying on the floor, using the abs only to raise and lower the back. This "generates high stress on the spine and is only recommended for people practising sport who have strengthened that area." Despite not being suited to all, these exercises to tone the abdominal muscles are indiscriminately inserted into many workout routines and training plans.

What to avoid

Alcohol: In addition to being really toxic for the liver, it directly adds to abdominal fat.

Sweets and sugary drinks: Sugar is a simple carbohydrate with a high energy content.

White flours: They lack nutritional value and come with a large amount of calories.

Saturated fats: Apart from their adverse effect on belly fat, they raise our cholesterol levels and come with the risk of coronary problems.

Processed foods: Pizzas, hamburgers, chips, sauces (mayonnaise, ketchup...), ice cream, cooked meats. These foods contain high amounts of salt and fat and are closely linked to increasing that abdominal fat.

They can even have a negative effect. "The abdominal contraction causes downward pressure on the perineum, weakening it. It decreases muscle tone in the pelvic floor, leading to some internal organs dropping down causing prolapses such as the bladder or uterus - the main cause of stress urinary incontinence. "It occurs especially in women as they have a broader and weaker perineum," says Manuel Vega, physical trainer and nutritionist.

If we want to do abdominal exercises to tone that area, we must first "work on posture to perform the exercises correctly," says Vega. Abs can be worked more effectively and safely "in plank or bridge positions" or with torso stability exercises such as Bird Dog (on all fours on the floor, then raising an opposite arm from leg, stretching both out until they are parallel to the ground - repeat for the other arm and opposite leg).

"Once adequate torso stability has been acquired, we can increase the difficulty of the exercises," says Prof López. It's time to get into those holding positions of front plank, side plank and bridge, then introducing some unsteady surfaces like bosu balls or wobble-boards.

The recipe for abs success

The best recipe for losing belly fat is regular exercise and proper nutrition. "Physical activity involves burning up energy, so it helps reduce body fat in general and it can do the same for the waistline, although it may take longer," explains Vega. Into our exercise plans we should introduce resistance training. "The more muscle you have, the more calories your metabolism will consume even when resting and therefore the more fat you burn." Once strength exercises are incorporated into our sports routine, we can add running, cycling or swimming, which will help us burn calories too.

A plan that combines sport, resistance training and toning the core, along with a healthy diet, will help us lose fat throughout the body.

"Although the last one to go is the tummy area, since it is the most difficult to eliminate due to the nature of our physiology," says Vega.

Hypopressive training helps too

Hypopressive exercises (a respiratory and postural method that uses specific breathing techniques to strengthen certain muscle groups) are not as popular as the more traditional abdominal exercises, but they are a good complement to reducing the waistline in addition to providing other great benefits. Physiotherapist and university professor María Sirvent wrote her doctoral thesis on this method and explains the benefits: "The muscles that are strengthened and made better by hypopressive training include the abdominals, mainly the transverse muscle, which is the deepest muscle and is responsible for ensuring that our waistline is not lost."

Reducing that band of fat around the tummy is not actually the greatest benefit of hypopressives. "The pelvic floor muscles, glutes, abductors and pectorals, among others, are also strengthened. It is not even true that they only have positive effects on women: men also find benefits from incorporating them into their exercise routine," she says. In addition, they improve the mobility of the diaphragm and circulation.

Of course, it requires an expert who knows how to teach the correct technique. A complete hypopressive session can last 45 minutes, during which a multitude of postures are deployed to activate the pelvic floor and abdomen, typically with three repetitions each. Simply add two sessions to your weekly training plan.

It is no quick fix: it takes three to six months to learn to do the exercises well to achieve waist reduction.

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