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The myth about burning belly fat

Hadyn Luke posted this on Tuesday 7th of January 2014 Hadyn Luke 07/01/2014

Tags: Nutrition weight management

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In previous blogs we’ve talked about common exercise myths, in 10 exercise myths a personal trainer should know (part 1) and 10 exercise myths a personal trainer should know (part 2).

The focus of this blog is one challenge that many men and women are familiar with: losing weight from their bellies.

Why should you burn belly fat?

Most clients who ask their personal trainer for help with burning belly fat will be thinking first and foremost from an aesthetic point of view – they want to fit into their jeans, look good in a tight dress or avoid having a beer belly hanging over the top of their trousers. However, there are also health reasons for losing weight around the middle, for example to avoid developing Type 2 diabetes.

Why do people put on weight around their belly?

An accumulation of fat stored round the middle can be attributed to general obesity, but in particular it can be caused by eating too much processed food and doing too little exercise.

Certain hormones are also contributing factors, for example stress, lack of sleep and even overtraining can cause increased levels of cortisol in the body, a hormone that can affect how we respond to insulin, which in turn can lead to increased belly fat. Finally, age, genetics and body type can make a difference to where we store fat (see our blog on Somatotypes: what are they?).

The myth of burning belly fat

Many people believe that exercises such as sit ups and leg raises will reduce the size of their stomach. In fact, all they do is tone up the muscles underneath the fat.

Indeed, localised muscle fatigue is not even always the best way to judge which muscles are being recruited during a particular exercise. A good example of this is hip flexor exercises such as leg raises. A personal trainer may find a client complains of feeling the burn when their abdominal muscles contract isometrically during this exercise (in order to hold the spine and pelvis in place and support the lower body weight). However, it is actually the Iliopsoas – one of the hip flexors – that is the primary muscle being used to carry out the exercise.

How to lose belly fat

The best way to lose belly fat is to carry out exercises and activities that are known to be fat burning for the whole body, whether aerobic or resistance training.

Low weight, high rep resistance training tends not to burn any more fat than using a higher weight with a moderate number of repetitions, as the intensity of the exercise on a light weight will not be sufficient for a few additional reps to make any difference. In fact higher volume weight training with short rest periods can stimulate a higher release of acute growth hormone, which can make it harder to burn fat.

The intensity of the exercise – and hence its fat burning properties – can also be compromised by too short rest periods as the body requires a certain amount of time for complete creatine phosphate recovery.

Exercise and weight loss

As we saw from an earlier blog (Personal Training – The FITT principle), there are various ways a personal trainer can vary a client’s exercise programme in order to increase the amount of fat they burn during a gym session or exercise class.

If a fitness professional is working with a new client who is just starting out in the gym and wants to lose weight and burn fat around their middle, the client may get disillusioned in the early stages as the increase in their muscle mass might be more than the fat they succeed in losing. However, once a beginner has progressed their fitness levels, they can move on to more intense and frequent exercise of longer duration.

Large compound exercises will recruit more muscles and burn more energy, so a personal trainer might set exercises such as a chest press or back squat. These can be used in conjunction with aerobic training to burn calories and thus body fat.

High repetitions can still be beneficial for abdominal and oblique training, in particular for stabilising the back muscles.

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