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Stomach Crunches and Sit Ups: Why They Do Not Help You Lose Stomach Fat?

It sounds quite logical. If you want to lose stomach fat, you need to exercise the abdominal area. And as the endless host of articles with guaranteed tips for a flat stomach in as little as seven days guarantee, you will get the coveted six-pack very soon. Or is it all a little more complicated than that and even hundreds of stomach crunches will not help you lose stomach fat? Let’s see what is and what is not in the power of sit ups and stomach crunches.

Achieving at least partially visible muscles in the abdominal area is the dream of many athletes and healthy lifestyle enthusiasts. Who knows why a chiselled stomach and a very low percentage of body fat are considered a symbol of success and health, but the opposite may be true? Due to this, people embark on a variety of challenges, extreme diets, detoxes and training plans, from which they are promised guaranteed results and even greater self-confidence or happiness in life. However, in many cases, all of this does not help to get toned abs in a split second. Everyone should want to be the best and happiest version of themselves, but you also need to think about what this means specifically for you, and then try to achieve your most daring dreams.

How to lose stomach fat and how much body fat is normal?

Getting rid of excess fat anywhere on the body is a huge benefit to your health, but also to your self-confidence and self-satisfaction. Excess intra-abdominal (visceral) or subcutaneous fat is associated with an increased risk of developing insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes or heart disease. [1]

  • Visceral or intra-abdominal fat can be found in the abdominal cavity around the internal organs. Its excess is associated with a number of diseases, such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
  • Subcutaneous fat is located in the subcutaneous tissue between the skin and muscles and can be felt easily by anyone in the form of a skin fold. Within normal limits, it is not associated with a greater risk of developing a number of civilisational diseases, and is thus is an aesthetic rather than a health scare issue. [2–3]

What percentage of body fat is considered normal?

  • For a healthy young man, the normal amount of body fat is up to about 20% of total body fat, but any number above this refers to overweight. [5]
  • For a healthy young woman, the normal amount of body fat is roughly up to 30% of total body fat, and any number above this refers to overweight. [5]
How to lose weight in the abdominal area and how much body fat is normal?

Why can’t you lose belly fat with hundreds of crunches and sit-ups a day?

What happens to muscles when you burden them with strength training with your own bodyweight, barbell or dumbbells? That’s right, they get stronger and bigger. The same thing basically happens when you exercise your stomach in the form of crunches or sit-ups. Does that mean you lose weight by strengthening your abdominal muscles? Unfortunately, no, but luckily, we all have abdominal muscles, but some can hide more under a larger layer of body fat. On the other hand, exercising using crunches increases the strength of the abdominal muscles and most likely their volume.

It would be nice if we could say we’re going to exercise our abdomen or legs and lose fat in these areas. However, that’s not how our bodies work…

When you work out your abdomen, you work out your abdomen…

At the University of Illinois, scientists tried to answer the same question we are asking ourselves today. A total of 24 volunteers (14 men and 10 women between the ages of 18 and 40) were randomly divided into two groups. The research group had to work out using seven exercises on the abdomen five times a week for 6 weeks after 2 series and 10 repetitions. The control group enjoyed rest and time off, while both groups followed a zone diet, i.e. a diet with the same energy intake as before the intervention. [6]

And what was the result of the study? In the research group, there was an increase in abdominal muscle strength and muscular endurance, while there was no loss of total body fat or fat stored in the subcutaneous tissue of the abdomen compared to the group that did virtually nothing. And that must be pretty upsetting when you work out your stomach every day to make it smaller and still nothing. It needs a more comprehensive approach, which we’ll discuss in a moment. [6]

Further research tested a 27 week training program consisting of a progressive model of sit-up type exercises, with 13 men training a total count of 5,004. What did the scientists find? Body weight and body fat percentage didn’t change, even the size of the fat cells on the abdomen remained the same, similar to the size of the abdominal skin fold (the amount of subcutaneous fat). [7]

And the latest study from this review looked at 40 overweight or obese women and the effect of a 12-week intervention where participants were divided into two groups, the first group following dietary measures and exercising using abdominal exercises, and the second group only following dietary measures. Both groups lost weight, but the difference was negligible. What’s more? Again, researchers found no difference between groups in the loss of body fat in the abdominal area. [8] If you are looking for best abs exercises, read our article 21 Best Body Weight Exercises to Strengthen Your Abdomen.

What part of the body loses fat first when you lose weight?

What part of the body loses fat first when you lose weight?

Just as you can’t control where your fat is stored, you can’t control where your body first breaks it down. In the first instance, many people store fat around the abdomen, which is mainly associated with lower testosterone levels and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Women are generally more prone to storing fat reserves on the thighs and buttocks, for which they can “thank” the female sex hormone oestrogen. [9-10]

Hormones, genetics and overall lifestyle interfere with the complexity of this issue. Some are lucky enough to have won the genetic-hormone lottery, and fat is stored evenly throughout their body and evenly eliminated from the body. 

There is therefore no point in trying to lose weight from one specific part of the body because it is simply not possible. Personally, I like the comparison of spot reduction with a pool and bucket of water: “Trying to spot reduce fat by exercising that part of your body (e.g. the abdomen) is like using a bucket to empty just one corner of a swimming pool.“

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What needs to be done to successfully lose belly fat?

Now that we know for certain that there is no magic spell to target fat loss, let’s look at good old-fashioned and time-tested tricks that actually work, but are usually neglected.

  1. A calorie deficit is crucial for successful weight loss. Essentially, dietary approaches and diets are mere tools to achieve a calorie deficit. Set a calorie deficit of 10-20%, which is sustainable in the long run and will help you for the long haul. If you don’t know how to do it, we’ll explain it in the article How to Calculate Your Energy and Macronutrient Intake for Weight Loss or Muscle Gain?
  2. An overall improvement of your diet plan will bring you more vegetables, fruits, high-quality proteins, fats, carbohydrates and plenty of fibre instead of low-quality and highly industrially processed foods such as various sweets, salty delicacies and fast food. By giving up alcohol, or at least reducing its consumption, you will save several hundred calories and avoid morning headache. As a result, you will probably spontaneously reduce your energy intake and start to lose weight without any pain.
  3. Sufficient protein is crucial for optimal function of the immune system, regeneration and growth of muscle mass, a greater feeling of satiety after a meal, and proteins can even help to control the relentless cravings not only for sweets. Following strength training and weight loss, maintain a protein intake of about 1.6-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. Remember that increasing training capacity and having a greater caloric deficit also means greater protein requirements. A high-quality whey or vegetable vegan protein can also help with sufficient intake. [11-14]
  4. Complex strength training is an ideal aid in changing your body. It strengthens, tones and grows muscles, helping to build an attractive physique with developed abdominal muscles. Put in good strength training about three times a week and be patient and persistent. In case you are not sure about setting up a training plan, read our article What to Eat and How to Exercise to Finally Gain Muscle?
  5. Endurance sport is an ideal means of burning excess fat reserves. You don’t have to become a lover of cycling or jogging, simply try to do any aerobic sport you like every day. Go for a long walk, roller-skating, cross-country skiing or swimming. An average 65-kilogram woman burns roughly 540 kcal during an 8 km/hr run and an 80-kilogram man roughly 660 kcal.
  6. As much exercise as possible during the day means more energy burnt, which reflects in more effective weight loss. Try to walk as much as possible, run up the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, and maybe start looking at home cleaning as a kind of circuit training.
  7. Any physical activity you enjoy counts. Movement costs the body the energy it has to take somewhere. And the difference between watching TV for an hour and playing sports on augmented reality games with a game console could be a hundred calories. If you are interested in staying active at home, read our article 5 Tips to Stay Active, Motivated and Keep Exercising at Home.
  8. 7- 9 hours of sleep every day is crucial for maintaining optimal levels of testosterone, hunger and satiety hormones (leptin & ghrelin), maintaining cognitive function and, last but not least, a combative immune system. If you want to find out more about sleep, read our article How to Improve Sleep and How Does it Affect the Health and Growth of Muscle Mass?
  9. Less life stress will bring more peace to your life, a more resistant immune system and a more balanced hormonal system due to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is also associated with higher levels of fat storage in the abdominal area. In addition to breathing exercises and meditation, cold water therapy can help with the reduction of chronic stress. In case you want to learn more about it, read our article How to Get Stronger Immunity Thanks to Cold Water Therapy?
How to lose stomach fat quickly?

After all, is there anything you can do to promote belly fat burning?

One study looked at whether the storage of fatty tissue in relation to the energy coverage of movement mattered. The researchers compared changes in subcutaneous fat adjacent to the active muscle. Irrespective of the intensity of exercise, increased blood flow and lipolysis (“fat breakdown”) were observed in the subcutaneous fat adjacent to the active muscle. But does it have any real overlap with everyday life? Unfortunately, no. The increased lipolysis effect was very minimal and quite negligible in relation to overall lifestyle and all the factors that interfere with weight loss. [15]

Some research even suggests a slight positive effect of strength training and subsequent cardio on the targeted fat loss. In simple terms, if you put more weight on your upper body during strength training and then do cardio, you will probably draw a little more energy from the fat reserves stored in the upper half of your body. Again, however, this effect is subordinated to all conditions of successful weight loss and is rather a potential ‘biohack’ method, the effect of which on spot reduction has not yet been sufficiently confirmed. On the other hand, if you do a few exercises on your stomach during training and then do thirty minutes of cardio, you will do absolutely nothing wrong, and on the contrary, you will do something good for your body. [16-17]

When losing weight, it is always about the ratio of burned energy vs. received energy. High quality fat burners contain thermogenic substances that stimulate the body to produce more heat, which costs energy. At the same time, they contain substances that have a positive effect on inflammation and concentration. As a result, you can do more work during training, which results into more calories burned, and contribute more to the weight loss mosaic. If you are interested in how to increase the efficiency of a fat burner, read our article 6 Tips on How to Improve the Effects of a Fat Burner.

How to burn stomach fat?

What to remember?

Unfortunately, no exercise can conjure up a chiselledsix-pack” on your stomach or burn belly fat. However, stomach crunches and sit-ups can help strengthen and build abs, especially the straight abdominal muscle, a desired six-pack.

Visibility of the abdominal muscles is not a matter of strength or volume, although it is somewhat related, but it is the amount of subcutaneous fat. This is the main “culprit” of your abdominal muscles not being visible. If you bet on a reasonable training and diet plan, you will try to exercise whenever you can, and will make sleep a priority, then you are well on your way to successful fat loss not only on your stomach but all over your body.

According to current scientific knowledge, due to strength training you can slightly increase the breakdown of fats as a source of energy in the desired area during subsequent cardio activities. During your workout, include a few challenging abs exercises and then go for a run on the treadmill. But it is still a drop in the ocean of an overall approach to weight loss, not a revolutionary method.

But the question is, does having a six-pack give you a greater sense of well-being or happiness? However, that’s up to each and every one of you.

Do you have experience with belly fat loss? Share your advice and tips in the comments. If you liked the article, promote it by sharing so that your friends can learn more about effective weight loss.

Bibliography:

[1] Westphal, S. A. – Obesity, abdominal obesity, and insulin resistance. – https://doi.org/10.1016/s1098-3597(08)60025-3

[2] Hamdy, O., Porramatikul, S., & Al-Ozairi, E. – Metabolic obesity: The paradox between visceral and subcutaneous fat. – https://doi.org/10.2174/1573399810602040367

[3] Porter, S. A., Massaro, J. M., Hoffmann, U., Vasan, R. S., O’Donnel, C. J., & Fox, C. S. – Abdominal Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue: A Protective Fat Depot? – https://doi.org/10.2337/dc08-2280

[4] Fox, C. S., Massaro, J. M., Hoffmann, U., Pou, K. M., Maurovich-Horvat, P., Liu, C.-Y., Vasan, R. S., Murabito, J. M., Meigs, J. B., Cupples, L. A., D’Agostino, R. B., & O’Donnell, C. J. – Abdominal visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue compartments: Association with metabolic risk factors in the Framingham Heart Study. – https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.675355

[5] Gallagher, D., Heymsfield, S. B., Heo, M., Jebb, S. A., Murgatroyd, P. R., & Sakamoto, Y. – Healthy percentage body fat ranges: An approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index. – https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.3.694

[6] Vispute, S. S., Smith, J. D., LeCheminant, J. D., & Hurley, K. S. – The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. – https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fb4a46

[7] Katch, F. I., Clarkson, P. M., Kroll, W., McBride, T., & Wilcox, A. (1984). Effects of Sit up Exercise Training on Adipose Cell Size and Adiposity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 55(3), 242–247. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.1984.10609359

[8] Kordi, R., Dehghani, S., Noormohammadpour, P., Rostami, M., & Mansournia, M. A. – Effect of abdominal resistance exercise on abdominal subcutaneous fat of obese women: A randomised controlled trial using ultrasound imaging assessments. – https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmpt.2014.12.004

[9] Tchernof, A., Brochu, D., Maltais-Payette, I., Mansour, M. F., Marchand, G. B., Carreau, A.-M., & Kapeluto, J. – Androgens and the Regulation of Adiposity and Body Fat Distribution in Humans. – https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c170009

[10] Hewagalamulage, S. D., Lee, T. K., Clarke, I. J., & Henry, B. A. – Stress, cortisol, and obesity: A role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. – https://doi.org/10.1016/j.domaniend.2016.03.004

[11] Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., … Antonio, J. – International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and exercise. – https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

[12] Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Lemmens, S. G., & Westerterp, K. R. – Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. – https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114512002589

[13] Bray, G. A., Redman, L. M., de Jonge, L., Covington, J., Rood, J., Brock, C., Mancuso, S., Martin, C. K., & Smith, S. R. – Effect of protein overfeeding on energy expenditure measured in a metabolic chamber. – https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.091769

[14] Gosby, A. K., Conigrave, A. D., Raubenheimer, D., & Simpson, S. J. – Protein leverage and energy intake. – https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12131

[15] Stallknecht, B., Dela, F., & Helge, J. W. – Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? – https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00215.2006

[16] Scotto di Palumbo, A., Guerra, E., Orlandi, C., Bazzucchi, I., & Sacchetti, M. – Effect of combined resistance and endurance exercise training on regional fat loss. – https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.16.06358-1

[17] Kostek, M. A., Pescatello, L. S., Seip, R. L., Angelopoulos, T. J., Clarkson, P. M., Gordon, P. M., Moyna, N. M., Visich, P. S., Zoeller, R. F., Thompson, P. D., Hoffman, E. P., & Price, T. B. – Subcutaneous fat alterations resulting from an upper-body resistance training program. – https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b0138058a5cb