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How to Build a Shapely Stomach

By Jody Braverman ; Updated January 30, 2018

In your mind, a shapely stomach might be flat tummy with a small waist — or perhaps you yearn for washboard abs. No matter what your body shape or current weight is, work to achieve your vision by exercising and eating right.

High-intensity cardiovascular exercise and total-body strength training will help you shed extra body fat, while targeted abdominal exercises will help you build muscle definition. Eating a nutritious, calorie-controlled diet ensures that your hard work in the gym doesn't go to waste.

Shed Fat With Cardio

Extra fat around the midsection often results in a protruding belly and a thick waist. Even if you've worked on building your abdominal muscles, a layer of fat means you'll never see them. Regular cardiovascular exercise will help you burn the fat that's keeping you from the shapely stomach that you desire.

Up the Intensity of Your Workout

High-intensity cardio will get you better results than moderate-paced cardio, according to a study published in "Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders" in August 2009. At the end a 12-week period , those who performed the high-intensity exercise training protocol experienced a significant reduction of a type of abdominal fat called visceral fat compared to the participants who followed a moderate-intensity exercise program.

Find Your Target Heart Rate

It's pretty easy to tell when you're working hard — you get sweaty, your breathing becomes labored and it's difficult to hold a conversation while you're working out.

However, using a heart rate monitor can get you an even better read so you know you're working at a high enough intensity to burn the most belly fat. High intensity is usually considered 70 percent to 90 percent of your max heart rate.

Figure out your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 30-year-old woman's max heart rate is 190. Then, multiply your max heart rate by .70 and .90 to find your target heart rate range.

A 30-year-old woman's ideal high-intensity heart rate range would be 133 to 171. Stay in your target heart rate zone as much as possible during your workout for the best results.

High-Intensity Interval Training Workouts

During HIIT, alternate periods of intense training with periods of recovery. This allows you to work out at a higher intensity than you could achieve with steady-state cardio, for maximal belly fat burning. Not only is HIIT more effective, it's also more time-efficient, requiring a "markedly lower training volume," reports a Journal of Obesity review.

Try this sample treadmill HIIT workout:

  1. Warm up at an easy pace for about 5 minutes.
  2. Raise the speed of the treadmill until you are sprinting at an all-out pace. Sprint for 30 seconds to 4 minutes, or as long as you are able.
  3. Lower the speed of the treadmill to an easy jog or a walk. Recover until your heart rate returns to normal. 
  4. Repeat steps two and three for another three to six rounds.  

Build Muscle With Strength Training

Cardio will help you whittle your waistline, but it's only part of the equation. Turn your body into a fat-burning machine by building total-body muscle mass. Muscle takes more energy for your body to maintain, so it burns more calories — even at rest — than fat mass. The more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn — even while doing absolutely nothing.

Aim for two to three total-body strength training sessions each week. Include exercises to target your arms, shoulders, chest, back, legs and abs. Sample exercises to perform include push-ups, pull-ups, military presses, rows, squats, deadlifts and lunges.

These are all compound exercises, meaning they use more than one muscle group at a time. Because they require more muscle recruitment, they burn more calories while you're doing them.

They also elicit an after-burn effect, which increases calorie burning during the 24 to 48 hours following your workout. Lastly, they're time-efficient, allowing you to target more muscle groups with fewer exercises in less time.

Choose the Right Abdominal Exercises

If you're in the group that thinks a shapely stomach is one that resembles a washboard, then you're going to have to spend time building your abdominal muscles. A targeted abdominal-training regimen, in addition to total-body strength training, will help you work toward the ripped appearance you desire.

According to a 2001 ACE Fitness study, certain abdominal exercises are better than others for getting results — the bicycle maneuver, the captain's chair exercise and situps on an exercise ball. For training the obliques, the muscles on the sides of the abdomen, the top performers were the captain's chair exercise, the bicycle maneuver and the reverse crunch.

A Toned Tummy Diet

A calorie-controlled, healthy diet is crucial to getting a shapely stomach. If you've got extra pounds to lose, you will have to reduce your calorie intake to achieve a caloric deficit. This means you're eating fewer calories each day than you're burning through exercise, physiological functions like breathing and your daily activities of life.

While the exact number of calories you need depends on several individual factors, including your age, weight, sex and activity level, you can make a big dent in your calorie intake by cutting out certain foods. Foods to cut out (or severely restrict) include:

  • Sodas and other sugary beverages
  • Cookies, cakes, candies and other sweets
  • Refined grains such as white pasta, white bread and white rice
  • Fats from processed meats and fried foods

Not only are these foods unhealthy for you, but they are also high in calories without offering any significant nutrition. Instead focus on the following foods:

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Lean beef, chicken and fish
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice
  • Nuts and seed
  • Healthy fats like olive oil

Loading up on fresh vegetables and other low-calorie, filling foods keeps you feeling satisfied and makes it harder to go over your calorie budget. You'll also have more energy to work hard at the gym.

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