Your mission to reduce belly fat isn't going to be achieved by crunching alone. Spot training can strengthen the muscles underneath layers of fat, but it can't burn off the fat itself. Only a reduced-calorie diet and a commitment to high-intensity cardio and total-body strength training can help you lose fat. But, when performed in addition to strong exercise and eating habits, abdominal exercises can help reveal a toned tum once the fat is gone.
Cardio for Fat Loss
A daily walk is a healthy addition to your day and may help improve your overall health, but it probably won't do much to reduce layers of fat that have settled around your belly. Stephen H. Boutcher, a professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales, wrote in a research paper published in a 2011 issue of Obesity that regular aerobic exercise has a "negligible" effect on fat loss. Instead, his review of dozens of studies on exercise and weight loss reveals that high-intensity interval training, consisting of short bouts of near all-out effort alternated with short periods of lower-intensity effort or rest, was far more effective in stimulating fat-burning mechanisms in the body. A 2008 issue of the International Journal of Obesity published a study showing that participants who participated in high-intensity intermittent exercise three times per week for 15 weeks lost more weight, especially in their bellies, than those who exercised at a steady intensity three times per week. Perform effective belly fat-burning cardio on a treadmill, step mill, elliptical or stationary bike by warming up at an easy pace for about five minutes and then performing 10 to 15 one- to two-minute drills at an intensity that feels near your maximum effort. Between each of these drills, work at an easy pace for an equal recovery time. Cool down for about five minutes to complete the workout. This type of exercise can be done three times per week in addition to a few days of steady-paced cardio exercise to help you burn calories.
Your belly will benefit when you train your whole body with resistance work. When you build muscle, your metabolism increases due to the fact that muscle is a more metabolically active tissue than fat. If you burn calories more efficiently all day, every day, you'll naturally become leaner -- especially if you trim portion sizes and eat primarily lean proteins, fresh vegetables and whole grains. A whole-body routine that helps strengthen your core and recruit maximum muscles might include back squats, walking lunges, deadlifts, pushups, lat pull-downs, shoulder presses and standing biceps curls. Start with a weight that feels heavy by the last few repetitions and go for just one set of 10 to 12 total repetitions of each exercise. As you become stronger, add more weight and additional sets.
Stabilization and Anti-Rotation
Crunches and situps may be your go-to ab exercises, but they're not the most effective because they only target the front layer of muscles -- or the rectus abdominis -- and leave out other important muscles of your core. Anti-rotation and stabilization exercises effectively train most of the muscles of your belly, and require the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum of the back to work as well. When these back muscles engage, it makes your whole mid-section stronger -- meaning you can be more active, show off better posture and reveal a svelte middle once you lose the external fat.
For an anti-rotation press, head to a cable machine and attach a stirrup handle to a cable positioned at your chest height. Hold the handle with a hand-over-hand grip at your chest and walk away from the machine until you feel tension. Face straight ahead, with the right side of your body facing the cable machine and push the handle directly in front of you. Keep your body facing forward and resist the pull of the cable's resistance, which wants you to twist toward the machine. Do 10 to 15 repetitions and then turn to complete a set on the other side.
Plank holds -- performed by holding your body weight up on your toes and hands, forearms and toes, or on the forearm and outer foot of one side of your body -- effectively train the transverse abdominis, which is a deep internal muscle that helps you maintain upright posture. The side variation also gets into the oblique muscles at the sides of your torso. Work to hold these planks for one to three sets of 30 seconds or longer.
Another stabilization exercise that will build your core muscles is a towel drag. Get into the top of a pushup position on a hardwood floor -- each foot on a hand towel, gliding disc or paper plate. Walk about 10 feet forward using your hands and drag your feet along behind you. Keep your buttocks in line with your body so you maintain a strong core throughout. Rest after first walk, and repeat two or three more times.