It can be incredibly disheartening when you have been training consistently and eating ‘clean’ at least 80% of the time, yet still are plagued by the stubborn accumulation of belly fat.
Although men and women tend to deposit fat in different locations, in light of distinctive hormonal profiles, a large proportion of both genders have struggled (and continue to struggle) with fat that covers their abs. Health-conscious men, in particular, often feel as though they have exhausted all potential exercises and ‘fat-burner’ supplements in pursuit of the elusive ‘six-pack’.
For many, visible abdominal musculature is regarded as the pinnacle of fitness and some may perceive it as a representation of one’s immense discipline.
But it doesn’t need to be that difficult.
Today, I will be sharing with you 4 powerful strategies to eradicate that frustrating stomach fat that is seemingly so persistent. Not only have these strategies been effective for me in carving out my underlying 6-pack (that is inherent in EVERYONE), but so too are they backed by scientific literature.
If I can maintain visible abs while gaining on average a kilogram a month (+26kg since 2013), you can be assured that my advice will similarly assist you even if your goals are not necessarily to gain lean mass.
Implement these tips and you should expect to see major inroads to a dense & flat stomach within several weeks.
1. Delay Breakfast For At Least 2 Hours After Waking
Intermittent fasting (IF) has gained a lot of momentum in the world of human nutrition in recent times, and I strongly believe it can be an effective tool for most people to maintain muscle mass while diminishing body fat.
So many of us mindlessly eat immediately after waking up, rather than being intuitive to our body’s signalling.
I attribute my ability to stay lean over the past three years, while gaining healthy weight, to delaying my first meal on a regular basis. Rather than sticking to a rigid eating and fasting window, I would simply push my breakfast back by ~4 hours after waking up, and use this opportunity to drink plenty of fluids and attend to tasks at hand.
*But wait – doesn’t eating earlier in the day kickstart our metabolism?*
Yes, one tends to be more insulin-sensitive in the morning, but people neglect the fact that both fat and muscles cells possess insulin receptors.
While our metabolism of food will invariably be triggered by an early meal, and fuel our precious muscle, so too will our fat cells have the propensity to mop up substrates we consume.
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas and plays a central role in regulating the level of blood glucose during periods of feeding and fasting. It is a powerful anabolic hormone, due to its substrate storage mechanism, and our cellular sensitivity to insulin declines gradually as the day progresses.
Cortisol, which is our ‘catabolic’ hormone, similarly peaks upon waking and wanes throughout the day. Cortisol is responsible for breaking down tissue (hence catabolic), but is negated by the presence of insulin.
Martin Berkhan – ‘The Godfather’ of Intermittent Fasting
*While the above photo of Martin is an extreme example of the fat-burning potential that IF gives rise to, we can see that it clearly works. You can read more of Berkhan’s work here.
So, from the background science above, we can now better understand how to use cortisol (extensively feared for its muscle-wasting potential) to our advantage during the early hours of the day, as it mobilises fatty acids to be used.
To facilitate this, we must minimise or completely negate insulin. Both carbohydrates AND protein-rich foods are insulinogenic (promote insulin release), so it is best to avoid breakfast altogether or you can put a stick of butter in your coffee (AKA ‘Bulletproof Coffee’, made famous by David Asprey…Please do not do this …) XD
On the topic of coffee, though, caffeine enhances the fatty mobilisation that cortisol initially stimulates. Compounding this is the knowledge that caffeine also suppresses appetite, making a morning fast much more feasible.
Therefore, enjoy 1-2 (preferably long black, but a splash of milk will be okay too) coffees before your first meal.
When we eat first thing in the morning, we sabotage this wonderful ability to tap into stomach fat stores.
*But won’t muscle mass be broken down too?*
Unlikely. Growth hormone (GH) is acutely amplified by a short-term fast, having been shown to increase by ~2000% in humans during a 24-hour abstinence from food.
…Lower insulin levels, higher GH levels and increased amounts of norepinephrine (noradrenaline) all increase the breakdown of body fat and facilitate its use for energy.
Ideally, given this information, one would train in the evening when our insulin sensitivity is lower. By exercising our muscles in the PM, we are ultimately manipulating our cellular activity in a way that heightens muscle cell sensitivity to glucose uptake and, conversely, nullifies fat cell insulin sensitivity.
I have taken this approach while eating 1kg+ of potato (or equivalent in rice) at dinner and have experienced this nutrient-channeling phenomenon first-hand.
A few other cool benefits on this strategy before moving on to #2:
- Breakfast energy intake has been positively correlated with total daily energy intake in recent studies; to test this anecdotally, I have been eating a large breakfast for the last 2 months and have gained 4kg in a month as I have found hunger to quickly ensue an early meal
- Creating an energy buffer (and ‘wiggle room’, as my friend Christopher Walker says) in the back half of the day is socially convenient. We are more likely to dine out or enjoy food in the company of friends/family at night time, rather than in the morning. Knowing we can eat a substantial (and perhaps indulgent) meal in the evening, without overblowing our total daily intake, is peace of mind. It also makes the adherence to a morning fast much more achievable.
- After roughly 16 hours without food we become the beneficiaries of a physiological cleanse, termed autophagy. This process leads to cell turnover, and has the major benefit of neurogenesis (increased neurons in our brain; and associated prevention of Alzheimer’s disease)
- When compared to constant caloric restriction, alternate day fasting not only reduces weight to a similar extent but is also superior for retention of muscle mass; who wouldn’t want to maintain muscle while losing weight?
2. Do Not Fear Carbohydrates, But DO Consider WHEN To Eat Them
As much as you may be told by famous personal trainers, or social media, that carbohydrates are inherently evil, they are actually crucial for long-term healthy eating and any body composition goal.
Generally speaking, however, the more lean an individual is the more efficient they will be at disposing of glucose (the simple form of carbohydrate). This is by virtue of the correlation between insulin sensitivity and degree of body fat.
So overweight or obese persons reading this should either scale back the amount of carbohydrates consumed accordingly, or trial a ketogenic diet for rapid weight loss. I only advocate the ketogenic diet (rather extreme) for very sick and/or diabetic individuals, so if you want to read more about this paradigm please follow the works of Professor Timothy Noakes.
Notwithstanding this, the timing and application of carbohydrates I am about to suggest remains the same for unhealthy and healthy populations.
Conventional nutrition wisdom purports that starchy carbohydrates are best avoided the deeper we go into the evening, and especially at dinner time.
I propose, in line with my first tip of intermittent fasting ^, that we maximise the anabolic effect of carbohydrates around the times that we train (predominantly post-workout), and even reserve our intake of such for dinner time on days that we do not train.
*If you prefer or have to train in the morning, which is not ideal with these principles but can work, I would advise you to consume ~50-100g of simple carbohydrates (obviously dependent on the nature of your training and goals) immediately post-workout, and then consuming the bulk of starchy carbohydrates (e.g. potatoes, rice) with dinner. The other meals will be protein & fat-centric, alongside fibrous vegetables.
I was first infatuated by this approach when I came across the work of John Kiefer, of ‘Carb Back-Loading’ (CBL). Kiefer is a Physicist and avid researcher of human nutrition, so I took credence in what he said and applied his advice for roughly 2 years before modifying it slightly in 2015. One fundamental difference in my approach to Kiefer’s, however, is that I prefer complex starches (with a low glycaemix index) while Kiefer advocates purely simple (high G.I) carbohydrate sources.
In short, back-loading our carbohydrates is prudent because:
- As with IF, it is socially convenient to eat carbohydrate-rich foods in the evening with dinner.
- The majority of people I know who strength train do so in the evening, so the ensuing uptake of glucose (that elicit insulin) will be shunted to muscle cells more so than fat cells.
- Carbohydrates induce the release of serotonin and tryptophan, which are hormones that can be considered sleep-inducing agents. Quality of sleep is improved, recovery is optimised, and insulin sensitivity is improved. Serotonin has also been linked to appetite suppression, and decreased stress. Low levels of serotonin receptors are associated with depression.
- Carbohydrates are superior at reducing levels of ghrelin, an appetite-regulating hormone, when compared to protein and fat. Decreased ghrelin is a positive thing because we are less likely to overeat when we have this big buffer of energy at the end of the day (after our morning fast 😉
My main modification to Kiefer’s philosophies has been to consume at least 1 gram of carbohydrate for kilogram of bodyweight (~83grams for me) a few hours prior to a training session. I have found this has worked more effectively for both strength and muscle gains, compared to training without any circulating glucose. Kiefer vehemently proposes that a ‘hulk-effect’ (surge in strength) occurs when training without circulating glucose, but I am dubious over this theory for my goals.
An important consideration is the type of carbohydrate you consume. Generally, carbohydrate-rich beverages are void of nutrients and lend themselves to excessive calorie intake. If you want to seriously lose weight, eat/chew your calories and avoid liquid calories where possible. I would even admonish people that seek to lose weight from consuming smoothies. People who know me will be aware that I consume a daily smoothie, but I believe it should be reserved for the crowd that wants to gain weight (like I do). Eating three solid meals a day, in my opinion, is idyllic for weight loss.
Personally, I LOVE potatoes (both white and sweet) so predominantly eat these starches. Fruit, rice, and oats are my secondary preferences, with a focus on low-fructose fruits such as berries and citrus. Fructose is a simple sugar densely present in honey and certain fruits like apples, and is directed to the liver for its metabolism; too much fructose may cause fatty liver disease and it is useless at replenishing our skeletal muscle glycogen stores after exercise.
Finally, understand that I do not mean to exclude fibrous carbohydrates (i.e: cruciferous vegetables) until dinner so feel free to consume these ad-libitum. I do not even count vegetables like brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower towards my total energy intake.
*But Jonny, I thought you were a proponent of a balanced diet and macronutrient intake…?*
By the end of the day, my macronutrients almost always hover around 40/30/30 (%) carbohydrates/protein/fat, thus being balanced.
My philosophy is just to strategically capitalise on the different hormone-signalling that occurs with the three macronutrients, and their timing. As such, my meals are usually disproportionate in favour of one macronutrient over the other, but I ultimately maintain a proportionate spread of the major food groups.
An average training day for me would look something like this:
Wake up: Drink lots of water and some coffee/green tea.
Meal 1 (2-5 hours after waking): High fat/moderate-high protein/low carbohydrates
Meal 2: Moderate Fat/ High Protein/ Moderate Carbohydrates (1g/kg BW)
…Train between 2-6pm
Meal 3 (largest): Limited Added Fat (but enough for taste)/High Protein/HIGH Carb
3. The Nature Of Your Training Is Extremely Important
Strength training surpasses aerobic training by a mile and some.
As a former middle-distance runner (over-zealous you could say), I can greatly appreciate performance-related goals in the way of running events that you may have. In saying this, I believe there is a pervasive delusion carried by the general public that sub maximal ‘cardio’ training is a pre-requisite to burn fat.
Yes, we can observe many elite runners that sport a ripped stomach, but they:
a) Are usually underweight and so do not possess much absolute muscle mass
b) Are genetically blessed, with a favourable physical capacity to perform exercise and assimilate food
You cannot argue that a six-pack is MUCH more impressive to look at on someone who has a bit of extra bulk on their frame.
SPRINTER VS. MARATHONER
Having already posted an article that goes in to depth regarding the ‘ripple effect’ of strength training (here), and the most effective approach to getting stronger, I will keep this tip as concise as possible. Please read that article to assume a better perspective on the rest of this piece.
Not only does high-intensity strength training facilitate muscle growth but, as I mention in the aforementioned article, it also significantly improves muscular endurance (without having to train for it directly!).
Exercising at sub-maximal intensities for extended periods of time is effective for weight loss, but it will impede your strength gains and concomitant muscle. Jogging, for example, is a purely catabolic exercise that will catalyse the breakdown of both fat and muscle. On the other hand, PRE can assist you with both weight loss and muscular development.
I believe, from experience, that the effort required to merely eat less calories pales in comparison to that required to burn the same amount of energy through steady-state cardio.
Heavy resistance exercises (relative of course to an individual’s ability) that are multi-joint (or ‘compound’) in nature are the key to abdominal muscle recruitment, and render direct abdominal exercises futile if progression is constant.
I rarely perform isolation work on my stomach. This is because I prioritise compound lifts that require the abdominal muscles to contract maximally. You see, one must fully engage their deep and superficial stomach muscles during bang-for-your-buck movements like the deadlift, as to not compromise on posture and subsequently risk injury.
Exercises like the deadlift, that recruit huge amounts of muscle fibre units, have been scientifically shown to recruit as much or more stomach muscle than direct work. Note that the participants in this study were performing 80% of their 1 reptition-max (1RM), thus constituting a challenging load that stimulates the neuromuscular system meaningfully.
Only when you reach an advanced level of strength and power-to-weight ratio should you consider implementing direct abdominal work, to accentuate your already visible abs. In these cases, the ab-wheel rollout, hanging leg raises, and reverse crunches are the most fruitful choices.
Finally, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) is considered to be proportional to the intensity of exercise undertaken. EPOC is the measurement of residual oxygen uptake seen after strenuous exercise.
We have all been witness to the huffing and puffing of a 100 metre sprinter during their interview, even if it is 10+ minutes after the race has finished. It was essentially due to this phenomenon that the ‘Tabata’ high-intensity interval training style gained popularity in the fitness world in the 21st century.
Although EPOC has undoubtedly been blown out of proportion, it is a worthy thought for exercise selection purposes.
There are few pretty awesome studies that elucidate the elevated energy expenditure after intense strength training:
- Heavy strength training burns hundreds of extra calories for days afterwards, and augments the adiponectin response to exercise. Adiponectin is a hormone that is involved in blood glucose disposal, and fatty acid breakdown.
- EPOC energy derived after strength training was seen to come almost exclusively from fat, observed in male students
4. Minimise Unnecessary Stress
Stress is not only a silent killer, but also under-recognised as a bane for fat loss.
This 2014 study evinced that an additional 435 kilojoules was consumed, on average, in the stressed group relative to the control group of participants. This equates to ~5 kilograms of fat gained over the span of a year. That is quite substantial!
In a nutshell, periodically experiencing even small stresses throughout the day may easily disrupt our metabolic efficiency.
Stress has also been implicated in the development of diabetes.
We must not confuse chronic psychological stresses with the intermittent physiological stress incurred during intense exercise, though, as the latter is necessary in order for us to elicit hormesis (adaptive stress response that is a potent anti-ageing agent).
We do want to rapidly curb cortisol (stress-hormone) post-workout though, to commence these adaptations that we are after (‘anabolic’/rebuilding phase).
A few easy ways to alleviate unnecessary stress:
- Get in to the habit of drinking lots of green tea. I have LOVED green tea for many years now, probably consuming ~5 cups a day, and it becomes even more enjoyable when one is cognisant of its fat-burning mechanism (both visceral and subcutaneous fat). Green tea catechins, which are an antioxidant, may reduce waist circumference and lower stomach fat levels. Further, green tea consumption stimulates serotonin production in the brain and ameliorates depressive symptoms. And another cool study that deemed one cup of this incredible beverage as causative of a ~5.7g fat ‘burn’. Get around it folks!
- A regular pattern of 7+ deep hours of sleep is crucial to reduce stress, so try to avoid blue-light (emitted by smartphones, TVs etc.) after the sun goes down. This can be achieved by turning technology off or, as most would prefer, blue-light blocking apps or glasses. Blue light confuses our brain by thinking it is daytime, and consequently suppresses melatonin production (vital for deep REM sleep).
- Practice some form of mindfulness daily. This meditative practice has demonstrated significant reductions in stress, and can be performed for just a few minutes a day. I usually do so by walking in nature while listening to the ‘Practising The Power of Now’ audiobook by Eckhart Tolle. This was recommended to me by my friend Greg O’Gallagher (of Kinobody), and I have observed massive differences in my overall calmness.
- SMILE! Even if you are not genuinely feeling happy, exhibiting a strong smile can drop blood pressure, heart rate, and stress. This was achieved with a certain type of smile though, known as ‘Duchenne’s smile’. This is a smile that engages the muscles surrounding the eyes, as well as the mouth muscles. Standard smiles that do not involve the eyes, interestingly, did not induce the same response. Smiles are contagious, so spread that happiness 😀
- Be conscious of your breathing. Try to avoid shallow breathing, and practice deep diaphragmatic breaths that penetrate the stomach. The habit of deep breathing increases one’s antioxidant status against excessive free radicals, which is important for healthy ageing and overall wellness.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post, and gleaned a few points that you can put to practice.
Remember, this article is predicated on my own anecdotal evidence (and some research), so it is what I have had success with. Not everyone may experience this same success from my methodologies, so experiment at your own will and let me know how you go.
By the same token, people have achieved flat stomachs with various other approaches, so do not take this article as dogma; it is what I consider the most sustainable way to achieving and maintaing a lean physique.
I initially planned to outline 7 strategies, but the post quickly became too expansive to do so. These are the most important points.
Ultimately, losing stomach fat occurs when we are consistently burning more calories than we consume. The strategies I outline above should make this process easier, and assist in the preservation of muscle mass while targeting fat stores.
I managed to minimise stomach fat while gaining 26kg over 3 years, so this is why I have faith in these strategies.
Ladies, please be aware that studies concerning intermittent fasting have generally conveyed more positive (and substantial) results in males than females. So, IF may not be prudent for you. Simply avoiding starchy carbohydrates at breakfast may be a more effective strategy for fat loss goals, if you do not succeed with IF.
Also, if anything does not make sense or you require further clarification on certain points, do not hesitate in contacting me and I will be more than happy to discuss with you.
Thank you for reading!
A recent photo to substantiate credibility: I try to be the product of my own advice.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for consultations.