You already know that adding muscle amps up your daily calorie burn, helping you shed pounds even after your sweat session is over. Yet there’s another way braving the weights room will wow you, says Perkins: “Strength training is massively powerful when it comes to changing body fat in the mid section,” she says. “That’s because it optimizes your natural levels of testosterone and growth hormone—the hormones that help us stay lean.” All you need is a 30-minute weight-lifting session two times a week to see the benefits, she says.
If you’re working your butt off in the gym but then indulging in low-nutrient, high-calorie foods, you’re not going to see a difference in your belly fat. So, step one: Crowd out the junk food in your diet with nutrient dense, low-cal fruits and vegetables. Next, learn how to stabilize your blood sugar by combining protein and carbohydrates in healthy proportions at every meal. “When you balance the carbohydrates you eat with protein, you keep your blood sugar at optimal levels. When your blood sugar is stable, the calories you eat will be burned as fuel—not stored as fat,” says Perkins. Aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein at every meal or snack, and have as many nonstarchy vegetables as you like throughout the day. For example, you might have an apple (carbohydrate) with a tablespoon of almond butter (protein); celery sticks (nonstarchy veggie) with hummus (a carbohydrate and protein); or a whole grain tortilla (carbohydrate) topped with turkey (protein) and spinach (nonstarchy veggie). (Here’s what a perfect day of eating enough protein looks like.) “When my clients start eating this way, I typically see a big difference in their belly fat—even if we don’t tweak their workout at all,” says Perkins.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is still popular for good reason: It’s an efficient way to fast-track your results, including reducing belly fat, says Perkins. “Research shows that intense activity is a great way to improve human growth hormone, which goes hand in hand with testosterone,” she says. Rachel Straub, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and coauthor of Weight Training Without Injury, agrees, adding that HIIT sessions expedite the breakdown of fat. “To reduce body fat, you have to maximize the number of calories you burn, which requires an overall increase in body metabolism,” she says. “So, if you’re looking to burn belly fat, choose a workout that gets your heart rate up and burns the most calories—which likely isn’t going to entail holding plank.” Aim for 2 to 3 HIIT sessions each week. Just remember that when you increase the intensity of an exercise your risk of injury also increases, says Straub. “So pace yourself based on your fitness level.”