Spot Train and Weight Train for
Best Ab Results

Abdominal fat and what to do about it obsesses the culture. As we advance through middle age, without deliberate counter-measures like regular weight training, we tend to lose muscle mass and gain a higher proportion of body fat to body weight than we enjoy in our 20s. In particular, extra fat comes to rest in the midsection.

More than for vanity
In addition to whatever aesthetic or self-image damage a growing waistline causes, the fact is that abdominal—or visceral—fat is much more of a health concern than subcutaneous fat, the kind below the skin you can grasp with your hand and that in common parlance we sometimes refer to as "flab." Visceral fat lies out of reach, deep within the abdominal cavity, where it pads the spaces between critical organs including the stomach, small intestine, colon, rectum, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and bladder.

By now most readers are aware of the apple vs. pear shape distinction, with the later considered a somewhat lesser health risk. This is because fat accumulated in the lower body (the pear shape) is subcutaneous, while fat in the abdominal area (the apple shape) is largely visceral.

Visceral fat has been linked to metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In women, it is also associated with breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery. And so as our waistlines increase, so do our health risks.

Why is abdominal fat so concerning?
For some time, science has been confirming the idea that abdominal fat cells (in fact all fat cells to some extent) are biologically active. Therefore, think of fat as a gland, producing hormones and other substances that profoundly affect health. Excess abdominal fat disrupts the normal balance and functioning of these hormones.

Visceral fat also produces cytokines, small proteins that direct the movement of cells to sites of inflammation, affecting our immune response and other systems. These and other biochemicals can have deleterious effects on insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and clotting. When visceral fat, as an active gland, is busy pumping out these immune system chemicals, including tumor necrosis factor and interleukin-6, it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

One reason excess visceral fat is so harmful could be its location near the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestinal area to the liver. Substances released by visceral fat, including free fatty acids, enter the portal vein and travel to the liver, where they can influence the production of blood lipids. Visceral fat is directly linked with higher total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol, and insulin resistance.

Recall that when we become insulin resistant, our bodies become inefficient at clearing glucose from the blood (the role of insulin) because our muscle and liver cells simply fail to respond to normal levels of insulin. Blood sugar levels rise, heightening the risk for diabetes.

Getting rid of abdominal fat
Losing abdominal fat results in all the health gains you'd expect from removing fat from the viscera. Benefits range from lower blood pressure to improved cholesterol levels. Subcutaneous fat located at the waist is more difficult to remove, but visceral fat yields fairly easy to diet and exercise.

The starting point, of course, for any program attempting to bring weight and belly fat under control is regular moderate-intensity physical activity, at least 30 but far better 60 minutes daily. Walking is the perfect activity for kickstarting fat loss. It is moderate-intensity, targets the fat-metabolism energy system, and is lower impact than running yet still promoting of bone mineral density.

Once general weight loss patterns begin to take hold, spot exercises like crunches and sit-ups can tighten abdominal muscles, though they won’t get at visceral fat. Weight training, however, will remove visceral fat just as general moderate or intense activity will. (Like walking, weight training too can slow the advance of bone loss while reducing fat and body weight.)

Here are three unique exercises you may have yet to encounter that target visceral fat by combining spot training and weight training for an effective one-two punch of abdominal fat loss and body sculpting. By working in multiple movements within each exercise, these fat fighting moves also tend to be less monotonous than planks, crunches and sit-ups, potentially increasing what is still occasionally referred to as “stick-to-itiveness.”

You'll need a set of moderately heavy dumbbells (5 to 15 lbs). Do a set of reps for each move, which within each set are performed back-to-back. Once you finish the last move, rest for a minute or two and then repeat the full circuit twice more (for a total of three circuits).

For best results, do the workout on four non-consecutive days each week (i.e., alternating with three days of your regular cardio routine, be it walking, running, cycling, elliptical or swimming).

Waist-slimming squat
Squats are a great exercise for sculpting your whole body, and the extra chop and swing motion keeps your abs working hard.
 
Reps: 15/side

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding the ends of one dumbbell. As you push your hips back and lower into a squat, bend your arms and "chop" the dumbbell across your body to the outside of your left hip.
  • As you press back up to standing, extend your arms and swing the dumbbell over to the right side of your body, turning your torso to the right.
  • Brace your abs in tight as you perform the swing. It should feel as though your abs are catching the dumbbell at the top of the movement.
  • As you turn your torso, the dumbbell should stay at chest level.
  • Pivot your left heel off the floor, and rotate your left hip to power the swing.
  • Quickly return to your squat and repeat the chop.

Biceps curl for abs
This exercise helps develop more lean muscle all over your body by keeping your legs and abs working while building stronger arms.

Reps: 15/side

  • With a dumbbell in your right hand, shift your weight to your right leg.
  • Extend your left leg out to the side, toe pointed.
  • Curl the dumbbell up as you turn your torso to the left and lift your left knee across to your right arm.
  • Slowly untwist and return your arm and leg to start.
  • Exhale on the twist and curl movement, imagining you are squeezing the front of your rib cage together as you turn your body into your knee.
  • As you untwist, keep your abs braced in tight as you inhale and lower your foot lightly to the floor.

Lawnmower lunge
This move combines a classic upper-body exercise with a lower-body toner to activate the core muscles in between.

Reps: 15/side

  • With a dumbbell in your left hand, stand in a split stance with your left foot forward, right heel lifted off the floor.
  • Reach both arms toward the floor as you hinge forward from your hips, keeping your back naturally arched, and lower into a lunge position.
  • Shift your weight into your front leg and rise up out of your lunge, lifting your back leg off the floor to hip height as you row the dumbbell to the left side of your body.
  • Slowly lower back down into your lunge position, returning to start and repeat.
  • If it's too challenging to lift your back leg up, start by keeping your toes lightly touching the ground as you perform the row.

Don't neglect diet
Overall weight and visceral fat loss require a caloric deficit, obviously, but it need not be a painful one. There are many great fitness apps that will help keep you on track to lose a modest one to two lbs per week. This is not a weight loss pace that should leave you feeling starved. Counting calories is also a great way to gain powerful insight into your routine behaviors and to hold yourself accountable for your eating choices.

Pay attention to portion size, and emphasize complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose lean protein and avoid white bread, refined pasta and all drinks with sugar. Replacing saturated and trans fats with polyunsaturated fats will help you feel full while lowering your bodily cholesterol.

In this way, tolerable modifications to exercise and diet, plus patience and time, are the very best ways to fight visceral fat.

Harvard Health Publications, Oct. 2015, http://tinyurl.com/z2nhug3

Shape, Shrink Your Muffin Top! Fat-Blasting Workout by Jessica Smith, http://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/shrink-your-muffin-top-fat-blasting-workout

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