There are a few things you should know about belly fat. First of all, if it seems like you always tend to gain pounds in your tummy, you can blame your DNA.
Whether you store fat in your stomach or your rear is determined by your genes. “There’s not much you can do about where you carry your fat, and you don’t have much control over where you lose fat either,” says William Yancy, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Duke University and program director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Yep, that means “spot reducing”—the idea that one workout will blast away fat in your stomach and nowhere else—is a big old myth.
But even though your genes dictate your shape, it’s certainly not your destiny. Not only will cleaning up your diet and focusing on healthy, whole foods help tremendously, but so will picking up the right exercise program. And that, friends, is cardio. “The best way to lose fat is aerobic exercise,” says Yancy.
Torching stomach fat isn’t just about sculpting a crop-top-worthy tummy, though. It’s about your health, too. There are two types of fat in your body—peripheral and visceral. Peripheral fat lives just below the skin, while visceral fat hugs your organs and increases inflammation, upping your risk for metabolic problems like diabetes and heart disease, says Yancy.
No matter where your fat comes from, though, cardio has your back. “It will target both visceral and peripheral fat,” says Yancy.
Try This Fat-Melting HIIT Workout
Though “any cardio is better than no cardio for fat loss,” says Bill Campbell, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., if you want to hedge your bets on rockin’ abs, go for high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or fast-paced interval workouts. “There are a lot of studies that pit HIIT against traditional cardio and it’s consistently superior for fat loss,” says Campbell, an associate professor in exercise science at the University of South Florida and the director of the Performance & Physique Enhancement Laboratory.
While nobody really knows why HIIT is so badass, researchers have a couple of theories. One: HIIT causes a significant release of growth hormones in your body, which helps burn fat. It could also be the “afterburn” effect; your metabolism gets a bigger boost for a longer period of time after a HIIT workout compared to a steady slog. Better yet, “HIIT gives you all the benefits of traditional cardio. It lowers your blood pressure, you get an endorphin rush, and it increases your VO2 max [a measure of endurance],” says Campbell. Score! (For tips on how to build muscle and blast fat, pick up Women’s Health’s Lift to Get Lean by Holly Perkins.)
Follow these guidelines from Campbell to ratchet up the intensity of your cardio and melt fat:
Choose your fave form of cardio: Running outside or on the treadmill, rowing, stair-stepping—it doesn’t matter, says Campbell. “There’s no science to show that one form of HIIT is better than the other,” he says. Going with what you like most (rather than what’s trending now) will help you stick with it.
Try these 52 fat-torching cardio exercises to mix things up:
Go hard: After a warmup, sprint for 30 seconds. We’re talking all-out, as high intensity as you can.
Then, rest: Recover for one to three minutes, depending on your fitness level. “When you feel like you can do another sprint, do it,” says Campbell. Eventually, the goal is to work up to sprinting for 30 seconds and recovering for 30 seconds to one minute. If you get there, you’re crushing it.
Don’t do too much: Do it for a maximum of eight sets. With rest, it might take you 20 to 30 minutes to complete the entire workout. Even though you’re only “working” for a total of four minutes, it’s highly demanding on your body. And, if you feel like you could do more—you’re probably not going hard enough during the sprint.
How often? Cap HIIT at three days per week. Again, it’s tough (we can’t emphasize that enough!), so you probably won’t want to do it daily anyway. Combine it with a strength workout like weight lifting a few times per week, and you’ve got a solid program. Oh, one more tip—if you do HIIT and strength together in one day, do your cardio after you hit the weights, says Campbell. (That way you’ll still have plenty of energy to achieve proper form during those lifts.) Ready, set…go!