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Best Way to Burn Belly Fat: Work the Legs, not the Tummy

Updated on July 6, 2019
Lorra Garrick profile image

Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.

All the time I see people at the health club on that one particular machine – the one in which you sit upright, lean your chest into a support pad, clutch the pad’s handles and start swiveling your waist. I doubt people use this machine to strengthen the sides of their waist. It’s to shrink their waist.

You can spend all day on a hip swivel machine or some sort of crunching apparatus, but these will never trim down your waistline or flatten the front of your belly.

The people I see the most doing hoards of crunches and swivels are the ones whose plump stomachs never get trimmer. And the people with the lean, tight flat abs and svelte sides – they hardly go near these machines.

They are too busy working their legs!

And therein lies the secret: If you want to shear off inches from your belly and waist, then you need to do the one thing you’d never think of doing for this problem: Hit your legs hard with weights. Yes, I said “legs.”

It’s All in the Legs

You’re probably wondering: “How on earth could working my legs make my belly fat go away?” The excess fat in your midsection is unused fuel. Fat is a fuel source. You must create a need for that fuel to be burned up for energy. What better way to do this than to work the largest muscle groups in the body – the legs and gluteal (butt) muscles?

The quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles are capable of exerting considerable force, and thus, requiring a lot of energy. Not only that, but if you work these muscles intensely enough, they will continue to need lots of energy – long after the workout session is over – to recover.

In exercise science, this is known as oxygen debt, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). In layman’s terms, it’s called the “afterburn.”

Back Squat to work the legs.
Back Squat to work the legs.
Plie squat to work the legs.
Plie squat to work the legs.

Suppose the only place you carry a spare tire is in your middle, and you start devoting serious time to some pretty serious leg workouts (barbell squat, dumbbell squat, leg press, squat jumping and box jumping).

You will significantly increase the energy needs of your legs and glutes. Where will these muscles get the energy they will so desperately need to recuperate from the intense workout?

In your forearms? In your feet? No. Your body knows where the excess stored fuel (fat) is located (your belly), and your muscles will take that fat and burn it up for recuperative energy – for up to many hours after the workout is over.

Many people simply do not understand this concept because we’ve been taught that the best way to trim inches off the waistline is to directly work the waistline. This is so wrong!

And here’s why: Your abdominal muscles aren’t what you want to get rid of. It’s the fat that covers them. Working the abdominal muscles (hundreds and hundreds of crunches) will not burn up that fat, because the abdominal muscles are too small and too naturally weak to gobble up the energy required to attack the fat and recover from that attack!

  • Abdominal muscles don’t lift. They stabilize.
  • You can’t lift anything heavy with your abdominal muscles.
  • But you can lift large amounts of weight with your buttocks and leg muscles.

The abs and low back muscles, which are involved in crunching, folding and swiveling exercises, stabilize the spine and trunk. Stabilizers don’t need much energy, no matter how many sit-ups or crunches you do.

But lower extremity muscles? These are force-production muscles. Force-production muscles have much greater energy needs. So if you hammer away at your legs at the gym, your belly fat will be used to subsidize the workloads involved.

In fact, if you seriously work your other major force-production muscles (back and chest), the same effect will result: These muscles will need a lot of energy to recover.

  • Where will they get that energy from?
  • Where you have it stored: your belly and waist.

Now, if you also have excess fat in your thighs, hips or proportionately all over, then the fat at those locations, too, will be pulled for muscle recuperation from EPOC. But you have to work hard enough for this, and balance your caloric intake so that a surplus of calories does not sabotage your goals.

Deadlift to work the legs and back: major force production muscles.
Deadlift to work the legs and back: major force production muscles.
Walking weighted lunge works entire lower body and shoulders -- plus a bonus: works the core!
Walking weighted lunge works entire lower body and shoulders -- plus a bonus: works the core!

“I don’t want to bulk up.”

Don’t be afraid of bulking up. Believe me, this is extremely hard to do. The only thing that will bulk you up against your will is too much pizza, soda, chips, donuts and chicken Alfredo.

“But I already do a lot of leg work, and my stomach is still fat.”

It’s not just the type of exercise (squat, leg press, box jumping), but the intensity involved, that matters. You can do the barbell squat, dumbbell squat, dumbbell lunge and jump lunges till the cows come home and still have not lost any inches off your blubbery stomach – because you just haven’t been working hard enough.

  • You need to work intensely.
  • The workouts need to be fierce and grueling.
  • You need to feel effing beat when the workout is over.

Since fitness and strength levels vary from one individual to the next, this strenuous level of effort cannot be measured by numbers, as in, “You must squat at least 115 pounds in order to burn belly fat.”

Instead, the level of effort, or high intensity, is measured by SUBJECTIVE AMOUNT OF EFFORT applied to the exercise.

So if I have a rather weak, novice client with spindly arms and legs – but who has a big puffy belly and thick waist, I won’t expect her to squat that much. But I’m going to make sure she works at her maximum for eight to 12 repetitions – an 8-12 rep max – to the point where she’s grimacing and straining to complete those last several repetitions and is unable to complete a 13th rep.

This was a real client of mine. After around three months, a whopping eight inches had been sheared off her midsection – even though she had not done any crunches, side bends, swivels or sit-ups nor had changed her eating habits.

In fact, an indicator of adequate intensity is when the very first repetition of a set feels challenging. The set shouldn’t begin to feel challenging towards the end. It should feel tough RIGHT FROM THE START. Quite frankly, you must kick butt to burn stubborn belly fat that doesn’t respond to diet and whatever exercise you’ve been doing.

It’s simple: Which burns more fuel? A little motor bike? Or an 18-wheeler truck? And what will make that 18-wheeler burn more fuel? Crawling around in a parking lot? Or charging up a hill at 50 mph?

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