Weight Loss Wednesdays: Why Crunches Won’t Get Rid of Your Belly Fat

Last week: Is Starvation Mode Keeping You From Losing Weight?

Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty! Crunches are a great ab workout and really make you feel the burn. Especially when you start doing a lot of reps, you can feel those muscles working hard and getting sore. Next stop, washboard abs, right? Maybe, but not if you’re just relying on crunches to get there.

MYTH: Targeting an area with specific exercises can help spot-reduce unsightly or stubborn fat.

It might seem like common sense that if you exercise targeting a specific area, the fat around it should be the first to go. After all, if you light a match next to an ice cube, the cube will melt closest to the flame. Unfortunately, the body is a little more complicated than that.

While your muscles do have some energy storage, this is in the form of a long, branched chain of carbohydrates known as glycogen. The liver also has a store of glycogen that can be tapped into during prolonged activity. Once this is depleted, the muscles must turn to fat for more energy. However, muscle does not possess any of the necessary mechanisms of converting fat to usable energy (e.g., glucose); instead, it is the liver’s job to mobilize your body’s fat stores and provide energy to your muscles.

In response to lowered insulin levels (a result of the muscles having used up all the free glucose in the blood), the liver instructs your fat cells (adipose tissue) to release fatty acids into the blood stream, which can then be broken down and converted into glucose (through a process called gluconeogenesis). The important thing to understand here is that the liver has no idea which muscles are actually creating the demand, and thus there is no targeting of fat loss. Adipose tissue all around the body will be activated to release fat, so you’ll lose some flab all over instead of in any one particular spot.

Related—The Liver’s Role: How it Processes Fats and Carbs

So if crunches aren’t necessarily getting you closer to a six-pack, what is the recipe for success?

TIP: The vast majority of your fat loss success is based on diet.

As the saying goes “abs are made in the kitchen.” The reason is simple. Say you’re eating a 2000 Calorie diet (perhaps a bit less if you’re a woman). A nice jog burns maybe 200 calories. That’s a little more than a scoop of ice cream. The point is that it’s very easy to wreck your diet, and nearly impossible to outwork a bad diet. Here’s another example.

You already work hard. Don’t make it any harder.

Let’s say you decided to treat yourself to a small bag of chips and a can of regular soda as a snack. That comes out to about 300 Calories, roughly equivalent to a 4-mile walk. Most people complain about finding time to fit in their usual workout, I’d imagine it’d be even more impossible to cram in an extra four miles.

Let’s not make it harder on ourselves. As I said in my first Weight Loss Wednesday, losing weight is about eating fewer calories than you burn. It’s hard to make major changes in your daily burn, so the biggest determinant of success is going to be how much you eat. If you’re finding yourself still gaining or at a stagnant weight for a few weeks, consider dropping another couple hundred calories and—if you haven’t already—try logging your food on MyFitnessPal.

Your Turn: How much do you work out in a week, and how have you balanced your food intake with exercise?

Neel Joshi

Neel is a medical student who also does research on pediatric brain tumors. He is passionate about medicine and blogs about health, politics, weight loss, and more at The Soapbox. He also maintains a blogging "happy place" at OptimistPrime.

3 Comments

      • It’s really, really hard (nearly impossible) to outwork a bad diet. Most of us aren’t professional athletes, so we simply don’t engage in enough physical activity to offset large calorie surpluses.

        That’s not to say that working out doesn’t have an important role in getting the body you want: as you’ll see in the WLW I’ll be posting this week, strength training is very valuable in building a lean, strong physique that actually looks good (instead of just being smaller, yet still flabby).

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