How many sit-ups should I do to lose fat around my waist?
On a list of common fitness questions I think this would be in the top ten, maybe even the top five.
To be honest I’m not sure exactly where the origins of the sit-ups = six pack and washboard stomach even are, though undoubtedly you’ll be able to trace it back to some company selling a new radical way to lose weight or something of that nature, before it spread into the common consciousness.
This is one of the more enduring myths out there though, and its popularity might be because there is equal fixation with the abdominal area for both men and women; everyone wants a toned and flat stomach right?
Let’s break it down to show why how many sit-ups you do a day is practically a non-factor when it comes to having a toned stomach or six-pack abs.
The abdominal area
I hope I’m not starting off too basic but let’s get one thing straight; everyone has abdominal muscles. The shape they form is as a result of the way they are structured. Their main functions are to assist in breathing, protection of inner organs and support for posture.
From a training point of view it is essential to have strong abdominals if you want to perform many exercises with proper form; one of the reasons it is generally better to train with free weights (such as barbells or dumbbells) as opposed to machines is that when you have to balance the weight, particularly when standing, the abdominals are by necessity engaged and trained.
The abs are just like any other muscle; if you apply stress on them they will breakdown and grow. If you perform sit-ups with weights or train to squat or deadlift heavy then you may notice your midsection will be thicker (only slightly) and the abs more prominent (again just slightly, you won’t risk having a huge thick stomach area).
In fact someone who is quite fat but still active and mobile is likely to have quite strong and developed abs even without training just because they are used to supporting a greater load than normal people.
But no-one will notice or care, because those muscles are buried under a layer of fat.
Having a visible six-pack is about fat, not muscle
If you want a visible, ‘fitness model’ ab area you need to reduce your fat levels so that you can see them.
Doing stuff like sit-ups is not completely useless as they will help to build the area to make it more prominent but sit-ups in general aren’t the most efficient exercise for this; most people don’t do them correctly (i.e. they swing their arms, or use momentum to get the rep, rather than contracting the target area) and from a time/effort/results perspective they aren’t worth as much as other exercises (post on the abdominal area to follow).
Please note and remember that you cannot ‘spot-reduce’ fat. You can’t target a specific area of your body, like your waist or belly and burn off the fat levels at that point.
Fat-loss is an all-body process.
Your body stores fat because you have an excess in your intake of calories (you eat more than you need) so it stores the energy as fat as a safeguard for use later when maybe food is more scarce.
Where is a good place to store this non-functional fat? Somewhere where it won’t get in the way of you walking or using your arms, i.e. your midsection.
Some people have more of a tendency to store their fat in their ass or their thighs than their waist but you get the picture; fat storage is around the middle where it can be balanced and not impede you going about your daily business.
Reduce bodyfat for a visible six-pack or toned stomach
Generally speaking if you want a visible six-pack as a man you probably need to get your bodyfat level to around or below 10%. The best way to do this is to increase your cardiovascular training and eat as healthily as possible, whilst still weight training to maintain your muscle mass and therefore keep your metabolism high (since muscle uses calories even at rest).
Women have naturally higher levels of bodyfat so it is much more difficult to get to the point where you have visible abs but are still healthy (i.e. you could be extremely skinny and have abs but having bodyfat this low could interfere with your menstrual cycle or other bodily functions).
However the same principle applies; if you want to have a tight and toned midsection you need to exercise but the key factor is doing cardiovascular activity to reduce your overall bodyfat level.
Carrying a high level of muscle and a six-pack
In order to lose fat you need to put your body in a calorie deficit. This means that you use more energy than you put into your body so it has to use its reserves, such as fat, in order to get enough energy.
This can be achieved by eating slightly less and cutting out sugary foods and/or by increasing the amount of activity you do (such as running more often to burn energy).
While it would be great that your body only used the fat, muscle will also be sacrificed to meet its energy demand if not enough comes from food. This makes sense because muscle uses calories all the time; if you are in a deficit it is logical for the body to want to shed some muscle to save energy demands.
Remember from your body’s point of view the way you look is not important, it is about survival.
This is why it is difficult to get down to below 10% bodyfat and still carry a high level of muscle if you are natural; the two goals are contradictory and so your body chooses the route best for its own needs.
If you are truly natural therefore if you have an 8% bodyfat you will probably look quite skinny, or at least not someone people would think of as a weightlifter, especially when you are wearing a t-shirt or a shirt.
Fitness models and bodybuilders don’t have this problem because there are drugs you can use to both preserve your muscle mass and reduce bodyfat levels. If a guy is 5′ 10″ tall and 200 lbs (around 14.5 stone or 92 kgs) and a true 8% body fat, they are unlikely to be natural.
People in general underestimate their bodyfat
I’ve highlighted the word ‘true’ in bold because I mean 8% tested and verified by measurement.
Ask most people what they think their bodyfat is, especially those who weightlift or are gym goers and most of the time you’ll get an underestimation: a true 10% bodyfat level is unlikely to come about by accident or without conscious dedication to achieving it (such as omitting all junk food, snacks etc.).
I point it out because everyone seems to know some genetic anomaly who is all natural but 220 lbs at 7% bodyfat who supposedly debunks the natural limits calculations: invariably if you tested their actual bodyfat it would be a lot higher than they thought.
In short, losing fat and getting trim is about doing a combination of cardio and weight lifting; the former burns more energy and the latter will help to increase and keep your metabolism high.
Increase your activity and gradually reduce your overall body fat, and the toned stomach or six-pack will arrive, though don’t expect it to be as defined as the ones you see in the magazines.
Sit-ups won’t harm you, but you’d be better of spending that time performing the compound lifts or outside running, both of which will do more for your six-pack target.
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Look out for an upcoming post on specific exercises to help strengthen your core.