Do Crunches Reduce Belly Fat? (From a Trainer)

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: December 16, 2023
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As an experienced personal trainer and nutrition coach, I often encounter a common misconception among my clients: the belief that performing 1000 crunches alone will melt away belly fat.

This article aims to dispel this myth by explaining why crunches, while excellent for strengthening and toning the core, are not a standalone solution for losing belly fat.

The key lies in combining crunches with high-intensity and low-intensity workouts, emphasizing the crucial role of calorie expenditure. Remember, effective belly fat reduction also hinges on proper nutrition.

Quick Summary

  • Crunches don't burn belly fat but make the midsection of your belly appear more toned.
  • Moderate and high-intensity aerobic workouts help individuals reduce belly fat, provided the caloric deficit is maintained.
  • According to Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise researchers, you should aim to do moderate-intensity cardio for at least 30 minutes, five days a week, or high-intensity 20-minute cardio, three days a week to burn belly fat.
  • Based on my years of coaching, I've found that true progress in losing belly fat comes from a combination of targeted exercises and smart nutritional choices.

Do Crunches Burn Belly Fat?

A man performing abdominal crunches

No, crunches don’t burn belly fat. They only tone your midsection.

That’s because there’s no such thing as spot reduction (aka targeted fat loss), a common misconception I often encounter with new clients as a personal trainer.

Full-body workouts, combined with crunches and planks, effectively reduce belly fat over time. Research in the National Library of Medicine supports this, showing that whole-body exercise promotes muscle changes aiding in fat loss [1].

While crunches alone don't reduce belly fat, they do strengthen and build abdominal muscles. And the more muscle mass you build, the more fat cells you will burn.

Doing Crunches Improves Posture

Having strong abs can also prevent back pain and increase your flexibility. Moreover, improved posture, a result of stronger core muscles, can make the belly appear flatter, altering the perception of belly fat even if the actual amount hasn't changed significantly.

Crunches Can Help Improve Your Mental Health

Additionally, engaging in regular core exercises like crunches has been shown to improve mental well-being and reduce stress, which can indirectly influence belly fat by lowering stress-induced cortisol levels.

Abdominal Fat 101

There are two fat types: subcutaneous and visceral. In my coaching, I clarify that subcutaneous fat lies between skin and muscles, whereas visceral fat, more harmful, surrounds internal organs in the abdominal cavity.

Visceral fat is particularly risky as it can release inflammatory compounds, elevating the risk of Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, according to the British Journal of Radiology [2].

Fat Stored Deep in the Belly Is the Most Harmful Kind

John Hopkins Medicine studies reveal that visceral fat can be as detrimental to heart health as smoking and high blood pressure [3].

It heightens the risk of heart attacks, and strokes, and impacts insulin usage.

Located near vital organs like the liver and intestines, visceral fat can convert into cholesterol, and then accumulate in artery walls, leading to hardening and narrowing, thus increasing health risks.

It's important to note that genetics play a significant role in fat distribution across the body, which means that for some individuals, reducing belly fat might be more challenging due to their genetic predisposition.

How To Reduce Body Fat With Crunches

An abdominal muscles

Through my years of coaching, I've consistently emphasized to my clients that crunches are not the be-all-end-all of a toned stomach.

No matter how many of them you do, your abs won’t show if there’s a layer of fat covering your abdominal muscles. Additionally, doing crunches doesn’t burn a lot of calories.

For fat-burning to be effective, you should take a holistic approach and not rely on one exercise alone. 

But that’s not to say that you should stop doing crunches altogether. Here’s how this exercise can help you drop belly fat so you can achieve that coveted six-pack.

Create a Workout Plan

A woman doing abdominal exercises

In my practice, I recommend combo exercises targeting multiple muscle groups to clients aiming to lose belly fat. This method consistently keeps the heart and metabolism active beyond the workout.

Effective fat-burning activities include hiking, jogging, cycling, and both total and lower-body strength training. Cardio exercises burn extra calories and transform fat into energy, while strength training builds muscle.

Cardiovascular exercise helps you burn extra calories and convert stored fat into fuel, while strength training helps you build muscle.

For optimal fat loss, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal researchers advise at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio five days a week or 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio three times a week [4].

High-Intensity Workouts Are More Effective

From my experience, I've found that both moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercise like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can help people lose belly fat as long as a caloric deficit is maintained.

However, when compared, high-intensity training is more effective at reducing abdominal fat than low-intensity workouts. This was well demonstrated in a controlled trial by Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise researchers which had similar findings [5].

These tips from Pilates instructor, Tela Anderson, are useful if you want to level up your crunch game:

“To increase the intensity of your crunches, you can add weights to the hands, or perform them on an incline or decline, or, you can also perform them with legs in the air.”

- Pilates instructor, Tela Anderson

Other exercises include bicycles, planks, Pilates, and yoga. They can help tighten your waistline and strengthen your core muscles — the muscle group around your trunk and the group around your pelvis, too.

Focus on Good Nutrition

Green food and an avocado fruit

I advise clients that diet is more crucial than exercise for burning belly fat.

Cutting just 500 daily calories can lead to losing a pound per week. To reduce calorie intake, keep fat consumption below 30% of your daily calories.

Opt for foods like whole grains, fruits, legumes, and vegetables, which are low in fat and high in soluble fiber.

These choices not only aid in weight management but also help stabilize blood sugar and suppress unhealthy cravings.

Here are some simple meal tips that can help you lose belly fat:

  1. Consume at least one to two servings of vegetables at every meal.
  2. Drink plenty of water. Eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day is sufficient.
  3. Eat protein-rich foods at each meal. Foods high in protein take more work to digest and use, which means you get to burn more calories as your body processes them.
  4. Eat lots of omega-3-rich foods such as fish, nuts, and olive oil to increase fat oxidation.
  5. Sugary foods and alcoholic beverages provide little to no nutritional value, so it’s best to avoid them.

Don’t make the mistake of undereating or over-fasting. While these may result in rapid weight loss, this weight will mostly be water and possibly even muscle. Also, they can slow your metabolism and make losing weight harder.

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