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I'm a Personal Trainer With a Flat Belly and Here's How to Get Yours

Nine tips from a fitness pro about how to have a flat stomach.

As a personal trainer with a flat belly—and more than 30 years of experience—people come to me all the time asking how to get a right, toned mid-section for themselves. And I always tell them the same thing: Nutrition. Nutrition. Nutrition. Nutrition is 90% of a flat belly.

I watch people go home and do a hundred sit-ups and I ask them, what are you doing? In reality, while muscle activity is important, it's the nutritional aspect that drives significant changes in our body composition. Why? Because the truth is, no amount of exercise alone will remove the outer layer of fat from your body. Here are nine proven things you must do in addition to exercise to achieve results.


You Must Eat Clean

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Think of your body like an automobile. The quality of fuel you put in determines how well it runs. If you use low-quality gas, your car won't perform optimally. Similarly, if you consume poor-quality food, it doesn't matter how much you exercise; your body won't achieve its best condition. Achieving fitness, such as a six-pack, is not just about the exercises you do; it's equally about clean eating. It's a balance of what you put into your body and how you expend energy. Nourish yourself with:

  • Whole, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins (like fish, eggs, chicken and turkey) and healthy fats.
  • Low-fat or full-fat yogurt, milk, cheese and other dairy products with no added sugars
  • Nuts and seeds and legumes and beans—these are nature's protein and fiber
  • Herbs and spices to help add flavor without adding sodium.

This approach is about making your body work for you. However, it's crucial to find a method that suits your lifestyle and needs. That's why I have you think about three choices for meals, whether it's breakfast, lunch, or even when you're on the road and need to stop at a convenience store or choose takeout. I categorize these choices as the good, the bad, and the evil, to help guide healthier decisions. I know it's not always going to be easy to choose the "good." But remember: These aren't just dietary choices; they're lifestyle changes.

Related: This Quick & Easy Two-Minute Workout Tones Your Body Fast


You Must Consider Calories In, Calories Out


To achieve a flat belly, especially if you're significantly overweight, you need to focus on burning fat, not just toning. This requires understanding the principle of calories in versus calories out. You have to create a calorie deficit to burn off the layers of fat. Simply doing a hundred crunches at the gym won't give you a six-pack. It's never going to happen. It's important to have realistic expectations and understand that achieving a flat belly involves more than just exercise.


You Should Try Intermittent Fasting


I used to start my mornings with bagels, peanut butter, and cream cheese, and I found myself 10 to 12 pounds heavier because I was feeding my body more than it needed. Recognizing this, I shifted my approach to using fat as fuel. I changed my eating habits, deciding not to eat until I had completed my activities for the day. Then, I would break my intermittent fast around two o'clock with a protein-rich meal to help burn fat. 


You Must Hydrate


One of the key factors in achieving a flat stomach is hydration, particularly drinking plenty of water. Hydrating adequately with water, sometimes infused with lemon for added benefits, is essential. I personally start my mornings with apple cider vinegar, which I often mix with cranberry juice. This routine is part of my overall strategy, which includes intermittent fasting, a method that has proven effective for many. Therefore, focusing on a balanced, healthy diet along with proper hydration is crucial for anyone aiming to achieve a flat stomach.

Related: 6 Body Changes Caused by Drinking Soda, According to a Diet Expert


You Can Manage Cravings


Managing cravings is a game of managing the good, bad, and evil. You might say, oh my gosh, I'm craving chips and dip. Just for example, right? Or my daughter: She loves cheese and crackers. Okay, so how are we going to make that healthier? We cut up vegetables that she likes and she can dip and you put small amounts of whatever you want on the plate. When it's gone, it's gone. It's just food management.


Avoid Deprivation


Everybody is different. Everybody's body reacts differently. So you must ask yourself what you love to eat. Tell me what you love, what you can't get rid of in the world. Because the worst thing—and I remember learning this from Richard Simmons—is deprivation. I remember the talk over and over again with him about how diets, he used to say to me, Sharon, spell out diet: "die-it." Get it? You cannot make someone diet. You have to make people learn to make healthy lifestyle changes.


Do Cardio


For those aiming to achieve a flat stomach, there are straightforward steps to follow. You should reduce your carbohydrate intake, increase your protein consumption, lower your sodium levels, and incorporate more cardio into your routine. Cardio is key for burning fat, as you cannot simply tone fat away. Exercises like leg lifts won't be effective in reducing a layer of fat around the abdomen.


Strength Train


Sustainable strength training involves everyday activities like carrying groceries, which work your biceps and triceps. It's about natural body movements, like squats or pushing a door open using full motion. For instance, at the end of the day, when I'm carrying groceries, I balance the weight on both sides, a technique known as suitcase carries. This can be simulated with exercises like climbing stairs while holding two 20-pound weights.

Regarding core strength, it's not just about doing crunches. I've seen people do countless crunches at the gym but still struggle with body fat. The key issue is subcutaneous body fat, the layer that covers your muscles. You can't see muscle definition unless you reduce this fat layer. Strength training should address not just muscle building but also fat reduction for effective results.

Related: I Lost 20 Pounds in 4 Months With These 4 Effortless Changes


The #1 Thing You're Getting Wrong About a Flat Belly


Regarding abs, a key aspect is working every level effectively. A common misconception I often hear is the division of upper and lower abs. However, this is not anatomically accurate. We have one abdominal muscle, known as the rectus abdominis, starting from the lower part of the chest bone and extending down to the top of the hip bone. It's not about upper or lower abs; when people refer to "lower abs," they're often talking about fat, not muscle.

In fact, the rectus abdominis is a single muscle stretching from under the ribcage to the pubic bone. The key is to engage this muscle properly in exercises like crunches. It's important not to strain the neck in these exercises; the focus should be on bringing the chest bone closer to the pubic bone, maintaining a neutral neck position. Additionally, you can intensify these exercises by extending your arms and legs, which we refer to as levers, to challenge the core further. Understanding and performing these movements correctly is crucial for effective abdominal training.

In conclusion, you've got to adopt an integrated approach to achieving a flat belly, encompassing water intake, intermittent fasting, clean eating, and appropriate exercise.

💪🔥Body Booster: Many places now offer bowl options as healthier alternatives to bread. You can choose from a variety of bowls, like cheeseburger, chicken, or steak bowls, which are great choices when eating out. However, nothing beats the health benefits of cooking your own meals and preparing fresh vegetables. While it's ideal, not everyone can manage this, so making smarter choices while eating out is important. Whether you're at Subway, Pizza Hut, or any fast-food drive-through like Taco Bell, you can often find what are known as "keto-friendly" options on the menu.

Sharon Stewart is a certified personal trainer and life coach with over three decades of experience in the wellness industry. Based in South Florida, she specializes in strength training, aqua tabata and group fitness classes for all ages, especially seniors. Over the years, Sharon has worked with industry leaders like Richard Simmons, Beachbody and more.

Sharon Stewart, AFAA, NASM
Sharon Stewart is a certified personal trainer and life coach with over three decades of experience in the wellness industry. Read more