The Miracle Muffin Top Workout

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade PhotographyBy Corrie Pikul

Could this be the recipe for deflating the muffin top? A recent study compared three groups--those who ate a reduced-carbohydrate diet, those who combined the diet with strength training and those who combined the diet and strength-training with cardio workouts--and found that a three-tier approach was the most effective strategy to decrease abdominal fat. It's important to note that the exercises you choose and the effort you put into them really matter, says Marta Montenegro, a certified strength and conditioning coach who teaches exercise physiology at Florida International University. Instead of ho-hum treadmill-trotting and sit-ups, she recommends high-intensity workouts, which have been shown to be more effective at reducing the belly fat you can pinch with your hand, as well as the visceral fat that pads internal organs (which has been linked to metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes).

Montenegro put together this hard-core high-intensity workout based on the latest research, her work with clients and her own experience (that's her in the photos; those abs don't lie).

The Circuit

*You will need 2 small towels and 2 dumbbells (3-5 pounds).

*Perform the exercises in the following order, one after another, without pausing in between.

*When you've completed all 6 exercises, rest for 90 seconds.

*Do the entire circuit 1-3 times.

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Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade PhotographyDumbbell Squat to Shoulder-Press Rotation

A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that exercises that work both the legs and the upper body target the core more than traditional abdominal exercises (in fact, a study in the same journal shows that crunches don't do much for you--besides make you more efficient at doing crunches). This full-body calorie-burning move from Montenegro works not just the abs and obliques but also the glutes, hips and shoulders.

1. With dumbbells at your side, bend into a squat, pushing your hips backward as if you were sitting in a chair. Keep your back straight and your abs engaged.
2. As you raise your hips to come to standing, press the dumbbells over your head, rotating the torso toward the right, using the side of your abdominals. This should be one fluid movement.
3. Lower the dumbbells and bend into a squat again. Repeat the shoulder press to the left side.
4. Alternate sides for 12 total reps.

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade Photography

Towel Leg-Ins

Compared with crunches and bent-knee sit-ups, non-traditional ab moves like these do a significantly better job of activating the upper and lower abdominals as well as the obliques, found a study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. Montenegro suggests doing this move on a smooth surface, like a wooden or tile floor (not a rug, where the towels won't slide).

1. Start in a high plank position with your palms on the ground underneath your shoulders, arms straight, core engaged, with a small towel under the toes of each foot. (If you have an exercise ball, you can use that instead of the towels.)
2. Use your abdominals to bring both knees in toward your chest. You should be in a crouch position with your knees between your elbows.
3. Hold for 1 count. Push from your abdominals to slide the towels under your feet back to starting plank position.
4. Do 12 reps.

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade Photography

Lunge to Overhead Press

This may not look like an ab move, but Montenegro says it will really feel like one-the abdominals will be working overtime to stabilize the body, especially as you press the weights overhead.

1. Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height.
2. Start in a lunge position, with your right knee bent 90 degrees in front of you (be careful not to let the knee bend over your toes) and the left knee slightly bent behind you. Imagine a string pulling up from the top of your head, keeping the neck and back long.
3. As you straighten both legs to come to standing, engage the abs and press the dumbbells up over your head.
4. Bend the knees to come back to the lunge and lower the weights to shoulder level.
5. Do 6 reps, then switch legs. (To make this move harder, Montenegro suggests walking forward while doing the lunges.)

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Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade PhotographyTowel One-Arm Rollout

This works the very deep abdominal muscles, says Montenegro, and conditions you to keep your abs tucked in (which creates a flatter profile).

1. Start in a high plank position (arms straight, core engaged) with a small towel under each hand. Try not to hunch your shoulders up to your ears.
2. With your hands on the towels and keeping both arms straight, slide your right arm forward as far as you can without moving the hips or torso.
3. Bring the right arm back to starting position.
4. Repeat with the left arm.
5. Alternate arms for 12 total reps.

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade Photography

Unilateral Dumbbell Dead-Lift

One study compared isometric exercises where you contract a muscle with no movement--similar to the standard plank--to strength exercises, like the deadlift. "The deadlift was the clear winner because it activated the trunk 60 percent more than the other exercises," Montenegro says. Here's her ab-tacular version of the classic weight move.

1. Stand with your feet together. Hold one dumbbell in your right hand and let it hang at your side.
2. Keeping the core pulled tight, lean forward, lifting your right leg (same side of the body that's holding the weight) and lower the dumbbell toward the ground.
3. Bring the dumbbell down as low as you can while concentrating on keeping your back straight, core engaged, chest up and neck aligned with the spine. Keep the arm holding the dumbbell close to your body to avoid unnecessary pressure on the back.
4. Hold for 1 count.
5. Tighten your core even more, lower the right leg, and return to standing tall.
6. Do 6 reps, then hold the dumbbell in your left hand and repeat with your left leg, for a total of 12 reps

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Meade Photography

Towel Mountain Climbers

The most common mistake people make with mountain climbers is to roll up their whole body," Montenegro says, meaning they lift their hips and throw their weight forward on to their arms. "They'll tell me they really feel it in their shoulders, when the abs should be doing all the work." She says that putting towels under your feet, as in this move, will isolate the ab muscles and keep your back flat to help you maintain proper form.

1. Start in a high plank position with your palms on the ground underneath your shoulders, arms straight, core engaged, with a small towel under the toes of each foot.
2. Use your abdominals to bring your left knee in toward your right elbow. This should be a fluid, controlled movement. You should feel the twist in your lower abs, not as much in your back or hips. Keep your shoulders squared.
3. Return to starting position, with both feet behind you.
4. Repeat by bringing the right knee to the left elbow.
5. Alternate sides for 12 total reps.

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