Bathing suit season is officially upon us. And for many, the struggle to get rid of a muffin top is frustratingly real.
That’s because those little pockets of fat can be extremely hard to eliminate, pro boxer Laili Ali tells PEOPLE. Essentially, the battle against the unflattering bulge comes down to eating well and doing the right exercises.
“Diet is the most important thing because a muffin top is basically excess fat, which comes from overeating,” says the daughter of Muhammad Ali. “So you definitely have to get your nutrition in order.”
Ali – who is hosting a DietBet online weight loss challenge starting June 1 – recommends sticking to a clean diet.
“Focus on eating foods that are from the earth — vegetables, fruits, lean meats, seafood and nuts — and stay away from processed, packaged foods,” she says. “Those [contain] chemicals and are often genetically modified. They can cause all sorts of health problems because our bodies can’t process them. The food ends up getting stuck inside of your body.”
The Food Network host emphasizes the importance of portion size as well. A meal should contain four to five ounces of lean protein, two cups of vegetables, and a healthy fat like coconut oil, olive oil, nut butter or avocado.
“You don’t need a lot of complex carbs in your diet if you’re trying to lose weight,” adds Ali, 37. “That way your body will learn to burn its own fat instead of carbs for energy.”
On top of good nutrition, regular exercise — particularly cardio — is vital to getting rid of fat.
“I encourage people to work out as much as they possibly can,” says the wellness expert, who recommends aiming for at least three to four times a week. “Cardio is important because it helps you burn calories, and that’s when you lose weight.”
One of her favorite cardio workouts is rowing because it works the entire body, including the core. To focus on trimming your sides, Ali’s go-to exercises are twist crunches – in which you crunch and pull your elbow to your opposite knee – and bicycle crunches.
“For most people, fat tends to go right to your midsection,” she says. “That’s where those exercises come in.”
To really blast those muffin tops away, Ali says to do three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps of the twist crunches and bicycles every other day.
“You really want to get a burn, but you want to go past that burn,” she says.
Just don’t overdo it. Resting a day between ab workouts is crucial to your training.
“You want to work them hard and the next day have some time off,” says Ali. “Your muscles need that downtime in order to build.”