Nearly every trainer will say that you can't spot reduce. Well, maybe THEY can't. But here's what stubborn body fat actually is, and how to lose it.
Last to Burn, First to Come Back
Most people have body fat trouble spots, even bodybuilders and fit people. You know what I'm talking about: the annoying pouch of fat just below your belly. Or that fold of flab protruding above your jeans like one of those oversized muffins you see at gas stations.
Yep, the fat in these areas is the first to show up after a break in your diet and the last to leave when you're looking to build your best body. We'll talk about how to fight it, but first let's get into why stubborn body fat is, well, so damn stubborn.
The Lowdown on Stubborn Fat
Fat is fat, right? Nope, not at all. There are different types of fat in the body that respond differently to your lifestyle, workouts, and diet.
There's brown adipose tissue, the "good" body fat, which helps your body generate heat and has become known as the fat that helps you burn more fat.
There's also visceral adipose tissue, which surrounds organs in your abdominal cavity, and there's intramuscular adipose – the fat that's stored in and around muscle.
But when we're talking stubborn body fat, we're mostly referring to subcutaneous fat, which is right below the skin. Stubborn fat is different. It has a higher density of alpha-receptors, it's more insulin sensitive, and it receives less blood flow than the fat you're able to burn off more easily.
To burn body fat, including these stubborn fat areas, hormone-sensitive lipase is activated by hormonal messengers, breaking down triglycerides into glycerol and fatty acids. From here, lipid oxidation occurs, breaking down fatty acids further. Eventually you'll excrete broken down fatty acids through sweat, breathing (yes, breathing), urination, and defecation.
Well, stubborn fat gets released at a slower rate than non-stubborn fat. The reason has to do with fat-releasing hormones called catecholamines.
The job of these hormones is to bind receptors (alpha-receptors and beta-receptors) in fat tissues that will influence the fat's release rate. The beta-receptors give fat release a "green light" to speed up the process. The alpha-receptors give fat release a "yellow light," slowing it down like your drive through the school zone on your way to the gym.
In other words, alpha-receptors, which are prominent in stubborn fat stores, slow down the activity of hormone sensitive lipase (HSL), which is the major fat-releasing enzyme in the body.
So to burn stubborn fat, you need to increase the amount of beta-receptors (green lights), and reduce the amount of alpha-receptors (yellow lights). By doing this, you'll increase blood flow and insulin sensitivity, both of which will increase fat burning. Improving blood flow and insulin sensitivity will fire up the beta-cell receptor switch to help you lose the fat stored in those trouble spots.
Here's what to do...
Technique 1: Fasted Training
Fasting is simply refraining from consuming any calories for a short period of time. Fasted training is one of the most effective ways to peel away the layers of stubborn body fat.
I'm not saying you have to do a 24-hour fast here. Nor am I suggesting you starve yourself like a Hollywood diva. Rather, you hold off on eating for 16-18 hours and then you eat for 8-10 hours in a given 24-hour period of time. It's a proven method to get your fat stores up and moving to furnace cells where they'll be torched. Here's why:
It makes it easier to stick to a caloric deficit.
More than anything, intermittent fasting makes it easier for busy folks to stick to a caloric deficit. Yes, there are other benefits to fasting, but 80% of the benefits come purely from a lifestyle perspective: If you eat fewer calories than you expend, and do so consistently, you'll burn more fat.
It may increase growth hormone production.
Growth hormone production is an essential aspect of building muscle and burning fat. One reason fat loss tends to slow down (or get tougher) as you get older is you're producing less growth hormone. But, there's evidence fasting increases growth hormone production, accelerating fat loss.
It boosts insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity, or a lack thereof, plays a crucial role in fat storage. While most research into intermittent fasting uses diabetic or pre-diabetic patients, it may improve insulin sensitivity even in healthy patients. A 2005 study by Halberg et al found intermittent fasting to increase insulin sensitivity in healthy men.
It helps with appetite control.
Ghrelin is an enzyme produced by stomach lining cells that stimulates your appetite. By fasting, ghrelin stabilizes and keeps your hunger in check so that you'll have less cravings which may lead to overeating.
While I wouldn't recommend fasted training if you're looking to maintain weight or build muscle, losing stubborn fat stores is an all-out battle. Fasted training can be an important tool for two reasons:
First, according to a 2007 study by Gjedsted et al, blood flow to stubborn areas like your abdomen are increased with fasting. When blood flow is increased, catecholamines can attack stubborn fat, mobilize it, and burn it easier.
Second, and more based on personal preference, fasted training for most means they'll double-down and actually do some cardio. For most of lifters, fasted training, especially cardio, can improve fat oxidation simply because we rarely do cardio. Whenever I'm looking to get extremely lean (7% or under), fasted cardio always seems to accelerate the process.
The only downside: Muscle breakdown may increase during fasted training. For this reason, keep fasted training as your ace in the hole. Play the card only when you're already very lean and looking to get shredded to the bone. And remember, don't do it if your main goal is to build muscle.
Technique 2: Specialized Supplementation
No supplement will ignite the fat burning switch alone. You need to handle your business in the kitchen and gym first. But I'd be lying if I said supplements weren't a key component when it comes to eliminating trouble spots. You need the training (flames) and a caloric deficit (fuel), but proper supplementation will serve as lighter fluid, accelerating fat loss.
The best way to get more beta-receptors through supplementation is to take supplements or eat foods that'll increase the fat-releasing hormones that bind beta-receptors.
Here are a few to try:
- Capsaicin: Capsaicin is the ingredient in chilies that give them their heat. It boosts fat loss and increases metabolic rate by increasing fat-releasing hormones.
- Yohimbine: Yohimbine and yohimbe-containing products like Hot-Rox® Extreme enhance fat burning by counteracting alpha-receptors on fat cells. When you combine targeted training, fasting, and yohimbine supplementation, then fat loss, especially in stubborn areas, is enhanced.
- Green Tea Extract: Drinking green tea will have the same effect. Green tea has a thermogenic effect that influences fat-release and burning.
- Caffeine: Your morning cup of coffee could do the trick here as long as you keep it black. Caffeine binds to fat cells in order to enhance lipolysis.
- Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): CLA, like that found in Flameout®, inhibits the fat-storing enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL) so that fat will be more readily available to burn instead of stored. CLA is also a potent anti-inflammatory, boosting overall health and joint inflammation during your cut.
Technique 3: Targeted Fat Loss Mobilization Training
Despite what every personal trainer on planet earth seems to be saying, you CAN increase fat loss in specific stubborn areas. The keys to making it work?
Well, first you've got to already be fairly lean, otherwise you won't notice a difference. You've got to create a caloric deficit, and you need to follow a specific targeted fat mobilizing training plan.
The reason it works? Blood flow. You need to direct blood flow to stubborn fat stores if you want to increase catecholamine activity and break down fatty acids. If you can increase blood flow to those fat areas during your training, you can get the fat up and out.
So how do you do it? Here's the formula: Alternate an exercise hitting your stubborn area like your abs for 45-60 seconds with a high intensity exercise like sprints for 30-45 seconds.
At its core, targeted fat-loss mobilization training is a simple concept: Blood flow is to fat stores what water is to the Wicked Witch of the West. Increase blood flow to stubborn areas through targeted training, accelerate the mobilization of stored fuel with high intensity cardio, and watch trouble spots start to shrink.
Technique 4: Set Up The Ideal Rapid Fat Loss Diet
When it comes to fat loss, the formula is simple:
Calories Out > Calories In = Fat Loss
Fat loss requires this formula. You must burn more calories than you consume each day in order to see rapid fat loss. A caloric deficit through exercise, a sound diet, and healthy hormone levels should incinerate fat and give you your leanest physique.
However, finding the perfect formula can be overwhelming, so let's use bodyweight (pounds) x 15 to find your caloric maintenance. It won't be perfect, but it'll be close enough to the more complicated equations to provide a solid starting point.
Let's say you weigh 200 pounds. That'd be 200 pounds x 15 = 3000. This number (3000) is an estimate of the calories you'd consume to maintain your current physique.
Now comes the fun part, let's determine fat loss calories:
Losing stubborn body fat requires an aggressive approach. A 20-30% deficit is a good range to shoot for. Research by Huovinen in 2015 found male athletes to successfully lose fat without significant decreases in testosterone or drops in performance with a roughly 25% deficit. Start with a 20% deficit, track your progress, and cap your deficit at 30% if you plateau.
You'd want your caloric deficit to be 20%, so now you'd multiply your 3000 maintenance calories by .8. Here's what that would look like: 3000 x .8 = 2400 calories.
Diet Phase Macros
Using our 2400 calorie example, you'll want it to consist of:
- 35% protein
- 35% carbs
- 30% fat
Here's how many grams of each macro that would be:
- 35% protein would be 210 grams. Here's the math to calculate it for your own caloric needs: 2400 calories x .35 = 840 calories. To find out how many grams of protein that is we'd divide that number by 4 (because there are 4 calories per gram) and get 210 grams of protein per day.
- 35% carbs would also be 210 grams. Here's the math: 2400 calories x .35 = 840 calories. To find out how many grams of carbs that is we'd divide 4 calories/gram and get 210 grams of carbs per day.
- 30% fats would be 80 grams. The math: 2400 calories x .30 = 720 calories. Divide that by 9 calories/gram and you'd get 80 grams of fats per day.
Note: It's more important to nail your calories and protein intake than to be perfect on your carbs and fats. If you prefer higher or lower carb intake, you can adjust accordingly.
That adds up to:
- 2400 calories per day
- 210 grams of protein
- 210 grams of carbs
- 80 grams of fat
3 Bonus Tips
- Start feasting with protein. When you do break your fast, eat protein. A high protein meal will keep cravings away throughout the day and preserve lean muscle mass.
- Cut liquid calories. When you're aiming for rapid fat loss, you want to chew calories instead of drinking them. Chewing stimulates digestion with salivary amylase, a vital aspect of overall health and especially fat loss. Stick to water, coffee, and green tea.
- Replace grains with greens. Take a week off of grains and replace them with greens and you'll put yourself in a greater position to torch stubborn fat. This way you'll decrease gut inflammation while consuming fewer calories and more fiber to keep you regular.
- Moller, L, et al. "Impact of Fasting on Growth Hormone Signaling and Action in Muscle and Fat." Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19066303.
- Halberg, N, et al. "Effect of Intermittent Fasting and Refeeding on Insulin Action in Healthy Men." Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16051710.
- Gjedsted, J, et al. "Effects of a 3-Day Fast on Regional Lipid and Glucose Metabolism in Human Skeletal Muscle and Adipose Tissue." Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17784905.
- Huovinen, H T, et al. "Body Composition and Power Performance Improved after Weight Reduction in Male Athletes without Hampering Hormonal Balance." Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028999.