Each day, I have conversations with my bootcampers, clients, even my close friends and family where I hear questions like–
“How do I burn this fat off my belly?!” asks the person grabbing her midsection in annoyance. And, “I’m getting smaller but these love handles don’t seem to be going anywhere!” says the also-annoyed person wanting desperately to whittle down the middle.
Most people, men and women, typically want to lose fat in the same place: hips, butt, stomach, thighs, and love handles. The freaking, hated middle.
When I ran across this article recently, it reminded me of a conversation I had with my husband, Erik, several years ago about fat burning. He told me about some theories of warming up “fat” — especially the fattier tissue on the hips, butt, and stomach, and then working out in order to burn fat faster. The theory was that if you heat up the areas you need to burn fat, you’ll be a little more successful. At least, that’s what I think I remember from the conversation.
I do remember laughing–imagining myself wrapped in heat pads or looking like a wrestler working out in ten layers of clothes–but I didn’t think much more of this warming effect until recently. Like a lot of women, my body has changed shape after having my daughter and losing a few more pounds around the middle would be awesome. As always, and like so many people, the toughest spot for me to burn fat has always been my stomach and hips. And according to the people I chat with each day, I’m not the only one.
That’s when it dawned on me that “heating up the middle” may actually work to increase that extra fat burn that most of us desire.
Step up your game to burn stubborn fat.
So according the article I referenced earlier, all of that fat we have in our middle actually has a special name: stubborn fat. Oh the irony, right? And in order to burn this stubborn fat, we have to release it from its cell. Then we have to get it into another cell so that we can burn it. That’s a lot of work, in case you didn’t know, to get fat out of one cell and into another just to then burn it. And unfortunately the stubborn fat releases from its cell much slower than regular fat. That’s why stubborn fat is harder to burn than regular fat–it requires more effort, more hard work, more HEAT, to release.
To release this stubborn fat, you need fat-burning hormones called catecholamines. These hormones bind to receptors to displace the fat: beta receptors burn fat fast and alpha receptors burn fat slowly–if not actually get in the way of fat loss. So now we have to increase the activity of our beta receptors and decrease the activity of our alpha receptors in order to burn off the stubborn fat in the middle.
I hate that this is getting all sciency on you, but bear with me, it has to be done.
To top all of this off, there are even more factors that come into play here. If your body is sensitive to insulin (sensitive to sugar), then you’ll have a harder time burning stubborn fat because stubborn fat is more sensitive to insulin than regular fat. Those who have thyroid issues (especially hypothyroidism) are going to have a harder time burning stubborn fat because the better the thyroid works, the more it ramps up the beta receptors and vice versa. Even estrogen stands in the way of burning stubborn fat: the higher the estrogen levels–especially surrounding females on their monthly cycle, the harder it is to burn stubborn fat.
So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the answer to the question, “Why can’t I lose weight in the middle?!” Is it depressing or just flat out mind-blowing? Personally, it’s an “Aha!” for me. I am insulin sensitive, diagnosed with an under-active thyroid, and chalked up on hormones from having a baby (who is still nursing) — so hello hormones! No wonder I’m having trouble with those last few pounds in the middle.
Now the real question is, “What can you do to heat up this stubborn fat, displace it, and then lose it for good?”
Based on what I know about fitness and metabolism coupled with the research I’ve done on stubborn fat, there are at least five things here that you can start doing right NOW to increase your ability to burn stubborn fat around the middle.
1. Work Harder with your HIIT Training. Every single time someone walks into my bootcamp gym, I tell him or her, “Go until you can’t, and then go again as soon as you can.” In bootcamp (and just like all HIIT workouts), it’s up to you to push as hard as you can in your workout. I’m not talking about strength training or just lifting weights (though a combo of strength plus HIIT is ideal for fat loss), I’m talking about how hard you push yourself through the HIIT portion of your workout. When performing interval-based workouts (ideally after a heavy strength session), how hard do you push yourself? Do you take too many breaks? Could you sprint faster? Could you do just five more kettlebell swings before you put the weight down? Are you breathing like you just sprinted five miles to get away from a rabid animal chasing you down for its dinner? And when you do break, do you dilly-dally before starting back up again? Do you pause just enough to catch your breath and keep pushing or do you sit down, drink water, check your phone, and then start back up? To burn stubborn fat, you’ve got to push harder. Rest less. Challenge your training and take yourself to new levels here. Compete against the person next to you or challenge a friend to workout along side you. For me, nothing makes me work harder than “suffering” with a group of friends, all challenging one another to move faster, lift heavier, beat them to the finish!
2. Eat Smarter, Not Necessarily Less. Most people think that in order to lose fat they have to eat less. If you’re overeating, especially on crap foods, yeah, cut back. But for the record, traditional dieting actually makes stubborn fat more stubborn and even harder to lose. Have you ever heard someone say “You’re not eating enough so your body is storing everything you put in?” That’s the stubborn fat at work. And in my experience, most people who are trying to lose weight are under-eating and overtraining. This is a terrible combo for losing stubborn fat. So instead of cutting out food in general, cut out the foods that spike your insulin and try to become less insulin sensitive. Stay away from sugar and refined/processed carbs. Eat more protein, fiber, fish, and even sprinkle your foods with a little bit of cinnamon. Take a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar a day (mix it with water or put it in a salad), and when you DO eat your healthy carbs, eat them around your workouts–before and after. And since fruit is high in sugar, make sure to eat your fruit servings post workout and with plenty of protein. All other times of the day you should be getting your carbs from veggies and beans (if beans agree with you.) If this sounds like a low-carb diet, well, it may be a bit on the lower side. But less carbs tend to help reduce the stubborn fat. It doesn’t mean to cut carbs out of your diet, it just means to eat them pre- and post-workout and in proper portion sizes.
3. Cycle Your Training and Your Diet. Basically, you want to keep your body guessing because your body is excellent at adapting to whatever you’re putting it through. Spend a couple of weeks exercising less and also eating less (eat less carbs and perhaps even a little less fat). And then spend a couple of weeks exercising more and eating more (add those carbs back in around all your workouts). And for women, time your two weeks of eat more/workout more around your monthly cycle (the week before and during) where your estrogen is lower, your cravings are higher, and you’re more likely to burn fat. For those who love carbs, cycling your carbs with your workouts is an excellent way to not feel so deprived all the time.
4. Add extra HIIT to your workouts. During the weeks of increased food + exercise, add an extra 8-15 minute interval workout to your day. This can be done at the end of your typical workout or even at another time in the day. By working at the intensity described earlier, just six minutes of balls-to-the-wall interval training can burn an extra 200 calories a day. An example of this could be eight minutes of Tabatas (20 seconds of work followed by a 10 second break). Typically Tabatas are performed with one exercise for eight rounds (four minutes total). Pick two exercises that you KNOW will get your heart rate up (I would pick burpees, kettlebell swings, or wall-balls) and then perform one of them for eight rounds of 20:10 (work:rest) and then go immediately into the next four-minute round. I promise you’ll hate me after doing this and send a few four-letter words my way. That’s when you know you did it right. 😉
5. Limit Sugar, Alcohol, and Processed Foods. As a relatively new mom, I can tell you more than anyone how much I would like to sit down every evening and relax with a glass of wine. Or how hard it is to NOT eat the goldfish my little girl gives me because she knows how great they are and she wants to share with mommy. But I know that if I want to meet my goals, the more that I can eliminate anything that’s processed, or any type of alcohol, and especially anything that contains sugar, then I’ll reach my goals faster. I think we all know this already, but these three are the big starting points for someone who wants to lose weight in the middle. Have one drink a week and a small serving of dessert on special occasions (limiting foods “forever” can sometimes lead to binge eating disorders) so plan your splurges wisely and definitely keep them in the weeks where you’re working out more and eating more.
Go forth, and conquer that stubborn fat!
How can you make these suggestions work towards your fat-loss goals? I think the easiest thing for most people to do is just push a little harder during their HIIT workouts, or even to add a couple more HIIT workouts into their plan each week. Another often overlooked easy fat-burning thing most people can do much more of is just walk. Walking at a pace that gets the heart rate up (I like wearing weight vests or pushing strollers–ha) will burn fat and not muscle. In fact, it may be the only form of steady-state cardio that burns fat instead of muscle. So push harder, walk further, and eat the right carbs at the right time of day.
Looking For Motivation? Programming? Extra Workouts?
If you need further help adding in some interval training to your workouts, check out my book 365 Metcons available on Amazon (that’s right, 365 metabolic conditioning HIIT workouts designed to burn fat) and/or my At-Home Bootcamp Programming where you can get monthly programming sent to your inbox for only $5 per month! (Trust me, both of these are a steal. I wanted to make my programming more expensive, but because you’ll need to buy a few pieces of equipment, I wanted to make this doable for every person who needs the training!) #noexcuses right?!
Want one-on-one assistance?
StrongFigure has some amazing coaches with a few open spots for clients. We specialize in nutrition, CrossFit/functional fitness, gymnastics, powerlifting, and general strength and conditioning. Fill out one of our contact forms or email Steph at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll get you set up with the coach who’s best for you!
Good luck burning that stubborn fat and let us know how we can continue to help you on your fitness journey!