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How to get rid of stubborn fat, part 2: The practical stuff

January 18, 2017

In part 1 of this little series we discussed a bit about the science of stubborn fat & the different types of fat. I also went over why stubborn fat is so stubborn. You can have another read of that here, and if you haven’t read it yet I’d recommend reading that part first before moving on to this one.

Today you get the juicy part! I am going to cover some practical tips of things you can do to combat stubborn fat.

Throughout this post I am going to add a couple of quotes from Lyle McDonald who’s book “The stubborn fat solution” is where I learned a lot about stubborn fat and I recommend that book for anyone who wants to have a deeper understanding of it all. In his book you will learn what body fat is and what purpose it serves in the body. (No it’s not just something “annoying and unnecessary”. It is actually an organ in its own right. It’s metabolically active, it releases a huge amount of hormones, & it communicates with every other tissue in your body including your brain in order to control different aspects of your physiology. Phew saying that with one breath was tough :) He also goes in depth about the types of fat and there’s a whole chapter devoted to the hormones that affect fat loss and fat gain, which is so so interesting (at least to me it was). If you have the time to read it and you are interested I highly recommend it.

Hormones & Stubborn fat

First things first, a quick recap on what makes stubborn fat more stubborn than regular fat. Fat gain or loss is about two things, calories and hormones. But stubborn fat may be more impacted by hormones compared to other types of fat.

There is fat stored just underneath the skin. We call this fat “subcutaneous fat”. This is the stuff that hangs over your belt. Then there is fat we store deep in our middle area around our organs and under our abdominal muscles. This fat is called visceral fat. This is the stuff that gives many men that large protruding belly when their skin is still tight over the top. You can’t pinch this stuff, it’s fat on the inside of the body. Finally there is fat stored in and around our muscles. This is called intramuscular fat.

The most stubborn fat on the body is the fat right under our skin, the subcutaneous fat. That’s why you can lose fat and lose size (because you have lost fat on the inside) but still have the fat hanging over. Female subcutaneous fat is more stubborn compared to male subcutaneous fat. The most stubborn fat in the majority of women is lower body subcutaneous fat around the hip, butt and thighs. The most stubborn fat on men is the subcutaneous fat of the lower abdomen and sides of the back (often called the love handles).

Since a know a huge percentage of my readers are female, I thought to post this interesting quote from Lyle about women and stubborn fat:

"If you’re a female with typical female fat patterning, if you’re semi-lean you might have striations in your delts and even have a visible 6-pack (or at least abs). Yet the thighs remain smooth and uncut with no definition or separation. When you gain fat, it’s mostly in the lower body; when you diet, everything else gets ripped up but the legs just don’t drop fat. Sometimes it even seems like your upper body is leaning out while your legs get fatter. You may or may not have as extreme a variance between sites as a man; typically the thigh is the biggest, triceps is next while suprailiac (above the hipbone) and abdominal are both fairly small.”

Subcutaneous fat is far more stubborn than visceral fat because it’s more reactive to insulin, has lower blood supply AND has more alpha receptors. Visceral fat is less stubborn because it has more beta receptors, greater blood flow and is less reactive to insulin. Female subcutaneous fat in the lower body has about 9 to 10 times more alpha receptors compared to male lower body fat.

A big reason why stubborn fat is so stubborn is due to poor blood supply around those areas. As well as that, stubborn fat is impacted directly or indirectly by many different types of hormones. These hormones have varying effects on the activity of HSL and LPL as well as alpha and beta receptors.

So when you realise that you have those different things working against you, you can start to understand just why stubborn fat is so stubborn. But all hope is not lost. There are definitely some very particular things you can do to help combat it.

(Remember, unless you are quite lean already, this series of posts probably won’t be applicable to you. By pretty lean already I am talking about around 10-12 % body fat in males and around 16-18% body fat in females, those people who would be considered lean by the average person, but who just have those little trouble spots they would still like to target. Anything more than that, and you wouldn’t need to worry yet about the “stubborn fat” areas as when you are losing fat the body will take from the least stubborn places first and get rid of that.)

Tip # 1: Stop dieting & extremely restricting calories

One of the most frustrating things related to stubborn fat is that “traditional” dieting does not help it. In fact, drastically cutting your calories and increasing your exercise usually tends to make stubborn fat more stubborn!!

When you diet by the popular method of “eating less and exercising more”, your metabolism starts to take a hit. Some of the changes that take place is that you become way more hungry, your energy levels are affected and you get insatiable cravings for high calorie palatable (nice tasting) foods. At the same time because you are dieting your thyroid hormone levels decline and the fat cells themselves become more reactive to insulin. This means HSL is turned down (less fat release), LPL is turned up (more fat storage) and alpha receptor activity is elevated and beta receptor activity is suppressed. Remember, stubborn fat is stubborn because of the alpha receptors so we certainly don’t want those pesky guys being any more active. All of this makes the fat cells far more greedy (more fat storage) and stingy (less fat burning).

Why did I take the time to go through all that? Because if you hope to beat stubborn body fat you have to first realise that dieting is often times hurting rather than helping your efforts. To beat stubborn fat one of the first things you need to do is escape the “eat less while training harder and harder” mentality. *Again it’s important to note that this doesn’t apply to those who are complete beginners to exercise or who are overweight/obese. In those cases, continuing to restrict calories in a reasonable fashion and train consistently is their best bet for losing fat.

Tip # 2: Cycle your Diet & Training

Something that helps get rid of stubborn fat is to cycle your diet and training. Fit in a way to have periods of more food and exercise with periods of less food and exercise. This helps build muscle and burn fat (or at least maintain it) and keeps you from becoming skinny fat or bulking up too much. It also fights against the law of metabolic compensation (your body and metabolism getting “used” to its current state so you start to plateau.)

This approach could be as simple as having 3-4 days or eating lots and exercising lots, followed by 2-3 days of eating less and exercising less. It also could mean a week in an eat less, exercise less state followed by a couple weeks in an eat more, exercise more state.

The body is not very efficient at multitasking & burning fat and building muscle at the same time. It likes to focus on one thing or the other, so one thing will usually always take the back seat whether you like it or not, which is why I always say that it’s a better idea to attack fat loss separately from all your other goals.

Now I realise from a performance point of view (especially for the CrossFitters/athletes reading this) that you don’t exactly want to be sacrificing performance for aesthetics, cutting back on training sometimes etc. But I am assuming that if you are at the point where you are trying to target that last one or two kilos of stubborn fat that you have your own reasons for it (i.e. a wedding or other event, figure comp, or some personal non-performance related goal) and that is all well and good. But just be realistic about what you are trying to achieve and realise that you CAN have it all but you CAN’T necessarily  have it all at the same time. And I can tell you from my experience with lots of clients now, that you are 100% better off attacking the fat loss separately, focusing on that for a little while, and be prepared to sacrifice a little on your performance during that time (Don’t worry you can always go back to it later!)

Anohter quote from Lyle McDonalad before we move on:

“And then there are diet breaks. As I’ve often said before, I think most people diet too long without a break. Fat loss slows, they overtrain, metabolism crashes completely and they end up banging their head against the wall for no gains (more accurately, no fat losses). Better at that point to come back to maintenance calorie levels, bring carbs to 100-150 g/day minimum, cut training back to allow recovery to occur, and do that for 10-14 days before continuing the assault on stubborn body fat. You would have to plan it into your dieting period of course, but it works better, trust me.”

Tip # 3: Cycle your macros (fats & carbs) & keep your protein consistently high

Similar to my point above about metabolic compensation, you can use macro/carb cycling as well. Ideally we want to be able to train our body to use both fats and carbohydrates for fuel, depending on our level of activity. This is going to make us so much more efficient at using our body’s fuel sources. I’m going to include some quotes from Mike Nelson’s book (Metabolic Flexibility) here as he delves into the idea of how to train your body to become more metabolically flexible.

“On a simple level, you want to be able to use both fats and carbohydrates for fuel. So during a lower intensity exercise, such as just walking and moving around doing your daily job, you want your body to be using fats as its primary fuel. But when you exercise, especially higher intensity exercise, you want the ability to shift into using carbohydrates at that point. Using carbohydrates during exercise will actually result in improved exercise (or athletic) performance. What’s fascinating is that the metabolism of some people doesn’t like to shift from one to the next (they are metabolically IN-flexible) so they actually lose out on the transition. During rest they cannot burn as much fat as their metabolically flexible twin and during intense exercise, they cannot use carbs as effectively either. In fact, their range of fuel uses actually becomes less when they are metabolically INflexible. Not good.”

A simple way to cycle your macros is to time your carbohydrates more around your high intensity training sessions, both before and post-training. Try to eat some protein and carbohydrates before training, as when you do this your insulin levels go up and that pushes the body to use the carbs which is the fuel source you want to use for high intensity activity. Then have less carbs throughout the day when you are just at work or at home and and on rest days. Stick to higher fats and higher protein at these times.

Another way of cycling that I often recommend to my clients is to do a 3:2 low/high-carb ratio (every five-day cycle consists of three low-carb days and two high-carb days).

The low-carb days help reduce water retention, making you look leaner, and your body uses your stored fat as fuel, and the additional high-carb day helps with your training, performance and muscle gain,which is important as the more muscle you have the better you will combat stubborn fat.

Your low- and high-carb days don’t have to be lined up in a row. Some people like to follow three low-carb days with two high-carb days, and others like to stagger them based on how they’re feeling in the gym, doing let’s say one high-carb day, one low-carb day, one high-carb day, and two low-carb days.

I would try to schedule most of my high-carb days to fall on days that I’m training, weightlifting and CrossFit metcons and my low-carb days on days when I am resting or just doing cardio/endurance work.

In terms of working out your calories, here’s how I'd recommend doing it:

Your protein intake should always remain at 1 gram per pound of body weight.
On your high-carb days, get 50% of your calories from carbs.
On your low-carb days, get 25% of your calories from carbs.
Get the rest of your calories from fat.

And of course make sure you are still in a calorie deficit to ensure you are still losing fat.
On your low-carb days, you should be in a 25% deficit.
On your high-carb days, you should be in a 10% deficit.

Tip # 4: Add in intermittent fasting

While “fasting” is not something that I would recommend for everyone, but it is another tool that you could add to your tool box for targeting stubborn fat.

With intermittent fasting you “fast” for 12-14 hours a day (this includes the time you are sleeping). For example, you have your last meal at 8pm and you don’t eat until 10am the next morning. You can drink water, tea (no sugar), coffee (no sugar or milk), chew sugar-free gum, etc... But eat only during your "feeding window".

When you eat a meal, your body spends a few hours processing that food, burning what it can from what you just consumed. Because it has all of this readily available, easy to burn energy in its blood stream (thanks to the food you ate), your body will choose to use that as energy rather than the fat you have stored.

During the “fasted state,” your body doesn’t have a recently consumed meal to use as energy, so it is more likely to pull from the fat stored in your body, rather than the glucose in your blood stream or glycogen in your muscles/liver. By the same token, if you can manage a couple of morning low intensity cardio sessions in the morning in a fasted state, this can help out with fat burning. Without a ready supply of glucose and glycogen to pull from (which has been depleted over the course of your fasted state, and hasn’t yet been replenished with a pre-workout meal), your body is forced to adapt and pull from the only source of energy available to it: the fat stored in your cells!

It’s important to make sure that you are still eating all your food and calories for the day still; the only difference being that you are eating them during your feeding window and not eating anything during your “fasting” window.

The other way you can implement Intermittent Fasting is to introduce a weekly Intermittent Fasting day once per week. Eat mainly soups, juices, and stay very low calorie on this day. Of course ideally this should be on a rest day. This will help with extra fat loss but shouldn’t hinder your training/muscle growth if you do it on a rest day.

Remember, your body doesn’t burn fat when its fed – it stores fat.

Here is another quote from Mike Nelson:

“Fasting for a period of time (aka Intermittent Fasting) is one way to train your body to use fats more effectively…In the morning, your insulin levels are already very low due to the fasting period called “sleep” …The main purpose of a fasting period is to train your body to use fat as fuel, since your insulin levels will be very low during the fast. During that time, while you won’t necessarily gain muscle per se, you’re not really going to lose any muscle tissue either. Your goal is to extend your body’s ability to burn fat. That new capacity will carry over at other times as well, enhancing the amount of energy you derive from fat overall.”

Tip # 5: Supplements & fasted (low intensity) cardio

My last tip will be dependant on whether you have time to add this in but if you can manage some incline (hill walks) a few times a week first thing in the morning on an empty stomach or post hard training session this can help get rid of stubborn fat. Your body needs to be depleted in energy (low blood glucose and low glycogen) for it to start dipping into the free fatty acids. When your body is depleted from energy is 1: when you are fasted in the morning your body has used all the energy throughout the night is depleted as it’s used your food from the night and 2. When your body has done a huge big session your body is depleted all its energy and that will put you in a perfect environment to burn fat. When you are in that state your body has no fuel it will have to use fat.

Here’s the catch go: You can’t go too high intensity with your workout or fat burning will get shut off. Fat is a slow burning energy. That’s why it’s called a fat burning walk. A slow steady state of cardio. If you can wear a heart rate monitor this would be ideal during these walks. Some people are fitter than others and they may need to hop on a treadmill with an incline set or go up a hill (or keep your heartrate steady on a rower or airdyne) and get their heart rate to 70 percent (of your max heart rate) but don’t want to peak your heart rate as then fat is going to get shut off and you will start dipping into your muscle.

The important thing is to make sure you are fasted or you have done a hard and heavy training session for the “fat burning walks” to count. If you decide to do this throughout he day it won’t really be dipping into your fat stores, you will just be burning the stored the energy from the eating you did that day, so make sure for these to “count” or work, that you are either fasted or you have just done a hard session.

Here is a short list of supplements that have been known to improve stubborn fat loss, which I would recommend taking before your fasted cardio.

-Yohimbine. Research shows that yohimbine enables your body to reduce fat stores faster, and it’s particularly useful as you get leaner and are battling with stubborn fat holdouts.

-Caffeine can help to increase your body’s daily energy expenditure.

-Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.

-Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.

A side note on HIIT training & BCAAs:

With all this talk about low intensity cardio you might be wondering what’s the point of HIIT training, metcons etc? Well when doing HIIT you are you aren’t necessary burning fat during the workout but you actually have an increased metabolism after the workout. So for between 24-48 hours. So say my RMR is about 1600 calories, after a HIIT session it might be 2000 for the next 48 hours. It’s the magic that happens between 24-48 hours after you do your HIIT session. But this is a whole different kettle of fish than fat burning walks and I will write about it one day I am sure.

You do have to be careful if you are doing high intensity training in the morning (i.e. you go to an early CrossFit class) and you haven’t eaten, that you give your body some form of fuel to get you through that workout. And that is where Branched chain amino acids come in to help fuel your workout. When your body is fasted it’s going to look for 3 specific amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. And it’s also going to pull L-glutamine from your stomach. Once it has all 4 of them together it will join them together to create glucose. What’s bad about training at a high intensity in a fasted state is that it will take those 3 amino acids from your muscles. But if you take the BCCAs on an empty stomach it will pull from those instead. What’s good about BCCAs as well is that they absorb very fast, they take about 20 minutes. Food takes about 3-4 hours. So you can’t just grab a banana 20min before training and think it’s going to get to your muscles in time. You need to be smart about your training and making sure you know when you should or can train fasted and when you should fuel up first, and how. As even though you are trying to target stubborn fat, the last thing you want to be doing is burning your precious metabolically active muscle.

And there we have it. My top 5 tips for losing stubborn fat. I hope this is a help or at least interesting to some of you. And as a finishing note I want to remind you that all of these tips will not in any way somehow cheat the laws of energy balance. At the end of the day, fat loss requires an energy (or calorie) deficit, and that means you have to burn more energy than you eat. But as with everything, there is no quick fix that will last, so just make sure you are doing it smartly & that you have a long term plan in mind.

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