Spot-Specific Fat Loss Works (But Not How You Think)
If you’re a female who trains, you will have experienced a blank faced look when you say you want to keep your boobs but lose your stomach fat. Every expert you have spoken to, every magazine you have read, and every personal trainer or nutritionist you have consulted with has told you the same things. That outside of surgery, spot-specific fat reduction is just not possible. And that fat is lost from all over the body and never in one specific place.
Why we store fat and where we store it is a product of our hormones and their interaction with the environment.
What if I told you that they’re wrong: that scientific, spot-specific fat reduction does exist (though not in the way that you might think) and that it can actually improve your athletic performance?
Where and why you carry a disproportionate amount of body fat will have an impact on how many seconds of time you shave off of a 400m run, how many calories you clock on your rowing intervals, and whether you make that extra centimeter on a vertical jump test. At an elite level, disproportionate body fat distribution can even be the difference between an Olympic medal, a world record, or a personal best.
The Link Between Hormones and Body Fat
Why we store fat and where we store it is a product of our hormones and their interaction with the environment. Our hormones either work for us or against us. If one hormone is out of balance, it has a domino effect on the rest.
The importance of hormones in training was identified by world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin, when testing of his elite athletes showed correlations between fluctuating hormone levels and stubborn areas of body fat. With Poliquin’s theories, otherwise known as the BioSignature system, body fat distribution helps us identify the hormone imbalances that are inhibiting your athletic progress.
Let’s examine Poliquin's findings in little more detail. The three most common problem areas for body fat distribution in women are the stomach, the thighs, and the hips. The good news is there are simple lifestyle and training changes to implement that can make your hormone levels work for you instead of against you.
The Stress Hormone: Cortisol
Problem Area: Stomach
Excessive belly fat has been correlated to high levels of cortisol exposure for a prolonged period of time1. Cortisol is needed to maintain normal physiological functioning in times of stress and an effective cortisol metabolism controls our fight or flight response. The secretion of cortisol releases amino acids, glucose, and fatty acids into the bloodstream for use as energy, but when the body is exposed to sustained, stressful situations where this excess energy isn’t used, it’s stored as fat.
Why is this fat specifically stored in the abdominal region? Without getting too complicated, it has to do with a little enzyme called HSD that is primarily found in abdominal fat cells, and increased abdominal HSD activity is generally associated with higher amounts of abdominal fat.2 Keep in mind that a stressful situation is not just work deadlines, sitting in traffic or an argument. It can be food intolerances, digestive issues, malnourishment, poor quality sleep, dehydration, or overtraining.
Increased stress means increased cortisol, which is bad news for your body composition goals.
What to Do About It: If lowering abdominal fat is the main priority for you, optimizing cortisol levels can better be achieved by using a periodized strength and hypertrophy weights program combined with high intensity intervals. Minimal caffeine and sugar is also recommended. A huge emphasis should be placed on quality of training over quantity, with additional stress management practices highlighted to improve recovery time such as yoga, meditation, and massage.
The Female Hormone: Estrogen
Problem Area: Thighs
Estrogen balance is essential for achieving and maintaining fat loss for females. As a population we are constantly exposed to estrogen-like compounds like plastics, pesticides, and parabens. Since the majority of estrogen receptors are in the quads and hamstrings, there are no prizes for guessing this is where fat is stored from over-exposure to these compounds.
For the female athlete in particular, high estrogen levels can contribute to weight gain, pain, mood swings, low energy, and decreased muscle recovery.3 Too much estrogen or estrogen dominance can also cause water retention, bloating, and a host of other health and wellness issues.4
What to Do About It: When training for body composition, women with higher estrogen levels would benefit from lower body weight training circuits with high volume, moderate weights, and low rest periods.5 Other lifestyle factors that optimise estrogen metabolism include a nutrition plan high in fiber and green cruciferous vegetables, and a heavy emphasis on detoxification strategies such as magnesium supplementation, Epsom salts baths, and acupuncture.
The Sugar Hormone: Insulin
Problem Area: Hips
An excess of body fat around the hips suggests issues with insulin resistance, carbohydrate tolerance and blood sugar management. When there is too much insulin in the blood, the cell body becomes stressed, the insulin receptors are shut off, and any excess sugar in the blood is stored as fat.
What To Do About It: The good news is that insulin is essentially the only hormone that we have relatively easy control over since we can manage our blood sugar levels with better nutrition. Stick to a basic real food blueprint of lean protein with plenty of greens, and limit high GI foods to post-workout when the body is most insulin sensitive. The way you exercise can also be critical in improving insulin sensitivity. Training strategies that involve building muscle and utilizing the anaerobic threshold tend to be more effective, since muscle consumes the majority of energy in the bloodstream. Weight training, strongman training, and sprinting can all be successful ways to manage your insulin levels.6
Body Fat Doesn't Give the Whole Picture
Body fat distribution in the hips, stomach, and thighs suggest hormone imbalances, but doesn’t always give the whole picture. Every woman has their own unique hormonal balance, so any generalizations or sweeping recommendations in regards to disproportionate body fat storage is a mistake. Whilst we could look at a female with bigger legs and assume she’s got high estrogen levels, it’s rarely that simple. The female hormonal cycle involves several hormones, with each event triggering the next, so it’s best not to get fixated too early on any one in particular.
If you believe you have a specific imbalance, or want to make sure that you are making the best choices in regards to supplementation, specific blood tests are available from doctors, naturopaths, and other health and wellness practitioners. However, using these guidelines can be a good starting point to identify and address any potential limiting factors that could affect body composition, health, and athletic performance. By understanding your body and learning to listen to what it’s trying to tell you, you can begin to create an individualized plan of attack to achieve your goals in a safe and sustainable way.
This article was co-authored by Tahlia Seinor.
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1. Gottfried, Sara: "Cortisol Switcharoo (Part 1): How Cortisol Makes You Fat and Angry" DrSaraGottfried.com, 2015.
2. Talbott, Shawn: "What Is Cortisol?" The Cortisol Connection, 2009.
3. Todd, Wayne: "The SD Protocol" Todd Wellness Group, 2015.
6. Poliquin, Charles: "Insulin, Nutrition, and Your Health" Poliquin Group, 2011.