Ask an Expert: Losing the love handles

Q: “I’ve been working out for three years, focusing mainly on weight lifting, and I’m starting to get bulkier and to gain muscles. However, I still have some visible body fat. My ultimate goal is to become very lean and ripped. What is the best and fastest way to lose the fat – especially the love handles?”

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services:

People often ask me how to get rid of fat in specific areas, such as the under-arms, the thighs, the belly, and those side rolls that sneak over the top of the belt, also known as the “muffin tops” or “love handles.”

Sadly, spot-reducing just isn’t possible. You can perform exercises to tone and strengthen specific muscles, but there are no exercises that allow you to target where you’ll lose fat. Fat just doesn’t work that way.

Technically, you can’t actually “lose” fat at all. When you exercise and eat right, the fat cells throughout your body shrink in size, but they don’t go away.

You can’t control where to shrink fat cells any more than you control where your body will store them. That’s determined largely by genetics, gender and age. Your genes may have programmed you to store more fat cells around your mid-section.

But don’t lose heart. Lifestyle and activity do play a role. You may not be able to spot-reduce your fat, but you can work to reduce your overall percentage of body fat, with the reasonable expectation that some of that reduction may happen around your love handles.

In addition, you can do exercises to tone up the muscles around your mid-section to give that area a firmer look. I can suggest some strategies that should help you make some inroads in both of these areas.

Stage your training
Fitness training needs to be planned in stages or cycles that promote physiological improvement from one phase to the next as you work toward your goal. Shaking up your routine every eight weeks or so reduces burnout and prevents your body from adapting to a repetitive routine.

Making changes and refinements in your routine at each stage also prepares your body for the next phase. This is called “periodization” of training and is a key to any successful fitness program. Check out the book Periodization Training For Sports by Tudor Bompa, Ph.D., and Michael Carrera for more information.

Your weight-training program over the last three years has established a good foundation for fitness. Now I suggest that you begin a new eight-week phase where you concentrate on increasing your cardiovascular exercise to reduce overall body fat, while maintaining your strength training with added emphasis around those love handles. 

Do more cardiovascular exercise
Cardiovascular exercise burns more fat calories than strength training, so adding some cardio to your program will help you reduce your overall percentage of body fat. Your cardiovascular training should include a variety of aerobic activities – such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling – that get your heart pumping harder. Try to get in a 20- to 30-minute cardio workout four to six days a week, for a total of at least 120 minutes of aerobic activity every week.

Alternate longer, moderate-paced sessions with shorter, higher-intensity sessions – see my previous article on Intensity vs. Duration for specifics.

Emphasize the problem area in your weight training A good way to maintain your strength training during this phase is to set up a strength and endurance circuit. I suggest starting with a multi-joint total-body strength exercise, such as squats, cleans, or clean-and-jerks. 

Follow that with seven to nine exercises that involve a variety of muscle groups, progressing from the larger to the smaller muscles, including several that target the areas around the love handles (the obliques and rectus abdominus).

For example, your strength and endurance circuit could include the following:
  • Squats
  • Chest press
  • Seated row
  • Leg curl
  • Shoulder press
  • Stability ball abdominal crunches*
  • Side planks (static-hold for 20 to 30 seconds on each side)*
  • Reverse crunches*
  • Tricep extension*
*These exercises target the areas around the love handles.

Machines or free weights can be substituted for each exercise. If you are unfamiliar with any of these, ask a trainer to help you out for the first session or two.

Perform 10 to 20 repetitions of one exercise (or repeat it for about 30 seconds), and rest for only 30 seconds before switching to the next exercise. Go through all of the exercises in succession before starting a second set of all of them. Shoot for two to three sets per session, and about two to three sessions per week on non-consecutive days.

Factor in nutrition
Regardless of how hard you work out, what you eat and drink can make or break your chances of becoming “lean and ripped.”

Eating a diet focused on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and moderate amounts of healthy fats will help. Indulging in fast food, fries, chips, sodas and lattes won’t.

For suggestions on how to improve your nutrition pick up a book on the subject. Sports nutrition books by Nancy Clark and local author Suzanne Girard Eberle are great choices and are must-haves for the serious athlete.

Work hard, but know when to cut yourself some slack
It sounds like your fitness level is well above average and that you are striving for excellence. That’s great. By using the principles of staged training, adding some cardiovascular training, continuing your weight training and watching your diet, you may make some inroads toward your goal of becoming lean and ripped. At the very least, you’ll be in much better shape than most people. But don’t forget that genetics plays a big role in how your body looks and responds to exercise. Your genes may allow you to whittle down your love handles, but they may never let you get rid of them entirely. If that’s the case, you’ll just have to learn how to love them.

September 2007