Men have big problems with lower abdominal, waist and lower back fat, but women have an even more trouble losing hip, butt and thigh fat. In this revealing interview with Lyle McDonald - the first in our Bodybuilding Secrets Expert Interview series - one of the most knowledgeable science researchers in the field reveals the truth about spot reduction, why fat “sticks” to you in certain places, why women’s lower body fat is so stubborn, how lower and upper body fat are different and the 3-step process for eliminating stubborn fat. .
Stubborn Fat And How To Get Rid of It:
Tom Venuto Interviews Lyle McDonald
In Part I of this cutting-edge interview with Tom Venuto and Lyle McDonald, women will learn how to get rid of stubborn hip, thigh and butt fat. Men will discover how to get rid of annoying lower ab and lower back fat. You’ll learn: The fat-burning ‘Lock and Key’ mechanism, How hormones affect patterns of fat storage, the plan fitness models use to go from low body fat to extremely low body fat, why women tend to have more stubborn lower body fat then men and exactly what to do about it, the truth about the hormone Cortisol and how it affects belly fat storage and a 3-step blueprint for eliminating stubborn fat.
Tom Venuto: Ok Lyle I finally read your stubborn fat book cover to cover and two things jumped out at me at first. One was the huge implications for women to finally get rid of stubborn hip and butt fat, so we’ll come back to that. The other was that this is cutting-edge, scientific and sophisticated stuff and that raises the first question, who is this book really for in terms of the type of reader and the type of physical condition they’re in?
Lyle McDonald: While I’d love to say that the book is for everyone, it’s really not. The topic discussed in the book, that is stubborn body fat, only really becomes a problem when males and females get to a fairly low level of body fat. On average, this might be 10-12% for men and perhaps 15-17% for women. This is when men start to have problems with abdominal (especially lower abdominal) and low-back fat.
For women, the problem is almost always in the lower body; the hips and thigh fat in women can be notoriously resistant to loss. Generally speaking, those problems will start in about the ranges listed above. A typical female at that point might already have a fairly well defined six pack and a shredded shoulder girdle and pecs. But the lower body, the hips and thighs will still be soft (a polite way of saying ‘fat’).
In some men, of course, there can be problems with lower body fat. And, at least at the competitive bodybuilding level, with striated glutes becoming more and more common, even among naturals, males may have to start worrying about how to target the stubborn lower body fat that has been, up to this point, purely an issue for females.
Tom Venuto: From a male bodybuilder’s perspective, I’ve never really experienced lower ab or lower back fat as “stubborn” per se and I could easily define “stubborn fat” simply as the last fat to come off. But obviously, after someone reads your book, they can see that there’s more to it than that, so what is your definition of “stubborn fat?”
Lyle McDonald: That’s part of it, yes. The body tends to show a distinct pattern of fat loss in terms of where it will draw calories (in the form of stored fat) for energy on a diet. So in that sense, ‘stubborn fat’ is simply the last place to come off.
However, of more interest to me (and keeping with what’s discussed in the book), there are distinct physiological reasons that certain areas of body fat come off before others (or come off slower than others, depending on how you want to look at it). Issues of blood flow, how those fat cells respond to hormones such as insulin and adrenaline/noradrenaline and others all contribute to how easy (or not) it is to get fat out of those areas.
Stubborn fat, and I’d note up front that men’s abdominal and low-back fat is NEVER as stubborn as women’s lower body fat, tends to be stubborn because of number of differences in physiology that not only make it easier for the body to store fat in those fat cells after you eat, but make it more difficult to get them back out when you diet (or exercise).
Tom Venuto: Let’s put stubborn fat into the perspective of a hypocaloric diet. Some people would say that you’re guaranteed to get leaner as long as you have the calorie deficit. But what I’ve gathered from your info is that the stubborn fat problem still persists in some people despite a diligently maintained energy deficit because you draw that energy from everywhere except those stubborn fat areas. So obviously this wouldn’t contradict the calories in and calories out principle, because you DO get leaner or lose body mass with the basic negative calorie balance approach, but the body simply can’t pull the fat out of certain areas, leaving you leaner in most of your body but still stuck with fat in stubborn areas. Does that explain the big picture about right?
Lyle McDonald: I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not suggesting that the body is somehow going to violate calories in versus calories out due to stubborn fat. Rather, what can happen is that where the body pulls those calories from (to cover the deficit) which has to do with calorie partitioning (where the calories go or come from when you gain or lost weight respectively). And, ignoring the contribution from glycogen stores, let’s keep it simple and say that the body has two places to pull calories from when you diet: fat cells and skeletal muscle.
Now, think about a situation where there is tons of fat available for fuel such as extreme obesity. Short of some truly idiotic approaches, what you’d expect to see is that most of the weight lost will come from fat with little from muscle. And this is exactly what happens.
But now consider the opposite situation, where there is little or no fat available for fuel. If the body still has to cover the caloric deficit (from diet, exercise or both), what does it have to do? Break down muscle. And, as everyone who’s dieted to extreme levels of leanness knows, muscle loss accelerates as folks get leaner.
Now, I’d note that there are a whole host of physiological reasons (involving hormones such as testosterone, cortisol, etc.) involved in this. But an inability to mobilize fat for fuel (which is more difficult as you get to the ‘stubborn’ areas is probably part of it. Simply: if you can’t get the fat out of fat cells to cover the deficit, the body will go looking for another source of energy and that’s usually skeletal muscle.
Tom Venuto: That last point is a bit scary. You could faithfully be in a calorie deficit, but actually burn muscle for the energy you need because your body can’t even get fat out of the fat cells. You’ve pointed out some differences among various fat cells and subcutaneous fat depots. What’s different about abdominal fat and lower body fat in general and between the genders?
Lyle McDonald: Well, as above, there are a host of differences between the different stores of fat usually involving blood flow, the relative sensitivity or insensitivity to insulin, and the relative sensitivity (or insensitivity) to the hormones adrenaline/noradrenaline. There is also research suggesting site specific differences in what types of fats are stored in the different fat cells; this is relevant as different types of fat (e.g. saturated vs. monounsaturated vs. polyunsaturated) are mobilized with relatively more ease or difficulty.
In general, visceral fat is the most responsive to lipolytic (fat mobilizing) stimuli, has great blood flow and is relatively resistant to insulin. This makes it very easy to get rid of.
Abdominal fat, and I’d note that ab fat has now been divided into three different segments (deep, upper superficial, lower superficial) with slightly different characteristics, is more sensitive to insulin, slightly less sensitive to lipolytic stimuli, and has slightly worse blood flow.
Finally is lower body, hip and thigh fat which is profoundly sensitive to insulin, fairly insensitive to lipolytic stimuli, and has unbelievably bad blood flow. In fact, one study found that lower body fat has 67% less blood flow than upper body fat.
As far as differences between genders, there actually turns out to not be a huge difference between men and women in terms of the fat cells from the different areas. That is, if you study a fat cell from a man’s butt, it will be physiologically more or less identical to that from a woman’s. The difference is that, on average, men don’t store many calories in lower body fat cells. The same works in reverse, a woman’s ab fat is identical to a man’s, women simply don’t usually store much fat there.
Tom Venuto: Well, I won’t be studying fat cells from men’s butts any time soon, but the differences between men and women are very interesting. I know that adrenoreceptors play a major role in all this. Could you give us “adrenoreceptors 101” in a way that even the non-science folks could understand it?
Lyle McDonald: As a bit of foreground, readers need to understand that hormones work through a sort of lock and key mechanism (note: this simple model has become much more complex of late but I’ll skip the details). So, to exert their signal (such as ‘store fat’ or ‘mobilize fat’) a hormone (the key) fits into its receptor (the lock) and things happen.
Adrenoceptors (aka adrenoreceptors) are the ‘lock’ that exists for the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline (aka epinephrine/norepinephrine). Adrenaline is released from the adrenal gland and travels through the bloodstream, noradrenaline is released from nerve terminals and have their effects mostly locally.
Now, these hormones do a number of things in the body, they can increase heart rate and blood pressure, increase blood flow, increase energy expenditure, etc. One of their effect is to mobilize fatty acids for fuel and they do this by binding to adrenoceptors on the fat cell.
Now, there are two broad classes of adrenoceptors which are the alpa-receptors and beta-receptors. Within each class there are sub-types. There are two primary alpha-receptors called alpha-1 and alpha-2 receptors. For fat cell metabolism, only alpha-2 is relevant. There are at least three beta-receptors (beta-1,2,3) and possibly one more. Beta-3 receptors got a lot of press years ago since they seem to be involved in a type of fat (brown adipose tissue) that burns fat. Unfortunately, humans don’t usually have much BAT so they fell the by the wayside.
In any case, beta-1 and 2 receptors are all that we’re interested in for fat cell metabolism. Here’s where it gets interesting. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline can bind to both kinds of receptors and where they bind determines what happens in the fat cell.
When adrenaline/noradrenaline bind to beta-receptors, they stimulate fat breakdown. That’s good.
When adrenaline/noradrenaline bind to alpha-receptors, they inhibit fat breakdown. That’s bad.
But what this means is that adrenaline/noradrenaline can either send a good or bad signal, they can either stimulate or inhibit fat breakdown. What determines which signal they send? Well, the levels of each hormone play a role (low levels of each hormone may exert different effects than large amounts) but the biggy is the ratio of alpha to beta receptors.
Fat cells which have lots of alpha-receptors relative to beta-receptors will tend to have an inhibitory signal sent when adrenaline and noradrenaline while fat cells with lots of beta-receptors relative to alpha-receptors will have a stimulatory signal sent.
Guess which types of fat cells have lots more alpha-receptors than beta receptors?
Tom Venuto: Are we talking about spot reduction being a reality?
Lyle McDonald: Absolutely not. The idea behind spot reduction is usually that, through some odd combination of exercises (usually local exercises such as lots of crunches for the abs or lots of lower body work for the thighs) that the body will preferentially take fat from that area and burn it off.
This also implies that the normal order by which fat is lost (e.g. from easiest to most stubborn area) can be worked around. So for example, via spot reduction, you might end up with a woman who had shredded legs before her upper body had leaned out. A nice idea, unfortunately a basic physiological impossibility.
The protocols in the stubborn fat solution book aren’t spot reduction and can’t be used to affect what order the body loses fat in. Rather, they are designed to facilitate mobilization of fat stores that tend to not come off no matter what a dieter does at the end of the diet. That is, once the person is at the level where the rest of the fat has come off and they are down to stubborn fat, the protocols are meant to facilitate loss of those stubborn areas. But it’s not spot reduction.
Tom Venuto: Speaking of stubborn fat and spot reduction, there’s a theory promoted especially by one prominent strength coach that where you store your fat tells you about your hormonal status and that based on your skinfold thicknesses at multiple sites, you can write a prescription for nutrition, supplements and so on. Some of it falls in line with your book such as lower body and gluteal fat meaning higher alpha 2 concentrations and yohimbine and other supplements being one of the prescriptions. Outside of the female lower body, do you think there is anything to this?
Lyle McDonald: I’m familiar with what you’re talking about it and all I can say is that I’ve never really come across this idea in any of the literature I’ve read about stubborn fat (and I’ve read it all). For example, this particular system claims that cortisol is the cause of men’s abdominal fat which is untrue, visceral (gut) fat is affected by cortisol. And while it’s convenient to blame women’s lower body fat on estrogen, it’s not nearly that simple. Consider for example that in extreme dieting women (e.g. contest dieting bodybuilders or fitness types), estrogen goes way down but lower body fat doesn’t get any easier to mobilize. From what I can tell, this system is mainly a way to sell a lot of supplements to people.
Tom Venuto: Regarding the release of fatty acids from the fat cell and the actual burning of the fat - it seems important to understand these as separate processes to understand the implications of your stubborn fat protocol, would you agree and if so would you explain the difference between the two?
Lyle McDonald: Although some will get more detailed, there are basically three primary steps involved in the so-called ‘burning’ of bodyfat. The first of course is mobilization which refers to the break down of the fat inside the fat cell in the first place. Clearly if you can’t get it out of the fat cell, you can’t get rid of it (short of liposuction).
The second is transport which simply occurs as fat is carried through the bloodstream until it comes in contact with a tissue (such as heart, liver or skeletal muscle) that can use that fat for fuel.
The final major step is oxidation (the actual ‘burning’) of the fat within a given tissue, which occurs in the mitochondria of the cell. Here, fatty acids are reacted with oxygen to provide energy.
While there are certainly overlapping mechanisms, the key aspect is that each of these steps is regulated differently. Perhaps more practically, with various dietary, exercise and supplement strategies, they can be modified or modulated.
Tom Venuto: You mentioned that fat can get mobilized from the fat cell into circulation, but then get re-deposited. The part that really freaked me out (and made me glad that I’m a man) is you said that fat can actually be mobilized from regular storage sites but then redistributed to the stubborn sites particularly the butt and thighs in women! One, do you think this is common? Two, why would this happen? Once mobilized, why wouldn’t it get burned?
Lyle McDonald: Years ago I remember hearing female dieters claim that while their upper bodies were getting leaner, their legs were getting fatter. I had originally dismissed this as nonsense (as I suspect you did as well) but recent research suggests that it might be true.
A new pathway of fat storage, essentially fatty acids taken out of one cell can be restored in other fat cells, has now been identified and the researchers themselves suggested that women’s bodies might actually be able to shift fatty acids from upper to lower body fat. This is a real problem because fatty acids stored in women’s lower body fat is that much harder to get out in the first place.
So that this isn’t misconstrued, I do NOT want people to read this as some sort of silly argument that ‘low intensity cardio is making women fatter’ as that’s absolutely not the case. These women in question are losing body-fat, their upper bodies continue to get leaner and leaner (most of them have upper body definition that men would kill for). It’s simply that, due to this weird redistribution, the lower body may be gaining some body-fat at the same time.
Tom Venuto: Two women finish eating dinner and the waiter brings out a cheesecake. Woman A says to Woman B, “If you eat that it will go straight to your thighs.” Is the science now saying there’s some truth to that warning?
About The Author
Lyle McDonald has dedicated nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the art, science, and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss, and body recomposition. He uses a combination of cutting edge research, canny tinkering, and sometimes, a little bit of intuition to develop his hypotheses which he then tests in the real world on various guinea pigs (often including himself).He is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as a Guide To Flexible Dieting and numerous other books. Most recently he has released the “The Stubborn Fat Solution” and you can learn more about it by Clicking Here.
Published on 17 December, 2008