Have you ever noticed that some areas on your body lose fat quickly, while others stay soft and pudgy?
If you’re a guy, it’s your stomach, back, and “love handles.”
If you’re a woman, it’s your butt, thighs, and stomach.
You feel like you’re doing everything right, but those areas never seem to get lean. The scale has stopped dropping, and you’re starting to get desperate.
You’ve worked hard to lose fat, but you know you can do better.
In this article, you’ll learn how to burn off those patches of stubborn body fat and get the body you want.
Why Stubborn Fat is So Hard to Get Rid of
To lose fat, you need to burn more calories than you eat.(1-4)
This creates an energy imbalance, or calorie deficit, which forces your body to tap into its own energy stores. The main energy source on your body is triglyceride, or stored body fat. If you diet intelligently, almost all of the weight you’ll lose will be fat.(5-11)
Here’s the annoying part: Some parts of your body lose fat slower than others. As Lyle McDonald explains in his book, The Stubborn Fat Solution, there are three primary factors that control how quickly you lose fat from different parts of your body:
1. How fat cells respond to catecholamines.
2. How fat cells respond to insulin.
3. How much blood flow an area of fat cells receive.
One of the ways your body tells fat cells to release their energy is through catecholamines — signaling molecules that act on different tissues in the body. In this case, the two main signaling molecules are adrenaline and noradrenaline.(12-15)
Catecholamines are like an instant messaging system for the brain. All of your cells have catecholamine receptors, or “cell phones,” that receive messages. When your body needs more energy, your brain “texts” your cells to release some of their stored fat to be used elsewhere.
Fat cells have two types of catecholamine receptors: alpha-2 and beta-2. Each receptor behaves differently when it gets a signal from a catecholamine. Beta-2 receptors tell cells to release more fat. On the other hand, alpha-2 receptors tell your cells to stop releasing fat.
When a fat cell has more alpha-2 receptors than beta-2 receptors, it releases fat slower than other cells. When your brain senses that it has enough energy from other cells, it tells fat cells to stop releasing their energy. By the time this happens, these “stubborn fat cells” have barely released any fat.
These stubborn cells tend to congregate in the same areas on your body.(16) For example, fat cells from the stomach tend to be about 10-20 times more responsive to catecholamines than fat cells from the glutes.(17)
Fat cells can also respond differently to the effects of the hormone insulin, another kind of signaling molecule. Insulin is generally considered a “storage hormone,” meaning it helps nutrients like fat enter cells. When insulin levels are high fat burning usually drops to zero, and vice versa.(18)
Some kinds of fat, like visceral fat, are more insulin resistant than others. They keep releasing fat despite insulin being present.(19) On the other hand, stubborn fat tends to stop releasing triglycerides in response to insulin.
The amount of blood flow to different parts of your body also determines how much fat you lose. Areas that receive more blood flow generally lose fat easier.(20)
Lower body fat in both males and females has about 67% less blood flow, and has 87% less hormone sensitive lipase activity (HSL).(21) HSL is an enzyme that helps release fat from cells — for our purposes, it’s good.(22)
In other words, stubborn fat is stubborn because it doesn’t respond as well to catecholamines or insulin, and it doesn’t get as much blood flow as other kinds of fat.
Before we talk about how to get rid of stubborn fat, let’s talk about whether or not you even need to worry about it.
Who Should Worry about Stubborn Body Fat?
In other words, it’s a lot harder for women to get defined thighs than it is for men to get a defined six pack.
Until you get fairly lean, it will appear as if you’re losing fat proportionally across your body. You have to be at a fairly low total body fat percentage to notice stubborn fat. For men, this generally starts being an issue at about 10% body fat. For women, this starts becoming problematic at around 18% body fat.
This is because the body tends to get rid of different kinds of fat in a predictable order. Your body has four kinds of fat.
**Essential body fat.**
This is the fat that makes up your brain and the myelin sheath around your nerves. It also cushions many of your internal organs. You couldn’t get rid of this fat even if you wanted to.
If you’re a man, about 3% of your total body weight is essential fat. If you’re a woman, about 9-12% of your total body weight is essential fat.(25)
This fat surrounds your internal organs, like the intestines. When you see someone with a giant gut and fairly small arms and legs, that’s visceral fat.
Luckily, visceral fat gets a lot of blood flow, and it keeps releasing stored fat in the presence of insulin. This is why it’s generally the first to disappear.
Unless you’re over about 20% body fat for men, or 25-30% body fat for women, you probably don’t have much visceral fat.
**Brown adipose tissue.**
Also known as “BAT,” brown adipose tissue is a kind of fat that burns triglycerides to produce heat. It’s main job is to help your body maintain a healthy temperature.(26)
Unfortunately, adult humans don’t have much, and there’s not much we can do to make BAT burn more calories.(27) Basically, it’s not worth worrying about if you want to get rid of stubborn fat.
Subcutaneous fat is the fat that’s under your skin. (“Sub” = under, “cutaneous” = skin).
This is the kind of fat that covers your abs. About 40-60 percent of your total fat is stored under your skin, so getting rid of it makes a big impact on your appearance.
Visceral fat tends to disappear quickly, brown adipose tissue is too small to worry about, and essential fat sticks around unless you die. It’s patches of *subcutaneous fat* that remain stubborn, despite your best efforts. It’s like the William Wallace of fat cells, holding on while its companions have been wiped out.
The leaner you get, the harder it becomes to lose stubborn fat. This is why it’s so rare to see guys with visible muscle striations on their butt, or women with veins on their upper thighs.
*Note the visible muscle striations on 3DMJ Coach Alberto Nunez’s glutes, traps, and triceps.*
But it is possible to get rid of stubborn body fat, and you’re about to learn how.
8 Strategies that May Help You Get Rid of Stubborn Body Fat
In most cases, losing stubborn fat is a war of attrition. You have to maintain a calorie deficit until the last little pockets surrender and disappear.
You generally don’t need to do anything special to get rid of stubborn fat; it just takes patience.
You’ve probably heard people say that fasted training, fifteen different supplements, and special foods are the best ways to get rid of stubborn fat. Not only are these unnecessary, there’s almost no evidence they work.
I’ve talked to hundreds of bodybuilders and researchers over the past few years, and most of them have never needed to use fancy techniques to get rid of stubborn body fat.
Eric Helms, a bodybuilder, researcher, and coach at the wildly successful 3D Muscle Journey consulting group, puts it this way:
“Between the four of us [coaches], we’ve probably dieted over 500 people down to essential levels of body fat. … in all the clients with stubborn body fat, I haven’t found any ‘trick of the trade’ to be effective to any degree that it was truly noticeable.”
Here’s what actually works.
1. Wait Longer
In many cases, you might only lose 0.5-0.25 pounds of fat per week once you get extremely lean. You might be doing everything right and just have to wait.
“I think there’s nothing special about stubborn fat. The risk of muscle loss increases, but other than that nothing fundamentally changes,” says Menno Henselmans, a researcher, bodybuilder, and bodybuilding coach.
Sometimes, you may also have to increase your calories in the short-term before worrying about getting rid of stubborn fat.
“A minority of the population can experience complete fat loss plateaus, which is almost universally due to a pathology (e.g. hypothyroidism or a neural disorder) or excessive stress. The first usually presents with a weight loss plateau and the latter presents with great weight loss but no more fat loss, i.e. muscle loss. Increasing calories tends to work when stress is too high,” says Henselmans.
If you haven’t lost any weight in 1-2 weeks, move to step two.
2. Weigh Your Food
If you want to get rid of stubborn body fat, you have to be more strict about your diet. In most cases, that means planning your meals and weighing your food. When you reach very low body fat levels, you’re more likely to underestimate your calorie intake.
As lifetime drug-free bodybuilder Alberto Nunez says, a digital scale is “Quite possibly the most important piece of equipment you will require for body recomposition.”
If you aren’t currently weighing your food, start. If you are weighing your food, and you haven’t made progress in 2-3 weeks, move to the next step.
3. Lower Your Calorie Intake
For most people, it’s best to do both. If you’ve been weighing your food and you still haven’t lost weight, drop your calories by 100-200 per day.
4. Do Low-Intensity Cardio
In addition to dropping your calorie intake, increase your daily activity levels.
I generally recommend doing more low-intensity activities like walking, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, easy cycling, and throwing a frisbee. Usually, this is enough to help you burn another 100-200 calories per day. When you combine that with a small drop in your calorie intake, you’ll usually start losing fat again.
If you’re extremely tight on time, it might be worth trying the next option.
5. Do High Intensity Cardio
For the same amount of time, high intensity interval training burns more calories and increases catecholamines more than low intensity exercise.(29)
The downside is that when you’re already very lean, adding 1-2 interval workouts per week can significantly reduce your strength. That’s why I think its best to start with easier activity and then use HIIT, if you feel you must.
In addition, low intensity exercise can burn just as many calories and expose your fat cells to just as many catecholamines, without causing strength or muscle loss. It just takes longer.
If you try interval training, focus on exercises that mainly use concentric muscle contractions. That means cycling, rowing, swimming, and preferably less running. These kinds of workouts tend to interfere less with strength training.(30)
1. Warm up for 5 minutes at half of the bike’s max resistance.
2. After 5 minutes, pedal as fast as you can for 10 seconds.
3. Increase to max resistance and pedal as fast as you can. Continue for 20 seconds.
4. Lower the resistance and return to an easy pace for 90 seconds.
5. Repeat steps 2 to 4 until you hit 15 minutes.
This workout only includes about 90 seconds of maximal cycling. It’s nowhere near some of the crazy HIIT workouts you see online with 45-60 minutes of intervals. The more you do, the greater your risk of losing muscle and strength.
Start with one HIIT workout per week, and do that for two weeks. Then maybe do two per week. Err on the side of less rather than more.
6. Try Caffeine
Most supplements are useless for fat loss, but caffeine is one that might help. Caffeine increases, adrenaline levels, fat burning, blood flow, and metabolic rate, to a moderate degree, which could help get rid of fat.(31-34) But, there’s no evidence that it can help get rid of stubborn fat more than regular body fat.
It’s also cheap, safe, and easily available. Plus it’s a good excuse to drink coffee.
A normal dose is 4-6 mg per kilogram of body weight, or 300-400 mg for a 150 pound person. That’s 2-3 cups of coffee, depending on the type. I recommend taking this 30-60 minutes before your workout, as caffeine can also increase power output and endurance.(35-39)
7. Try Yohimbine HCL
Yohimbine is a chemical extracted from the bark of an African tree. It helps reduce the activity of alpha-2 receptors, which could help mobilize stubborn fat. A few studies have shown that yohimbine causes fat loss, but it’s not clear if it would help get rid of stubborn fat specifically.(40,41)
A normal dose is 0.2 mg per kilogram of bodyweight, or 14 mg for a 150 pound person.
Yohimbine sometimes causes water retention, so it can make you gain weight during the first few weeks you take it. It can also increase anxiety, so don’t take it if you’re dealing with a lot of stress or have an anxiety disorder.(42)
To be honest there’s very little research that yohimbine helps get rid of stubborn fat.
Besides caffeine and yohimbine, there’s not much evidence that *any* other supplements might help you get rid of stubborn body fat.
8. Lower Your Carbohydrate Intake
The downside is that low-carb diets almost always decrease your strength, and usually cause muscle loss when you’re dieting to low body fat levels.
In general, I don’t think this is a great option, which is why I placed it last. The benefits are only theoretical, and most successful bodybuilders who get to the absolute limits of leanness generally eat high carb diets.
Let’s say that you use some or all of these techniques, and you get rid of stubborn fat. What then?
Staying at Essential Levels of Body Fat Isn’t Healthy, Nor Should it be Your Goal
When you reach the limits of leanness, about 4-5% body fat for men and 10-12% body fat for women, your body is fighting back.
Your metabolism drops more than it should based on how much weight you’ve lost.
Your hunger levels are much higher than normal, despite eating at maintenance.
It becomes much harder to gain strength, and almost impossible to build muscle.
Your sex drive becomes almost nonexistent.
And for what? So you can have veins on your pecs and striations on your glutes? So you can see the gaps between your quadriceps muscles, and your forearms look like a map of streams and rivers?
You can still look great while staying at a slightly higher, and healthier, body fat percentage.
Getting to ridiculously low body fat levels is a crazy challenge, but it’s not something you should try to maintain year round. It’s not good for you long-term.
Basically, the only truly well supported methods for getting rid of stubborn body are a calorie deficit, proper macronutrition, strength training, and patience.
Moreover, once you actually reach your goal, it’s not healthy to stay there.
The 7 Most Effective Steps to Getting Rid of Stubborn Body Fat
1. Set a calorie deficit. No matter what other techniques you use, none of them will matter if you aren’t eating fewer calories than you burn.
2. Eat adequate protein. When you get to very low body fat levels, [you should probably eat at the higher range of recommended protein intakes.(45) This reduces your hunger levels, and may help reduce muscle loss.
3. Weigh your food. It’s the only way to make sure you’re eating the right number of calories to lose fat.
4. Lift heavy weights. Strength training is one of the best ways to maintain muscle mass while dieting.
5. Create a meal plan. This makes it much easier to maintain a calorie deficit, hit your macronutrient targets, and stay satisfied throughout the day. You don’t *need* a meal plan, but it can make your life easier.
6. Move more during the day. Go on walks, use a standing desk part of the time, play fetch with your dog — do more of whatever you enjoy.
7. Repeat steps 1-6.
Caffeine and yohimbine might speed up the above process, but they aren’t worth worrying about unless you’re following those seven steps.
I can’t emphasize this enough — if you maintain a calorie deficit and keep lifting weights, you’ll get rid of stubborn fat. There’s little evidence anything else works.
“I’ve tried it all… I’ve done low carb, fasted cardio daily with 3-4x per week doing fasted HIIT, all while using so much yohimbine I’m surprised I was never admitted to the hospital for panic attacks, and it didn’t work any better than simply dieting longer with less uncomfortable methods,” says Helms.
One of the best ways to ruin your progress is to overcomplicate your diet and training. Nothing else matters until you’re covering the basics.
Stubborn Fat Always Goes Away
No matter what you do, some parts of your body will lose fat slower than others.
These patches of stubborn fat are the last to leave, but they will disappear eventually.
If you maintain a calorie deficit, eat enough protein, and lift weights, you can get rid of every patch of stubborn fat on your body.
The important thing is to be patient, and make the above steps into [habits](https://evidencemag.com/good-habits-podcast). Otherwise, you’ll work hard to lose stubborn fat, and then you’ll gain it back when your diet is over.
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