Understanding the Difficulty Women Have in Losing Lower Body Fat

Photo credit: Millard Baker / Muscletime

Having worked with many different female clients, I can attest to the difficulty of getting their lower body as lean as their upper body. Over the years I have tried many different strategies to get them to lose lower body fat like men. One thing I have learned is that patience and commitment make all the difference. If you have those two with you, science can help with the rest.

Some of the things I we have tried are manipulating the ratio of macronutrients in the diet. At best, a low fat diet works for weight loss in the obese, whereas lowering carbs has a tremendous advantage in women who are relatively lean already (by lean I mean 18% or so). Even so, stubborn lower body fat will still plague the female low-carb dieter. Yohimbine, an alpha-2 antagonist, has also failed to produce the desired results. Think of alpha-2 receptors as a “brake” for fat cells. Women have a greater proportion of alpha-2 receptors on their lower body fat than men. This, in large part, gives rise to the typical gynoid, or “pear shaped”, fat patterning common in women. It was thought that if you could block the brake with yohimbine you could increase lower body fat loss during a diet. In the end, yohimbine has fallen far short of expectations. Even yohimbine creams have not worked.

So why is it that the fat on a woman’s hips and thighs is so slow to respond to tried and true fat loss techniques? Well, research has demonstrated measurable differences in the lower body fat of men women. For ease in reading I’ll put this in bullet point format:

  1. Fat release at rest and before eating (called basal lipolysis) is greater from upper body subcutaneous fat than from lower body fat. This is true for both men and women. Though this does not explain the differences between men and women it does help to know that lower body fat is simply less active.
  2. Beta-agonists (e.g. adrenalin, ephedrine, caffeine) do not increase lower body fat breakdown in women, but they do in men. Ouch! This effect may be due to the prevalence of alpha-2 receptors in women’s lower body fat. Once again, we see that what works for the goose will not always work for the gander.
  3. There is no gender difference in lower body fat breakdown between men and women during exercise.
  4. Estrogen plays a significant role in protecting and ensuring the accumulation of lower body fat in women.

I have tried to use this information with my clients to help them as best I can to get rid of stubborn lower body fat. For example, using ephedrine and caffeine will not necessarily get rid of lower body fat faster than without it. However, insulin seems to make alpha-2 receptors more sensitive so lowering carbs in a strategic fashion can greatly improve results in the lower body. Birth control pills may also be a factor due to their estrogen content. If a female client is trying to get ready for a show and is using birth control pills, I may suggest she use an alternate form of birth control until after the show. This of course is said only by way of suggestion.

In the end, what ultimately must happen, is that the upper body fat stores must be depleted before the lower body really becomes active. Unfortunately, most women compete just as there upper bodies are ripped but their lower bodies have only begun to lean up. If they would go on an additional 6 weeks, their lower bodies would be ready.

Also, beware of trainers/coaches who have only trained men. There are a lot of things they may not know about or take into consideration when training a women. Some of these things could really make a difference in a woman’s success at getting the body she wants.

There are a few other tricks of the trade, but if I told you all of them nobody would need me anymore…can’t have that now can we.

Selected references:

1. Jensen MD. Lipolysis: contribution from regional fat. Annu Rev Nutr. 1997;17:127-39

2. Elbers JM, de Jong S, Teerlink T, Asscheman H, Seidell JC, Gooren LJ. Changes in fat cell size and in vitro lipolytic activity of abdominal and gluteal adipocytes after a one-year cross-sex hormone administration in transsexuals. Metabolism. 1999 Nov;48(11):1371-7.

 

About Bryan Haycock

Bryan Haycock+ is an exercise physiologist and NPC judge. Bryan has been bodybuilding for over 20 years and holds certifications with the NSCA, ACE, and is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. Bryan is currently the Editor in Chief of ThinkMuscle.com and is the founder and CEO of LifeStyleMgmt.com. Bryan is a highly sought after authority on the physiology of muscle growth and fat loss. Bryan also specializes in the management of type-II diabetes through diet and exercise.