Love handles are especially stubborn and do not respond as quickly to diet and exercise
There is no such thing as "spot reducing" when it comes to fat loss
If you ask almost any fitness professional how to lose your love handles, they will tell you two things: No amount of abdominal crunches will make a difference if you don’t first improve your diet and exercise regimen.
And there is no such thing as “spot reducing” when it comes to fat loss, so you can’t target this area alone.
Love handles, the pinchable fat on both sides of your stomach that leads to a “muffin top” appearance, are especially stubborn. They do not respond as quickly to diet and exercise changes as the more dangerous visceral fat that is deep within your abdomen and leads to more of a “potbelly” appearance.
If you are a woman and your waist is larger than 35 inches around or a man with a waist size greater than 40 inches, you will lose the deep belly fat first. This is actually better for your health, as visceral fat has been linked to numerous medical issues, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes and inflammation.
To lose the subcutaneous fat that forms not-so-lovable love handles (or excess fat on your hips, thighs and buttocks), it’s going to take even more time and effort.
What is the best diet for losing your love handles? The one you can stick with long-term, as it’s not going to be quick or easy for most people. This is especially true for men, as this is often the last place on their body where they lose weight.
In terms of specific exercise recommendations, three top trainers shared the advice they give their A-list clients.
Gunnar Peterson, who trains Hollywood actors and professional athletes including the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, advocates a comprehensive lifestyle approach that includes clean eating, adequate sleep, stress management, plenty of hydration, and sprint work mixed with steady-state cardio on alternate days to optimize fat burning.
Sprint work, also known as high-intensity interval training, involves alternating periods of maximum effort with periods of recovery (not be confused with rest). The duration of sprints can increase and recovery periods can decrease as your fitness levels improve. Steady-state cardio involves working out at approximately 65% to 85% of your maximum heart rate for at least 30 minutes.
One exercise Peterson does not recommend for reducing love handles is side bends with heavy weights. This type of exercise can actually exacerbate the appearance of love handles by increasing the size of the underlying external oblique muscles. Instead, he recommends working all of the abdominal muscles, not just the obliques, in multiple planes of motion. Exercises that reach those areas include wood chops, medicine ball rotations, medicine ball slams (at a variety of angles) and banded overhead extensions side to side and back to front.
Ami Jampolis, a top San Francisco Bay Area trainer (and, full disclosure, my sister), recommends high-intensity circuit training several times a week to build or maintain calorie-burning muscle, along with several days of steady-state cardiovascular training.
High-intensity circuit training involves alternating strength training exercises (such as a pushup) and short bouts of cardiovascular exercises (such as jumping jacks), with minimal rest in between. This type of training is gaining popularity for its fast pace and time efficiency and can be done at home or at a gym that specializes in this type of training.
For homing in on the oblique muscles, Jampolis agrees with Peterson about avoiding side bends with weights. Instead, she suggests two very simple yet effective exercises that don’t seem to have the bulking effect on the oblique abdominal muscles: side planks and bicycles. Both can be done anywhere and don’t require any equipment.
Celebrity trainer and nutritionist Harley Pasternak takes an even simpler approach to losing your love handles. In addition to cleaning up their diets, he gives all his clients fitness trackers to ensure that they meet his required 12,000 steps per day and seven hours of sleep per night. He finds that higher-intensity training can often increase appetite, making it harder to stick to a diet, so he prefers simply walking, along with regular strength training that includes working each major body part at least once per week.
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Although their approaches may vary, professionals agree with the popular saying “abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.” If you really want to lose your love handles, start by finding a diet plan that works for you and that you can stick with long-term, and then build in an exercise program that works with your current fitness level, exercise preference, budget and schedule.
How to do a side plank: Lying on your side, lift your body onto your forearm, keeping hips, feet and shoulders stacked over one another. Aim to hold this position for as long as possible, increasing the time as you get stronger. Make sure not to collapse into your upper back. If your balance is a little off, you can place one foot in front of the other for more stability. Switch sides and repeat three times. As you advance, you can drop your hips to the floor and then bring them back up to the side plank position 15 to 20 times and repeat three sets per side.
How to do bicycles: Lie on your back with both knees bent at a 90-degree angle and place your hands behind your head. Fully extend one leg out about 6 inches above the ground, bringing your opposite elbow to the opposite knee. With control, bring the extended leg in and extend the other leg out, simultaneously bringing the other elbow to the opposite knee. Make sure to twist from your stomach and not your neck. Control is key on this exercise; speed is not your friend. Aim for switching every two seconds. Aim for three sets of 60 (30 per leg).
Dr. Melina Jampolis is an internist and board-certified physician nutrition specialist and author of several books, including “Spice Up, Slim Down.”