Battle of the bulgy bits
Want to reduce a paunch, or lose your 'bingo wings'? The good news is that you can target your least favourite areas. Dan Roberts explains
Be honest: how many bits of your body do you secretly wish could be magically toned up, slimmed down or otherwise zapped into shape? We all have less-than-appealing body parts, which seem to resist even the most rigorous exercise regimes or draconian of diets. And although there is some cross-over, these differ for men and women because fat is deposited in different areas.
The male form tends to accrue fat primarily on the belly, especially if we're fond of the odd pint of two. A saggy chest, more commonly known as moobs, is also a problem for middle-aged men as time and gravity exert their inexorable pull. Wobbly upper arms - aka bingo wings - are the bane of many women, as are breasts that are unsatisfactory in some way, a squidgy bottom, belly, hips and thighs.
First, the bad news. Although it is possible to "spot-reduce" fat in specific areas, this requires a great deal of technical knowledge and dietary sophistication. So to reduce fat on the belly, say, you need to reduce overall body fat (and despite the myth, crunches have zero impact on belly fat). Next, the good. There is plenty you can do for those troublesome body parts, combining effective exercises and muscle-targeting sports with the latest dietary advice to whip them into shape.
Because male bodies have more muscle mass than female ones, particularly in the arms and torso, the triceps are generally less problematic for men. But for women the upper arms often need some work. Osteopath and sports injury specialist Richard Emmerson recommends press-ups - lots of them. "The key with press-ups is variety," Emmerson says, "using different positions, not just narrow, medium or wide-hand placement. Also think about side-to-side and rotary movements of your body when going up and down. It's important to mix it up because your body quickly adjusts to any exercise."
And, depending on your fitness level, Emmerson says the military crawl - using only your hands and feet - is one of the most effective exercises. "Crawling is fantastic, because you're combining movement with pushing against gravity. And it's a brilliant way to work the triceps, biceps, pectorals, shoulders, abdominals and core."
For the gym-phobic, racket sports are a great way to tone and strengthen upper arms. Climbing, either rock or indoor, is also excellent, as are boxing and martial arts. But (as with all of the exercises/activities suggested here) do take care if you have a history of back or other injuries.
Whether you're a man fretting about your moobs, or a woman dreaming of pert breasts, the cures are essentially the same. Although specific exercises do target this area, first concentrate on your posture.
"If a woman has heavy breasts, that weight is pulling down constantly, so she needs to work the posterior chain muscles like the back and deltoids. That will give her a boob lift," personal trainer Carl Ellis says.
Whether male or female, if you have rounded shoulders, excess skin and flesh will hang down in the chest area, so opening up the chest and lifting the shoulders up and back will help enormously. And gym-going men tend to lift weights that are too heavy, especially when they're bench-pressing, which can give you short, contracted pecs. This still gives you moobs, albeit muscly ones.
Instead, use a lighter weight and make sure you have a full range of motion. Far more effective than a humongous weight, Ellis says, is working muscles to failure. This is an extremely effective way to work muscles because they don't have time to recover properly between sets. Working at this intensity also raises your resting metabolic rate, or RMR, so continues burning calories after your workout. "Instead of the standard routine of 10 reps, rest and another 10 reps, try a quick circuit of two exercises. For pecs, try alternating press-ups with bench press, doing 21 reps on each exercise, then a quick rest, 15 reps, rest and then nine reps."
There's no point having a six-pack if it's hidden beneath rolls of fat. So if you're squidgy of belly, your first step should be reducing all-over body fat. And the best way to do that, says celebrity trainer Greg Brookes, is by eating like our hunter-gathering ancestors. His new Evolution Diet eschews modern foods, particularly the high-salt, high-fat processed varieties, in favour of fresh, seasonal fruit, veg and proteins. "These are the foods we evolved to eat. Our bodies are not designed to process dairy or wheat, for example, which is why they cause bloating and intestinal issues. So the best route to weight loss is getting back to basics, with lots of fruit and veg, plus good-quality, organic meats."
The belly is a dump site for fat, he says. "Beware of stress, too. High levels of the 'stress hormone' cortisol increase blood sugar. Your body lowers blood sugar by dumping it in the easiest areas, like the stomach."
The same rules apply to the hips, another fat-dump site for women. Your ability to fat-reduce in this area partly depends on your body type. Pear-shaped women often struggle to reduce fat in their hips and bottom, because that's the last area to shrink when all-over body fat reduces.
A quick word about abdominal exercises: beware of overworking the abs by targeting them every time you hit the gym. This can be counter-productive. And many of the most common ab exercises can potentially damage the back, so never do old-fashioned sit-ups, for example, and treat crunches with caution. Pilates and
yoga are both superb for stomach-flattening, as are exercises such as the plank: lie face-down on a mat, then lift up on to your forearms and toes, keeping your back straight (it's important not to let your belly sag). Tilt your pelvis and contract your abdominals, hold for up to 60 seconds, lower and repeat for 3-5 reps. This also targets your core (the spine-supporting muscles in your abdominal region and back).
Or the bridge: lying flat on your back, raising your hips to rest on your feet, shoulders and forearms while clenching your buttocks and drawing your belly button towards the spine.
Although, as with the hips and belly, a firmer bottom requires overall fat reduction, there's plenty you can do to improve muscle tone. And building both strength and fast-twitch muscle fibre has the added benefit of improving your performance in various athletic disciplines, from sprinting to sports that require "explosive" speed and movements. The holy grail of a better bottom is working your glutes (the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus, which make up the buttocks).
"Squats are an excellent way to target the glutes," Richard Emmerson says. "Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, knees in line with your second toe and make sure your knees don't splay out or collapse inwards, as you might injure the knee joint. Keep your spine fairly neutral and imagine trying to push something away with your bottom as you squat down."
You need only your body weight for squats, especially while building strength in the glutes and quadriceps (front of thigh). For a more advanced exercise, try one-legged squats, because the muscles around the bottom have to work twice as hard to stabilise the trunk. Also perform explosive, high-intensity movements such as squat thrusts, burpees or tuck jumps, which help to build fast-twitch muscle fibre.
Or find some steps. "Step sprints are a great way of increasing intensity and really working the legs and glutes," Carl Ellis says. "Simply sprint up a flight of steps two at a time and walk down. Repeat until you reach around 80 per cent of failure, rest for 30-60 seconds and repeat for between three and six sets. If you're feeling brave, add squats between sets."
Another fat-storage site, especially for women. Also beware over-training the thighs - tight, over-developed quads are a common cause of back trouble. That said, if you want firmer thighs, cycling is hard to beat. "On an exercise bike try interval training, using a high gradient for a minute, then a lower setting to rest, then high again. That mimics cycling over hilly terrain," Ellis says.
Running is also great for the thighs (up and down real hills, if possible), because your hamstrings and glutes take the strain going uphill, with the quads working hard to slow your progress on the way down. And pretty much any sport that involves explosive, multi-dimensional movement such as netball, volleyball, racket sports, football, hockey or rugby, will work the quads - as well as the calves, hamstrings and glutes.
Richard Emmerson: 07886 846 289; www.pure-dynamic-osteopathy.co.uk. Carl Ellis: 07739 738 059; www.carlellisfitness.co.uk. Greg Brookes: 020 7485 2033; www.gbpersonaltraining.com.
To lose fat in one area, such as the belly, you need to reduce overall body fat
Try boxing - pad or bag work - to build strong, lean upper arms
For an instant boob lift, correct your posture - stand up straight with your shoulders back
Never do old-fashioned sit-ups for your abs; they can damage your back
Use squats and lunges to strengthen and firm up the glutes (buttocks)
For strong, lean thighs, try interval training on an exercise bike (one minute hard, two minutes easy, repeat)
Independent News Service