Stems. Gams. Stumps. Whatever you call them, the legs are where a lot of people tend to store extra padding. And while it's not possible to target weight loss to just one area of the body, there are diet and exercise tweaks you can make to help slim down your legs fast.
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Here, learn why some people seem to store fat in specific areas of the body, why targeted spot-reduction workouts aren't effective and the best diet and exercise plans for slimmer legs and total body wellness.
Why Some People Store More Fat in the Legs
Just like blue eyes and wavy hair are inherited, body types are also passed down from your parents.
"People genetically have different body types — and we cannot change that," Hannah Davis, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Body by Hannah, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
At the genetic level, you may be more prone to gaining fat in one area of the body. "For example, a pear-shape body type will generally gain weight in the legs first and the midsection last," Davis says.
And your sex also plays a role. "Upper body fat is more common in men than it is in women, whereas women tend to hold fat in their hips, thighs, buttocks, lower abdominal area and the back of the upper arms," Jonathan Valdez, RDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Why Targeted Exercises Are a Losing Battle
Try as you might, doing hundreds of leg lifts isn't going to help you quickly slim down your legs in the way you might imagine.
"Spot reduction is the idea that you can target a specific area in your body to lose fat, but unfortunately, most research has proven this not to be true," says dietitian Nicole Hinckley, RD. "When you lose fat, triglycerides are broken down into free fatty acids and glycerol, and these components can come from anywhere in the body and then enter the bloodstream to be used as fuel."
In other words, leg exercises don't really cause you to lose fat from your legs.
Case in point: In an August 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers had people intensely exercise their non-dominant leg three times per week. After 12 weeks, no notable fat changes occurred in either leg, but some fat loss was reported in the upper body.
Working out your lower body is a great idea for building muscle and improving your endurance, but focusing only on exercises that target your legs isn't the best idea. "The best program for weight loss and toning is a balanced, full-body strength-training program with moderate cardio to burn calories and build muscle throughout the entire body," Davis says.
Tone and Slim Down Your Legs With Full-Body Workouts
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend working out at a moderate intensity (think: jogging or brisk walking) for 150 minutes a week, which breaks down easily to 30 minutes a day, five times a week.
You can shorten this to 75 minutes a week if you hit the gym a little harder and exercise more vigorously, but don't overdo it if you're relatively new to working out.
Jogging, cycling and hiking are great physical activities that won't directly burn leg fat but will burn calories and contribute to greater leg strength and muscle tone.
Be sure to strength-train to build lean muscle and support fat loss, too. Davis suggests moves like front squats, deadlifts and reverse lunges for her clients who are looking for leg-specific exercises. "These will build muscle in every part of the lower body," she explains.
Per Harvard Health Publishing, strength training helps you maintain and even increase muscle mass, which is typically lost as we age. Replacing fat with muscle means your body will naturally burn more calories.
And remember, you don't even need a real gym to focus on leg exercises. The Mayo Clinic reminds folks that a simple set of stairs can help sculpt and strengthen your legs.
Looking for a Beginner-Friendly Full-Body Routine?
Check out two workouts that target every major muscle group. Bonus: You can do them in your living room.
Cut Calories Safely for Weight Loss
"Eat less, move more" is the age-old adage for weight loss, but doing it safely is paramount. Trying to lose weight too quickly by resorting to extreme dieting isn't smart.
According to the Mayo Clinic, your best weight-loss goal is a pound or two per week. One pound is equal to about 3,500 calories, Hinckley notes, so aim to subtract 500 calories per day from your diet to lose a pound per week.
"A safe and effective calorie deficit will usually consist of a reduction in dietary calories along with an increase in the number of calories burned via exercise," Valdez says.
Studies have shown that a high-protein, low-fat and high-fiber diet may be most effective in weight loss and maintenance, he adds.
As for specific ways to eat and which foods to focus on for weight loss, Hinckley recommends eating every three to four hours and pairing a complex carbohydrate with a lean protein and healthy fat. "Make sure you get enough protein to help maintain muscle mass and add in veggies whenever you can," she adds.
According to a meta-analysis published December 2019 in Advances in Nutrition, those who are strength training or cutting calories for weight loss should aim to get 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Keep in mind that a kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. So, for example, a 200-pound person who is trying to lose weight should aim to eat about 118 grams of protein a day. (To put that into perspective, a 4-ounce serving of chicken breast has about 27 grams of protein, per the USDA.)
Ready to Lose Weight?
Set yourself up for success with LIVESTRONG.com's Weight-Loss Kickstart program.
Try Not to Rush the Process
Your #goal for slim legs may feel super important, especially if you're planning a cruise or beach vacation in the near future. But keep in mind that the thighs, hips and buttocks can be stubborn places of fat storage.
Losing weight too quickly can backfire, and overtraining may lead to injury. So take it slow: Stick to a manageable calorie deficit and ease into a fitness routine that works for you, and you will see results.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Regional Fat Changes Induced By Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why do doctors recommend a slow rate of weight loss? What's wrong with fast weight loss?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Add strength training to your fitness plan"
- Mayo Clinic: "Step it up: 7 quick stair exercises to do at home"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Chicken Breast"
- American Council on Exercise: Summer Boot Camp: Legs Workout