The thigh gap, that space between your upper thighs that appears even when your knees knock together, has become a standard of physical beauty to young girls and teens. A thigh gap isn't attainable by everyone; it takes a genetically slender body type with wide hips and very little body fat.
Unfortunately, you can't spot train away fat on your inner thighs. Certain exercises may help strengthen the muscles of your legs, but they won't get rid of any fat that lies on top of these muscles. And even muscular legs can be thick enough, or your hips narrow enough, that your inner thighs touch. Lose fat from your entire body to get leaner inner thighs, but don't obsess over your thigh gap; instead, focus on getting healthy.
The Reality of Fat Loss
When you work a specific body part, such as your inner thighs, you don't directly affect the fat there. Fat cells contain triglycerides, which muscles can't use for energy. Instead, these triglycerides need to be converted by your body into glycerol and fatty acids. These circulate throughout your body as a source of fuel for your tissues, including your muscles.
Where you burn fat to create energy is out of your control; your body has a set pattern of weight loss that's dictated by your shape and genetics. If you have heavy or thick legs with a slim torso -- a body shape known as a pear -- weight loss may make you into a smaller pear shape, but you won't suddenly morph into a new body shape with stick-thin legs. To lose weight, your best option is to mobilize as much fat as possible through moves that use multiple muscles at once for extended periods of time rather than short sets of exercises that target only one or two muscles at a time.
Research Confirms Targeted Fat Loss is Impossible
In 1971, research on tennis players published in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed no significant difference in the amount of fat between the right and left arm. Given that tennis players have a dominant side that gets notably more work than the other, one arm would be far leaner were spot training possible.
More recent research, published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, revealed similar effects of spot training exercise. Participants who exercised three times a week for 12 weeks with specific emphasis on performing the leg press with only one leg for more than 1,000 repetitions per workout experienced no change in fat storage on that leg. The participants did lose upper body fat, however.
Fat Storage in the Thighs
Female hormones make fat storage more likely to occur in the hips, buttocks and thighs, which provides a physiological advantage during childbirth and breastfeeding. But, it also means this fat is often particularly stubborn to reduce.
You can reduce the appearance and volume of inner thigh fat only when you lose fat all over your body. Creams, massages, vibrating machines, supplements and fitness gadgets won't help. Widening your hips to create the illusion of leaner thighs isn't an option either as your bone structure is determined by your genetics. Your first step in losing fat is to create a calorie deficit by eating less and moving more.
Fat Loss Strategy
Determine how many calories you need daily to maintain your weight by using an online calculator or meeting with a dietitian. Once you know this number, subtract 250 to 500 calories from what you consume daily and add 250 to 500 calories of movement. This results in a 500- to 1,000-calorie deficit daily. Since one pound equals 3,500 calories, you'll set yourself up to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. All of these pounds won't exit your thighs exclusively, but as your whole body shrinks, so will your legs.
A rate faster than 1 to 2 pounds per week isn't recommended as you usually have to resort to unsafe tactics. Fast weight loss often returns just as quickly as it disappeared, and much of it is just water weight, not true fat.
Do not trim calories so much that you end up eating fewer than 1,200 calories per day. Too low of a calorie intake can slow your metabolism, which makes weight loss harder, and create an unsustainable level of deprivation.
Eating to Lose Fat
When you reduce calories, make sure the ones you are still consuming come from quality sources such as vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains. Moderate portion sizes of these healthy foods at meals to fit your goal calorie intake, but don't skip whole foods to fit in servings of sugary treats, soda and refined grains.
A sample day of meals might include whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and an apple at breakfast; a green salad with broiled salmon, lemon juice and olive oil at lunch; and roasted vegetables and chicken breast with wild rice for dinner. Snacks include small servings of nuts, fresh fruit or hummus with cut-up vegetables. Skip the fancy coffee drinks, pizza, chips and ice cream.
A little extra protein at snacks can help curb hunger and support your workout efforts at the gym. Low-fat cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, deli turkey, string cheese and whey protein are also an alternative snack to have between meals.
Cardiovascular Exercise to Slim Your Thighs
A comprehensive approach to physical fitness will do more to help you lose fat and slim your thighs than leg lifts alone. Aim for at least 250 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular work weekly if your goal is weight loss, advises the American College of Sports Medicine. Cardio that works the legs will help tone your adductor, or inner thigh, muscles as well as burn calories to help you lose fat. Try jogging, hiking, inline skating or cross-country skiing. Dance and plyometric boot camp are other options.
Inner Thigh Exercises
Although specific inner thigh exercises won't burn the fat there, they can help build stronger, more shapely legs by developing the inner thigh muscles. Toning your inner thighs also has health benefits; strong thigh muscles help stabilize your knees, which can prevent joint pain as you age.
Wide-legged plie squats, inner thigh leg lifts and ball squeezes target the adductor muscles. Yoga balancing poses as well as mat Pilates exercises such as single leg circles also hone endurance in the inner thigh. Do these along with other leg exercises, such as squats, lunges and step-ups, that target the outer thigh, quadriceps and hamstrings as well as the inner thighs.
Include leg work in a total-body strengthening routine that targets all the major muscle groups at least twice per week. This includes your chest, abdominals, arms, shoulders and back; use weights that make you feel fatigued in eight to 12 repetitions. Begin with just one set of exercises and work your way up to two or three sets. Take at least one day off between strength-training sessions.
Don't worry about a twice-weekly routine bulking up your thighs or any other part of your body. Two, or even three, times per week is just enough to build a healthy amount of muscle mass that boosts your metabolism so weight comes off easier. Significant change in muscle size takes serious training and dietary protocols in addition to superior genetics -- you won't gain a significant amount of muscle on a weight loss diet.
Beware of Body Part Obsession
Becoming obsessed with thin thighs can lead to drastic efforts to lose weight that aren't healthy or productive. For many women, the only way to achieve extremely thin thighs is to become underweight, which isn't a reflection of health. If you're at a healthy weight for your height, embrace the body shape with which you've been born. Train your legs to be shapely and strong for running, dancing, hiking and cycling, not to achieve some runway ideal.
- The Shriver Report: The Weight of the Heart
- Yale Scientific: Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?
- CNN: When You're Losing Weight, Where Does the Fat Go?
- Scientific American: Why Does Fat Deposit on the Hips and Thighs of Women and Around the Stomachs of Men?
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Thickness of Subcutaneous Fat and Activity of Underlying Muscles
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Regional Fat Changes Induced By Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training
- Go Ask Alice: Ideal Caloric Intake
- American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM Position Stand on Physical Activity and Weight Loss