Love handles, also referred to as “muffin tops,” occur when excess fat stores on the lower abdomen and hip region. These pockets of fat sit around our torsos, and are notoriously hard to shed. While it’s important to love our bodies the way they are, love handles are one stubborn part of the body that many folks could live without.
Love handles, like many target zones, are tough to treat by themselves, Aaptiv trainer Jaime McFaden says. “Simply put, [love handles] are just one area that the body likes to store fat. Hormone imbalances, inactivity and eating high-fatty foods can make this area more susceptible to excess fat retention.”
(McFaden points out that women tend to store more fat in this area than men because of hormonal and biological differences.) Check out how Aaptiv can help you achieve your fitness goals by downloading the app today!
Love handles lie on top of the obliques, which are a specific group of abdominal muscles that can be challenging to target as-is. So how can you reduce love handles and trim midsection fat? Here, experts share their advice.
Best exercises for love handles
While it would be convenient if there was one exercise that blasts love handles, McFaden says a full-body workout is what works. She says our bodies are like machines, and we need all parts in working order — not just one.
“Doing 10,000 crunches a day will certainly not get you the six-pack you were looking for,” she explains. “Instead of trying to target this area by itself, you must have a program that includes cardio, strength training and core training.”
The reason why an ab workout alone won’t banish love handles is because it takes more than one exercise to trim fat and reduce weight around the midsection. We know that spot training doesn’t work.
So what are the best exercises? McFaden says her go-to moves for targeting the lower abdomen and hip area are planks — specifically side planks — bridge lifts, mountain climbers and Russian twists.
According to certified CrossFit coach Jocelyn Eakins, these core exercises can be done every day. She says ab work is done in quick sets, with ideally no break. “Core work should be done with a variety of different exercises, generally speaking,” she says. “Machines that target ‘abs’ should not be used, and bodyweight ab exercises are the most beneficial.”
When it comes to planks, there are two common types: forearm planks and planks done on your palms. When holding any variation of a plank, it’s important to keep your elbows in line with your shoulders, and embrace your core. For correct form, make sure your bottom isn’t sticking up in the air or sinking down towards the ground. Your body should be in a horizontal line.
Eakins says hold your plank for 20 seconds on, then have 10 seconds of rest. Aim for eight to 10 rounds. “Once you feel accomplished with that, try adding a plated weight onto your back,” she adds.
For side planks, turn to one side and hold your body on your palms or forearms. Balance is key here, so hold tight by embracing your core and forming a straight diagonal line. Hold for 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, for eight to 10 rounds.
Bridge lifts target not only love handles, but also glutes. Lying on your back, put your feet on the ground, bending knees in a 90 degree angle. Lift your hips off the ground, holding them in the air while arms lay flat on the ground beside you. Hold for a few seconds, then lower with control.
Eakins says to aim for three sets of 10 reps. When you progress, she suggests using a heavy barbell on your hip crease for an extra challenge.
Mountain climbers are a great cardio blast. In a classic plank position with shoulders in line with palms, lift one foot off the ground and pull the knee towards the same side’s elbow. Then switch sides, pulling opposite knee into its same side’s elbow.
“Make sure to feel as if you’re squeezing your knee to your elbow on the same side as best as possible,” Eakins says. “Work on engaging your core, with your shoulders back and hands firmly planted below them.”
Eakins says to aim for 50 reps per set.
Lastly, Russian twists are great because they really target the obliques. Sitting on your seat with feet in a 90 degree angle on the ground in front of you, grab a weight (like a medicine ball or weighted plate) in both hands. Holding the weight in front of you, twist your torso from side to side. Aim for 15-25 reps per side per set.
“Make sure your shoulders are pulled back, and core is engaged,” Eakins says. “Squeeze your glutes in and don’t hunch over.”
On top of working the midsection, other benefits of ab workouts include helping with posture, strengthening the core, and aiding with digestion.
Diet plays a role
While time in the gym is important, it’s also equally important to be mindful of what we eat. McFaden says that if you’re trying to trim love handles, sugar has got to go. “Many of us are sugarholics and don’t even realize how much sugar we are consuming,” she states. “Sugar will mess with insulin levels, raising cortisol, and therefore storing fat.”
It’s important to note that there’s different types of sugar. Refined sugar, like the stuff found in candy bars, offers little nutritional benefit, and spikes blood sugar. This differs from the natural sugar found in an apple, for example, as fruit has fiber, vitamins and minerals. Fruit sugar also breaks down in the body a lot slower, meaning it won’t cause sugar crashes the same way a bag of candy will.
Bottom line, fruit sugar is better for your diet than refined sugar, but it should be eaten in moderation, too.
McFaden says that unhealthy high-fatty foods and empty carbs are also best to avoid. Even if you think you’re eating something healthy, McFaden says you need to do your homework and ensure you’re eating minimally processed foods.
“Just because a [food] package says it is healthy does not mean it is,” she explains. “You have to be mindful of the things you are putting in your body day-in and day-out.”
Check your lifestyle habits
Aside from diet, McFaden says there’s other lifestyle factors that play a role in targeting love handles. One of the most important things for overall health is sleep.
“Our body needs rest, and if we don’t get it, our body will be out of whack,” she says. “Like a car running with no gas, [our bodies] eventually will fail out.”
A study on sleep and obesity out of the University of Chicago and the University of Turin, Italy, found that a lack of sleep is linked to weight gain and an increased risk of obesity. This means a lack of rest may be sabotaging your workout efforts, or preventing you from reaching your wellness goals. (There’s certain exercises that promote quality sleep and lifestyle tips that help you fall asleep faster.)
“Our body works hard for us everyday to function, and if we start eating better foods, drinking more water, exercising and stressing less, not only will things like love handles go away, but we will have a better life overall,” she says.
McFaden says learning to appreciate and accept our bodies is also important. Genetics plays a role in our shape, and everyone is built differently. While there’s nothing wrong with setting health and fitness goals, body positivity is key. “Learning to love ourselves is first,” she states. “Love handles and all.”