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Fat Burning Secrets for Women

Note From Brian: Kelli Calabrese is an incredible resource for many topics on fitness and I am delighted to share her knowledge with you. Kelli's contributions to the fitness industry are far too numerous to fully mention, some include: Personal Trainer of the Year, Editor of Personal Fitness Professional, Author, Industry Presenter, & Lead Fitness Expert for and In short, she's a must have resource.

By Kelli Calabrese MS, CSCS

It’s not in your mind, ladies - men and women do not live in an equal world when it comes to body fat. Men, with their taller bodies and larger muscles and bones, lay claim to a faster metabolism. At puberty, girls put on fat and boys put on muscle. From fertilization to breastfeeding, women have and need more fat than men. As you read on, keep in mind that although the odds may appear to be stacked against us, we can overcome stubborn fat and make improvements to our shapes and health. First a brief explanation of the fat burning challenges women face, and then the secrets to overcoming them.

Body Fat Distribution

Women bear almost double the amount of body fat as men, primarily to help them carry and nourish babies. Fat is the major energy source needed for fetal development and protection. We have no control over where the fat cells decide to swell and shrink.

The fat cells in the lower body, where women tend to put on inches, are more prone to fat storage. The fat cells in the upper body, where men tend to carry extra weight, are more prone to releasing fat. Women who have dieted will notice that as they lose weight, body fat starts melting away from the upper body first, followed by the persevering lower body fat.


Yet the reverse is true when gaining weight. The fat cells in the hips, thighs, butt and abs will enlarge first. Woman who have yoyo dieted for years have an upper body that is disproportionately smaller than her lower body.


During pregnancy and the menstrual cycle, hormones encourage water retention in the fat cells. The excess fluid slows down circulation and makes it even more difficult to mobilize fat.

The progesterone in women’s bodies affects appetite and mood. It causes hunger during the second half of your menstrual cycle and is responsible for the ravenous appetite experienced during pregnancy. Progesterone also causes sluggishness and sleepiness making one less inclined to exercise. Women who take birth control pills gain on average 3 – 5 pounds as a side effect.


During peri-menopause (the 10 years prior to menopause), women begin producing less estrogen, which is a protective hormone. We also begin to sleep less and our appetite becomes stimulated. As peri-menopause begins, fat tends to accumulate around the waist and chest, increasing our risk of heart disease.


During peri-menopause (the 10 years prior to menopause), women begin producing less estrogen, which is a protective hormone. We also begin to sleep less and our appetite becomes stimulated. As peri-menopause begins, fat tends to accumulate around the waist and chest, increasing our risk of heart disease.


Beginning in the mid-20s, women lose an average of about 7 pounds of muscle mass each decade (compared to 5 pounds for men). To make matters worse, non-exercising women typically gain 1 -2 pounds of fat a year - for life. And the fat gain number can be much higher depending on lifestyle choices.

So, by your mid-40s, you have probably lost close to 15 pounds of metabolically active muscle and replaced it with over 20 pounds of lethargic fat – and that’s conservative! Your metabolism has dramatically slowed and your body composition has changed in unfavorable proportions.

To make matter worse, if you have dieted (I imagine you’ve attempted one or two), you have accelerated the muscle loss process. Dieting without exercise can lead to 25% to 28% muscle loss.

Aging also makes excess fat harder to hide. As skin begins to lose its elasticity and sag, it has a harder time containing fat cells, giving the skin a rippled appearance often referred to as cellulite.

Why Men Have It Easier

Testosterone stimulates bone and muscle growth. Men don’t lose testosterone as fast as we lose estrogen. Men have more muscle, more bone minerals, and tend to eat about 35% more calories than women. Men also respond faster to exercise training.

Although men don’t generally live as long as women, they start and end with more bone, more muscle and more testosterone compared to women. By the time a woman is 60 years old, she probably has 20 to 30 pounds of muscle on her frame – IF she’s not exercising.

Women also face many social and emotional challenges, which can lead them to become a slave to the scale, avoid exercise for fear of bulking up and fall for spot reduction and quick fix solutions, all of which only compound the problem, These fears, misconceptions and bugaboos, which hold so many women hostage, could easily fill a book, but let’s skip over all that and talk about solutions that DO work.

Now that you understand the special physiological challenges women face, let’s talk about how to overcome them to attain the strong, trim, fit body you really want.

Exercise is the key to fat burning. If you do one thing, incorporate 2 – 3 strength and cardio workouts into your weekly routine using the following 10 tips. The results are guaranteed!

Here are my top 10 fat-burning secrets for women.

1. Warm up before a strength training session – Warming up increases blood flow to muscles by about 55%, giving you better muscle contraction. You’ll sweat earlier, which helps to regulate your body temperature. It also jump starts the neuromuscular connection which initiates the release of carbohydrate and fat enzymes and hormones while reducing your perceived exertion during strength training. Just 5 minutes of walking or cycling will meet this requirement.

2. Vary your cardio exercises – Alternate between two or more cardiovascular activities like walking and cycling or kickboxing and step aerobics, like you would during a fitness boot camp program. This will help to optimally develop your cardiovascular fitness, maintain the element of fun in exercise, help you avoid over-training, as well as injury. Bottom line, you will expend more calories.

3. Incorporate several cardio techniques – Use a combination of continuous, interval, circuit and Fartlek (speed play) training. Changing techniques forces your body to adapt and become more efficient. Vary the intensity and modify impact styles. For example, if you have been walking the same path at the same pace every day, begin to incorporate bursts of acceleration intermittently. The underlying principle is that change is what keeps the body progressing, making improvements and burning fat.

4. Plan your workouts in Phases – Organize your workouts into a cyclic structure. For example, for two to three weeks, exercise at a lower intensity for 45 to 60 minutes, and then, for the next two to three weeks, do 20 to 30 minutes at your highest intensity. The following 2 to 3 weeks go at a moderate intensity for 30 to 45 minutes. This system allows you to maintain a high level of fitness and not over-train. This cycling of workout structures will help your body become more efficient at fat burning.

5. Circuit Train – Perform several strengthening exercises interspersed with a short cardio segments - just like a fitness boot camp routine. For example perform a leg press, lateral pull down and abdominal crunch followed by 3 minutes of cycling. Then repeat another 3 strength exercises followed by 3 minutes of walking. Circuit training has a lower dropout rate, is an efficient calorie burner, increases muscular strength and decreases body fat.

6. Strength Train with Multi Joint exercises – Choose exercises that work compound muscle groups – meaning more than one muscle group at a time. This will give you the most mileage per exercise. Examples include squats, lunges, and push ups. For every pound of muscle on your body you need 35 to 50 calories per day to sustain it, while every pound of fat on your body requires only a modest 2 calories per day.

7. Exercise first thing in the morning – Morning exercisers have a higher likelihood of showing up. Later in the day, the odds that you’ll skip your workout increase as interruptions arise and fatigue sets in. Morning exercise also helps regulate your hormone response, telling your body to release fat and jump start your metabolism.

8. Eat a “primer” meal prior to working out – Having a small balanced meal prior to exercise will help you burn fat. After you eat, your blood sugar rises and exercise acts like insulin to help regulate blood glucose. Eating will also give you the energy for a more intense workout – you will therefore burn more calories.

9. Eat 5 to 6 small meals a day – Food has a thermic effect, meaning it takes energy (calories) for your body to digest the food you eat. Eating several times throughout the day increases the thermic effect, so you burn more calories. Eating more often also keeps you from feeling like you are being deprived of food and prevents hunger from setting in, which can cause you to binge eat.

10. Train with intensity – To get the full benefits of exercise, you must graduate from the “pink weights” and moderate walking. Do not be afraid to increase your resistance and challenge your muscles and cardiovascular system. In order to change, you have to push your physical limits beyond what you are accustomed to.

I am going to leave you with a bonus secret regarding hydration. In order for fat to be metabolized, it must first be released from the fat cell and then be transported by the bloodstream where it is shunted to the liver and other active tissues to be used as fuel. If you are in a dehydrated state, the liver has to come to the aid of the kidneys and can’t focus on it’s role of releasing fat.

To sum things up, you really can attain a feminine, firm, fit and younger appearance regardless of your age or inherited traits. You can overcome any weaknesses and trouble spots to a certain degree with balanced and symmetrical strength, cardiovascular and flexibility training, combined with making nutritious food choices.

Focus on being the best you can be. A lean and healthy body is both realistic and achievable.


Kelli Calabrese, MS, CSCS - 2004 Personal Trainer of the Year for Online Trainer. She is a 20 year fitness industry leader, author, trainer, and international presenter. Kelli is on the Board of Directors for the American Association of Personal Trainers, An Expert Fellow for the National Board of Fitness Examiners, the Lead Exercise Physiologist for NESTA (National Endurance Sports Trainers Association) and has attained over 20 fitness and nutrition certifications. Kelli is the author of Feminine, Firm and Fit and is available for fitness consulting. She can be reached at For more details go to