Types of Fat and Your Unique Shape

Types of Fat

We have adipose tissue all over the body. This tissue is made of adipocytes (fat cells) whose sole job is to store energy in the form of fat.

Howebver, body fat distribution differs from person to person. There are generally two types of fat storage:

  • visceral (surrounding internal organs)
  • subcutaneous (beneath the skin - about 80% of all body fat)

When it comes to losing fat - often it does not go according to plan. Despite many claims of spot reduction (i.e. "lose belly fat first") - it rarely happens this way.

From a health perspective, visceral fat is the most dangerous. The good news is that a weight loss program will lead to loss of visecral fat.

Basic Areas

  • Women - generally around the buttocks and thighs (gluteofemoral): "pear-shaped".
  • Men - generally around the abdomen: "apple-shaped".
Note that these are the predominant patterns - but both 'apple' and 'pear' shaped distribution can be found in either gender.

Specific Areas

Knee Fat often builds up on the inside region of the knees in women.
Upper Arm Also common in women, fat build up can occur in the middle to upper area of the upper arm - typically covering the triceps area.
Abdomen Fat buildup around the navel area is common in both men and women. It is also one of the few fat deposits that are also found in slim women.
Inner Thigh Fat storage between the thighs is common in women - but also occurs with men. It is more noticeable in women due to the width of the pelvis that in turn influences the position of the thigh (femur).
Outer Thigh Sometimes called "Riding Breeches" - this area is the most likely place for the pitted or 'quilted' appearance of cellulite. This fat concentration also blends with fat tissue on the inner thigh and the buttocks.
Buttocks Without fat here - sitting would be quite uncomfortable. Fat is held in place by the gluteal fold. If significant fat is lost from the buttock, then only appropriate training can prevent the buttock from sagging down against the thigh.
Lower Back This fat concentration often merges with the buttock area.
Chest Breast tissue comprises the mammary gland (one's 'endowment') surrounded by fat. Men also have atrophied glands and fat in this area. Both sexes gain fat in this area. In men this can sometimes be mistaken for the condition of gynecomastia - a condition that includes not only fat build up, but growth in gland tissue.

Gender and Ethnic Variation

There is considerable research showing that fat distribution varies between gender and ethnic groups. For example men have an overall less body fat percentage than woman and Asian adults are more prone to visceral and central obesity than Europeans. Mediterranean women are prone to fat gain in the outer thighs.

How Body Fat Is Lost

Layer by Layer

Many people compare subcutaneous fat to the layers of an onion.

Rather than disappearing from a particular place, it comes off layer by layer from the whole body.

Moreover, the way fat is shed is different from person to person. It tends to go from the most recent place it appeared. If your tummy started gaining first - this will be the very last place for the fat to disappear from.

This is why, for example, a man may complain of getting too thin in the face - and yet still have a small 'spare tire' around his waist. Or a woman may complain of a smaller bust, and yet the hips may have barely moved in inch.

Excess skin is also an issue after excessive body fat loss. Unfortunately this skin won't just disappear, so many who have lost 100's of pounds may have to resort to surgery. A tummy tuck can be expensive, therefore those that have a lot of weight to lose should start saving from the beginning of the fat loss journey.

Complications of Cellulites

This is further compounded by cellulite. With cellulite tissue, fatty acids are contained in a net of fibrous connective tissue. As fat loss occurs the net becomes compressed - making it difficult for the blood supply to readily remove the fat from these stubborn areas.

Targeting Certain Areas

There are variations between men and women, and with the use of exercise.

  • Obese men tend to lose more visceral (internal) fat while obese women lose more subcutaneous fat.
  • Exercise seems to result in more subcutaneous fat loss. Diet alone results in more visceral fat loss (and less surface fat loss) (reference). This explains how you can lose weight - but not necessarily have any radical change in appearance.

Spot Reduction

Emerging research shows that in some individuals (specifically young normal and overweight males and females), modest reductions in abdominal fat arose from High Intensity exercise.

However results for individuals were varied with some not responding at all.

Another trial of young women showed that High Intensity Intermittent Exercise lead to more loss in leg and trunk fat (when compared with normal steady state exercise).

Exercise should always be a part of any fat loss program - but vigorously exercising a specific body part will not have any influence on local fat in that area.

This myth has been debunked again and again. Neither will high-repetition (e.g. 20-30 reps) weight training lead to greater fat loss.

In fact the loss of intensity may ultimately result in less fat loss than lower-reps with heavier weights. Higher reps are good for muscular endurance.

Everybody is Different

It can be very frustrating but everybody is different. Stay committed to your training and nutrition - and don't be dissuaded by the commercials and images that show perfectly proportioned clones.

Understand how your body works, and set achievable goals accordingly.

See also: Body Shape or Somatype


  • Stallone, D. D., Stunkard, A. J., Wadden, T. A., Foster, G. D., Boorstein, J., & Arger, P. (1991). Weight loss and body fat distribution: a feasibility study using computed tomography. International journal of obesity, 15(11), 775-780. Link
  • van der Kooy, K., Leenen, R., Seidell, J. C., Deurenberg, P., Droop, A., & Bakker, C. J. (1993). Waist-hip ratio is a poor predictor of changes in visceral fat. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 57(3), 327-333. Link
  • Boutcher, S. H. (2010). High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. Journal of obesity, 2011. Link
  • Trapp, E. G., Chisholm, D. J., Freund, J., & Boutcher, S. H. (2008). The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International journal of obesity, 32(4), 684-691. Link
Last Updated 15 January 2015