Strength Exercise Program To Fight Cellulite


fight cellulite with strength training

Let’s look at a few examples of changes that we can reverse and changes that we can only cover up.  Concerning the pervasive problem of cellulite, which affects millions of women after the teen years, aging-related changes in the collagen proteins, connective tissue and skin are very difficult to prevent or resolve.

Yes, there are any number of pills, potions, creams, wraps and assorted devices for erasing the wrinkles and leveling the lumps. And yes, they all provide some temporary improvement in terms of a smoother skin appearance.  However, they have no permanent effect, and they do not even address the major problems that are largely responsible for the unattractive hips and thighs.

What Is Causing Your Cellulite?

There are essentially two equally troublesome factors that cause the so-called cellulite look of large hips and thighs with cottage-cheese contours. These are simply too little muscle and too much fat. As shown in the illustration, every decade of adult life the average American woman loses about five pounds of muscle, and adds approximately 15 pounds of fat.

The muscle loss results from lack of use against sufficient resistance, which is the only way to prevent atrophy in this type of tissue. Walking, jogging, stepping, and other aerobic activities promote cardiovascular fitness, but they cannot maintain your muscle mass. Even worse, the muscle loss results in a lower resting metabolism that is the underlying cause of the fat gain.

Here Is How It Works

Over a 10-year period you lose five pounds of muscle, which results in a five percent reduction in your resting metabolic rate. You have gone from an eight-cylinder engine to a six-cylinder engine and you don’t burn as much gas. That is, some of the calories that were previously used to maintain your muscle tissue now go into fat storage and you experience creeping fat accumulation.

Where do you lose muscle? – Where you don’t use it, right! Yes. For those women who sit most of the day, much of their muscle loss is from the chair-supported hip and thigh muscles. Less muscle in this region means a thinner and softer foundation under the overlying fat layer.

Where do you add fat? – Where you have fat cells, right!  Yes, and most women store most of their fat in the hip and thigh area, giving them the standard female pear shape rather than the typical male apple shape.

So what do we have? – Too little muscle providing too little support for too much fat.  This, not the connective tissue changes, represents the real health, fitness and appearance problems associated with cellulite.

Good news! – These are changeable conditions that can be remedied safely, effectively and efficiently through brief exercise sessions and basic dietary adjustments.

Exercise Program Results

Here are the results for 79 women of all ages who performed three 40-minute exercise sessions a week for just eight weeks.

Those who did 20 minutes of specific strength training and 20 minutes of general endurance exercise replaced 1.7 pounds of muscle and reduced 3.2 pounds of fat for a 4.9-pound improvement in their body composition and physical appearance.Even more impressive, the women who also followed some sensible nutrition guidelines replaced 1.2 pounds of muscle and reduced 9.1 pounds of fat for a 10.3-pound improvement in their body composition and shape (almost two inches off their hip measurement).

In addition to the excellent assessment results, all of the women reported less cellulite. More than 70 percent observed much less cellulite and the other 30 percent noted some improvement in their cellulite situation.

To verify the importance of adding muscle as well as losing fat, we used ultrasound technology to measure tissue changes in the participants’ thighs. Over the two-month training period the women increased their thigh muscle thickness by 1.9 mm and decreased their thigh fat layer by exactly the same amount, resulting in more fit, firm, toned and shapely legs.

Exercise Program Components

The 40-minute exercise sessions consisted of three key components. The most important component was 20 minutes of high-effort strength training. Our participants performed the following 10 weightstack exercises, five for the legs and five for the upper body.

Weightstack Exercise Target Muscle Groups
Leg Curl Hamstrings
Leg Extension Quadriceps
Hip Adduction Hip Adductors
Hip Abduction Hip Abductors
Leg Press Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals
Abdominal Curl Rectus Abdominis
Low Back Extension Erector Spinae
Chest Press Pectoralis Major, Triceps
Seated Row Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Shoulder Press Deltoids, Triceps

They did one set of each exercise, using a weightload that fatigued the target muscles in 10 to 15 controlled repetitions. At six seconds per repetition (two seconds lifting and four seconds lowering), this required about 60 to 90 seconds of continuous muscle tension.

To enhance the strength-building benefit, the women performed a 20-second stretch after each exercise for the muscles that were just worked. Our research has revealed 20 percent greater strength gains when strength and stretching exercises are performed together.

Our third program component was aerobic activity for cardiovascular conditioning and increased energy expenditure. The participants did 20 minutes on the treadmill, stationary cycle or step machine following their strength training workout. They trained at a moderate effort level, about 75 percent of maximum heart rate.

Nutrition Program Components

Strength training and aerobic activity both burn lots of calories during the exercise performance (7 to 14 calories per minute). Because strength training uses the anaerobic energy system, you burn up to 25 percent as many additional calories during the post-exercise period as you do during your workout, which is a real bonus. 

Strength exercise also replaces muscle tissue, which increases your metabolic rate 24 hours a day for even more calorie utilization.

While all of these exercise factors facilitate, fat reduction, participants who adjusted their caloric intake experienced three times as much fat loss (9.1 lbs. Vs 3.2 lbs.). We therefore recommend a basic and balanced nutrition plan that complements the comprehensive exercise program.

Our dietary guidelines are based on the United States Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid that includes the following food groups and daily serving recommendations:  grains (6-11 servings); vegetables (3-5 servings); fruits (2-4 servings); dairy (2-4 servings); meats (2-3 servings); and fats (sparingly). 

Our nutrition experts simply modified the number of recommended servings across the board, based on the individual’s daily caloric intake.  Our participants selected one of three daily dietary plans (1,600 calories, 2,200 calories, or 2,800 calories), and ate in accordance with the following serving suggestions.

Daily Caloric Intake Grains Vegetables Fruits Dairy Meats
1,600 cal. 6 3 2 3 5 oz.
2,200 cal. 9 4 3 3 6 oz.
2,800 cal. 11 5 4 3 7 oz.

We also developed a menu planner to provide sample meals, complete with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Here is one example of the 12 daily menu planners which our participants followed as closely as possible.

Food Selections 1,600 Cal/Day
2,200 Cal/Day
2,800 Cal/Day
Fat-free vanilla yogurt 8 oz./206 8 oz./206 8 oz./206
Peach 1 /40 1 /40 1 /40
Granola cereal 1 oz./129 2 oz./257 3 oz./386
Orange juice 6 oz./86
Wheat bread 2 slices/130 2 slices/130 2 slices/130
Chicken 2 oz./112 3 oz./168 3 oz./168
Skim milk 8 oz./86 8 oz./86 8 oz./86
Mixed vegetables 1/2 cup/54 1 cup/107 1 1/2 cups/161
Mayo 1 Tbsp. /100
English muffin 1/133 1/133 1/133
Butter 1 Tbsp./102 1 Tbsp./102 1 Tbsp./102
Skim milk 8 oz./86 8 oz./86 8 oz./86
Roast turkey 3 oz./161 3 oz./161 4 oz./215
Bread stuffing 1/2 cup/178 1 cup/376 1 cup/376
Green beans 1/2 cup/19 1 cup/38 1 1/2 cups/57
Corn 1/2 cup/66 1 cup/132 1 1/2 cup/198
Fruit cocktail 1/2 cup/54 1 cup/108 1 cup/108
Fat-free crackers 8 /80 16    /160

In addition, we requested all of our program participants to drink at least eight cups of water throughout the day. Key times for drinking water are before, during and after meals, as well as before, during and after exercise sessions.

Although most people feel they know how to eat and how much to eat, our experience indicates that they typically error on the over consumption side. Our best performers are always those who honestly follow the menu planner and those who actually take a few extra minutes at mealtime to measure their serving sizes.

For example, Kathy achieved the best results in two successive cellulite reduction programs, losing 25 pounds in her first session and almost 20 more pounds in her second session. One reason for Kathy’s impressive improvement was that she never missed a workout.

Perhaps equally influential, Kathy followed the menu planner almost perfectly, always weighing/measuring her food servings.


Cellulite is the name given to excess fat that is clumped together in uneven bundles beneath the skin, presenting a rippled and dimpled appearance, typically on women’s thighs and hips. The major causes of cellulite are too little muscle (women average 5 pounds less muscle each decade) and too much fat (women average 15 pounds more fat each decade).

Our approach to the cellulite problem is to replace muscle through specific strength exercises, and to reduce fat through a synergistic combination of strength, endurance and stretching exercise coupled with a sensible nutrition plan. 

Our 40-minute per day, three day per week exercise program has produced excellent results, especially for those women who also adhered to the dietary guidelines. On average, these program participants replaced 1.2 pounds of muscle, reduced 9.1 pounds of fat, and removed 1.8 inches off their hips in just eight weeks. All have been pleased with the program, and more than 70 percent have reported much less cellulite and much better physical appearance.

While some of the over-the-counter cellulite reduction products may provide temporary improvement by smoothing the skin, real change requires more firm muscle and less soft fat.  These are the two essential requirements for firm, fit, toned, attractive and shapely legs.

About the author:
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., CSCS is fitness research director, and Rita LaRosa Loud is associate fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA.  They are the authors of the newly released book No More Cellulite:  A Proven 8-Week Program for a Firmer, Fitter Body (Perigee 2003).


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