It’s not an affectionate term – “man boobs.” It’s at the intersection of gender and body stereotypes, and it’s borderline vulgar. But, it’s a term that we all understand.
Another thing that we all understand is that most men with man boobs would rather be rid of them. Here, we’ll talk about potential causes of the condition as well as how and how not to get rid of them.
Identifying Potential Causes
We’ve all seen Fight Club, right? Of the many things that this cinematic masterpiece did right, it introduced us to Bob. Remember Bob (“His name was Robert Paulson”)? Bob had “man boobs” – and the protagonist isn’t always sensitive in his narration. Specifically, Bob had gynecomastia. This is a medical condition in which hormone imbalances result in enlarged male breasts.
“Man boobs” is a slang that applies to any man carrying extra weight around the chest. To venture a second ‘90s pop culture reference, it even featured in an episode of Seinfeld – although, their solution to the problem was a little different than ours.
What we’re getting at here is that sometimes man boobs come from run-of-the-mill situations involving excess body fat. A recurring theme in this article will be that you get rid of this fat the same way that you get rid of other fat. However, for some people, this is a legitimate medical condition that is best treated through medical intervention.
If you think you might have gynecomastia, you’re welcome to keep reading but you might be better off talking to your doctor. Gynecomastia can be caused by side effects of some medications, treatments for some cancers, as well as some health conditions. How your gynecomastia is treated or whether it’s treatable will depend on what is causing it.
If you don’t have gynecomastia but you do have man boobs, the right thing to do is definitely to read on.
The Chest – From Skin to Bone
We can’t just talk about man boobs. A recurring thing throughout this article is that there are muscles underneath all that love. We’re talking, of course, about the pecks.
If you follow how the muscles of the arms and legs work, you know that the real action is usually done closer to the core. So, most of the chest exercises look a lot like arm exercises. That’s because the pectoral muscles principally move the upper arms.
Fat exists just below the skin, and muscles exist just below that. So, depending on your specific body, excess body fat could be exaggerated by muscles that you might not even know you have. We’ll return to this idea in a moment when we learn that “targeted” exercise can actually make you look (and feel) worse.
Facts and Myths About Man Boobs
As this is, at its root, a question of body fat management, the discussion should start with an HTBM favorite, the energy balance equation.
You get energy from foods that you take in through your diet. If you take in more energy than you burn through activity, your body stores the excess energy as body fat and you gain weight. If you burn more energy through activity than you take in through your diet, then your body uses its stored energy by burning fat and you lose weight.
Myth: It’s Because of Certain Foods
It’s true that your body handles energy from different dietary sources differently. For example, your body can extract energy from protein (even though it doesn’t really like to) without storing any of this energy as fat no matter how much you take in this way. That’s part of why some popular muscle building diets focus so heavily on protein.
Some facts like this have led to some other food myths, like eating specific foods will lead to fat accumulation in specific body regions. There are some places where fat is more likely to accumulate, and your chest is one of them, but this has more to do with your biology than your diet.
Myth: You Can Fix it With Certain Exercises
A related myth is that exercising specific body regions will result in less fat in that specific body region. In the context of this discussion, that would mean that doing lots of chest exercises would specifically eliminate man boobs. Not only is this not necessarily the case, it’s potentially dangerous.
We’ve pointed out before and we’ll point out again at HTBM, that “targeting” one body region in this way can lead to overdevelopment in muscles and bones in one region of the body compared to others. This can lead to joint problems down the road. The only exception to this rule is working with a physical therapist to strengthen a joint afflicted by an injury, &c.
There’s one further flaw to this philosophy: while targeted exercises don’t shrink body parts, targeted exercises can swell body parts. Your body takes energy from any fat in your body, but the only muscles that grow are the ones that you use. If you try to eliminate your man boobs with disproportionate chest exercises, it can actually make your chest appear larger.
We busted the myth that avoiding certain foods will help you get rid of man boobs. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be thinking about your diet – it just means that you have to be thinking about your whole diet. Eliminating ice cream might not shrink your man boobs, but eliminating added sugars definitely will.
So, what are our dietary recommendations? The same as they are for everyone else. We encourage that you explore diets (with the help of your primary care provider if necessary) as an educational tool to help you develop discipline and help you think about food from a nutritional standpoint.
However, most popular diets lack a nuanced approach to nutrition resulting in mantras that are easy to remember but aren’t necessarily helpful or sustainable.
ALSO FROM HTBM: Tips for Counting Macros in Body Building.
Don’t try to eliminate carbs, particularly if you’re also working out (which you should be). Instead, look for complex carbs like whole grains.
Don’t try to eliminate fat (because you can’t). Instead, try to get your fat from healthy sources, like nuts and fish.
It’s okay to go hard on protein, but when you do, consider protein sources that offer more fiber and less fat. That often means thinking about vegetable sources of protein, or at least more fish and lean meats. At the very least, leaner cuts of red meat.
We also said that targeted workouts don’t result in targeted weight loss. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t workout – it just means that you burn fat all over your body. That’s not a bad thing. Having excess fat in one area of your body might bother you aesthetically, but excess body fat anywhere can negatively affect your health.
We also said that disproportionate chest exercises can make your chest larger. However, if you’re a regular HTBM reader, you know that some exercises optimize fat loss over muscle gain. These are typically cardio exercises. While cardio exercises typically use the lower body, there are some great upper-body cardio exercises that you may find particularly rewarding.
We aren’t just saying this because we’re still thinking about Fight Club. You might not think about martial arts as exercise at all, but if you’ve ever given it a try you know that it’s a bang-up cardio job. While we might think about fighting and muscles, martial arts is all about speed and that means that it’s all about burning calories.
At HTBM, we classify martial arts as a full-body workout, but we also recognize that different schools of martial arts emphasize different parts of the body differently. Some classical martial arts are definitely lower-body intensive but that isn’t always the case. Do some research before you sign up and remember that you can usually sit in on a few free classes before registering.
Swimming might be just about the most under-rated exercise there is. It pits your body against the resistance forces of the water.
Swimming is similar to martial arts in that you can view it as a full-body exercise but you can also adjust what stroke you’re using to target different body regions. We already talked about the potential dangers of targeted exercises, but if you feel better targeting your chest, play around with strokes that rely less on your legs and core and more on your arms.
Parkour (Free Running)
Hardcore Parkour! This internet fad is also an incredibly fun way to get in a good full-body workout that incorporates both cardio and strength training. It has been defined as “getting from point A to point B as creatively as possible” and can definitely be the workout that you’re looking for.
The only words of advice are to follow the law and use your head. Free running can be dangerous and some people like to do it in places where they aren’t allowed to be. Just remember that, as the Poet said, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
You’ve Got This!
Man boobs are annoying, and they can be tricky to get rid of. However, you might be outsmarting yourself. The best way to lose this particular weight is probably also the best way to lose weight anywhere else on your body. If these tips and tricks don’t work, consider talking to your doctor to see if something else is going on.