‘Can we incorporate more belly exercises into our sessions?’; ‘I would like to lose the fat off of my love handles’; ‘I only want to lose the weight in my hips’; ‘What exercises can I do to get rid of my flabby arms?’
After a couple of years hearing the same requests from various clients, I have finally decided to put this article together to better explain the misconception, and how most of us have the wrong mentality and approach to weight-loss.
What is Spot reduction?
Spot reduction refers to the tempting belief that doing specific exercises will reduce the fat over certain areas of the body. For example, performing leg lifts in order to reduce fat around the hips and thighs, or performing abdominal exercises in the hopes of losing weight in the midsection.
Fact: We CAN’T choose where the weight comes off! Our body is a UNIT, and it loses weight as a UNIT.
The Myth; Where did it come from?
Although professionals know spot reduction is a myth, many people still believe that it is possible to choose where fat can be lost on an individual’s body due to the large amounts of misleading information that the internet is providing on fitness products and services (McGrath, 2013).
On your next visit to the store, look at any health and fitness magazine and you’ll see it right on the cover: ‘Get Thin Thighs With Just 5 Exercises!’ or ‘Get a Flat Belly Now!’ Infomercials sell spot reduction in the form of ab gadgets or weight loss supplements. Some health clubs may even sell the promise of a perfect body to sell memberships.
Why spot reduction doesn’t work
Unfortunately, our bodies JUST DON’T work that way. The initial belief around spot reduction has come from the idea that building muscle increases metabolism, resulting in fat reduction. Over the years, people seem to have falsely concluded that fat loss in a particular region could be targeted by building the muscles around it (McArdle, 2017). However, it has been shown that muscle growth in a region does not reduce fat in that region (Harshbarger, 2010). Instead, fat is lost from the entire body as a result of diet and regular exercise (Wilmore & Costill, 1999).
So, put quite simply: the idea is that you have to burn more calories than you eat. When you do that, you create a calorie deficit that causes you to lose body mass.
Do abdominal exercises reduce abdominal fat?
Short answer- NO!
In a randomized study (Vispute, 2011), researchers divided 24 sedentary adults into an exercise group and a control group. The exercise group added a 6-week abdominal programme into their daily training routines. They discovered that at the end of the 6 weeks, through comparing a variety of endurance tests, body composition tests, and anthropometrics, the subcutaneous fat around the abdominal region did not shrink. However, muscular endurance of the core region did improve when comparing the before and after of the number of sit-ups between the post-study exercise group and control group. Therefore, even though an increase in muscular development of a certain region in the body took place, it did not remove the fat around the muscles. Again, there was no proof of spot reduction taking place.
*It is, however, important to mention that there are many benefits to having a strong core, and thus strengthening the core is still a crucial part of a training programme. A strong core is the foundation of a healthy posture and is what allows us to perform daily movements as well as physical activity in a correct and safe manner.
Ok, so, what should I do instead?
What’s the answer? What should we do if we want to lose fat from a certain area of the body? Short answer: we may not be able to target or plan where and when the fat comes off. It’s really up to your body. Your genes, body composition, body type, hormones, diet, and roughly a million other factors, will determine when and where the fat comes off. However, there are a couple of things you can be doing to make the journey less frustrating;
1- Stop wasting time trying to ‘tone’ specific body parts. Instead, work on your entire body and try to incorporate as many muscle groups as possible with each exercise.
2- Perform more whole-body compound exercises. As an example: You will expend more energy performing a squat than leg lifts. This is because the squat is a complex movement that works multiple muscles: the glutes, thighs, calves, and even the core, whereas a simple leg lift only works the outer thigh of one. You’ll burn more calories by involving the larger muscles of the body. You can also take it even further by performing a combination of exercises, such as squats with an overhead press.
3- Change your mentality about strength training. No, you will not necessarily ‘bulk up’ by incorporating strength training into your programme; and no, you can’t replace fat with muscle. HOWEVER; strength training is actually very high calorie burning and comes with many long-term benefits such as a higher BMR (meaning that your body burns more calories when at rest if you have more muscle!). So stop relying only on the treadmill and hit those weights.
3- Pay attention to your genetics and your body type. There is a weight loss truth that we don’t like to admit, but we all know it: The first place you gain weight is usually the last place you lose it. A lot of us have lost and gained weight plenty of times to know the specific order by which things happen. Embracing and accepting our genetics and body types may reduce the frustration we all feel due to a lack of “results”. And remember; you are beautiful no matter your body type.
4- Pay more attention to your daily nutrition. Remember that the simple answer to all of this is CALORIES IN and CALORIES OUT. For an individual looking to lose weight, we simply want to make sure we are expending more energy than we are taking in throughout the day. Be it through a sustainable nutrition plan, a training programme, or ideally a combination of both.
5- If you’re still uncertain- LOOK FOR GUIDANCE. There are a number of personal trainers out there who know just the right way that you should be training to achieve your goals. For any further information on the topic or on Personal training, feel free to come by and speak to the team at SCRAM. We are more than happy to help you out!
Vispute, Sachin (September 2011). “The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25-Issue 9: 2559–2564 – via Ebscohost.
McArdle, William (2017). Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Langara College. p. 821.
Perry, Elena (2001). “Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?”. Yale Scientific.
Nickol, Carolyn (2001). “Spot Fat Reduction”. University Fitness Center, University of Cincinnati. Archived from the original on 2010-11-11.
Wilmore, Jack H.; Costill, David L. (1999). Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics. ISBN 978-0-7360-0084-0.
Ramírez-Campillo, Rodrigo; Andrade, David C.; Campos-Jara, Christian; Henríquez-Olguín, Carlos; Alvarez-Lepín, Cristian; Izquierdo, Mikel (2013). “Regional Fat Changes Induced by Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (8): 2219–24. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31827e8681. PMID 23222084.
Vispute, Sachin S; Smith, John D; LeCheminant, James D; Hurley, Kimberly S (2011). “The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25 (9): 2559– 4.
Dave Harshbarger. Wellness Program. Archived 2010-10-05 at the Wayback Machine West Virginia University.