Why Spot Reduction Is A Myth

Written by Elly McGuinness

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There are common themes that repeat themselves over and over in the fitness industry. For many years, clients have been coming to us and sharing their goals. Aesthetic goals are often centered on fat loss and it’s not uncommon for us to hear requests for programs and exercises that will “help me lose weight from my butt”, or “get rid of the wobbly fat under my arms”. Talking about spot reduction fo course, well this article explains why spot reduction is a myth and it doesn’t work!

It might make sense to those clients if we prescribed them with exercises that only target the areas they want to change. However, we know this isn’t the best approach for them to reach their goals. Targeted exercises for spot reduction would certainly be a simplistic approach! But here we’ll share why it’s a bit of a myth. And instead, we’ll share some of the principles you can follow for better fat loss results.

What is “spot” reduction?

Spot reduction is a concept that has been circulating around the fitness industry for years. The theory of spot reduction claims that you can reduce fat in one targeted area of the body. Exercises that target the chosen body part are done with the belief that there will be a corresponding reduction in fat in that area of the body.

People who exercise with these principles in mind believe that there is a direct correlation between the fat loss that occurs in one part of the body and the muscles they have been targeting during their workouts.

For example, if they want to burn fat from their stomach, they would focus on abdominal exercises. To reduce fat levels on the backs of their arms they’d do triceps exercises. In a very simplistic sense, they’d believe that if they only did exercise for one muscle group, they’d only burn fat from that area of the body (or they’d at least burn significantly more there than in other, untargeted areas).

What does the research say about spot reduction?

Several studies have been carried out to test the hypothesis of spot reduction. The general resounding conclusions are that spot reduction does not work as intended, thus supporting the notion that this concept is a myth.

A small study looked at the effects of an endurance-based training program targeting the lower body. The program was found to be effective in reducing body fat levels, but the main reduction did not occur in the area being targeted.  

Another study of 40 overweight women compared the effects of dietary intervention combined with an abdominal resistance training program as compared to the dietary intervention alone. The results showed that the combination of diet and an abdominal training program did not reduce stomach fat levels any more than diet alone. Other studies have drawn similar conclusions.

Some research has reported successful findings when it comes to a localized reduction in fat mass. In these situations, specific conditions will likely need to be present. However, the overall lack of current compelling evidence for localised fat reduction suggests that there are better ways to focus your fat loss efforts. This is even so if your intention is to focus on one particular area in your body.

Myth busting: spot reduction - woman in squat position

Can you still target specific areas of the body with resistance training?

Yes, absolutely you can target specific areas of your body in your training program. It’s possible to see changes in particular areas from targeted exercises. We’re just saying that those changes probably won’t be seen as fat loss in the desired area.

Targeted exercises can help define muscles in the desired area of the body IF you are already lean, and they can certainly be useful for the growth and strength of specific muscle groups.

For fat burning (essentially “shrinking” of fat cells) to occur during exercise your body needs to break down triglycerides in the fat cells so they can be used as fuel. This process can occur in fat cells anywhere in the body, not only in the muscles being worked.

A better overall approach for burning body fat

Men and women tend to store fat in different areas. The same can be said for different body types. Fat distribution can also change with age. Genetics, hormonal factors, and environment are some of the main factors that affect body fat distribution.

An effective approach to fat burning considers these factors and includes:

  • An appropriate, individualised exercise program that includes cardiovascular and resistance training components. [Try these top bodyweight exercises for burning fat, which are based on better fat-burning principles than trying to achieve localised fat burning].
  • A personalized dietary approach to help achieve an ideal balance for fat burning to occur. Nutrient-rich whole foods should be a central focus to any healthy dietary regime. Supplements can also be considered. [Find out here whether you should count calories and/or macros].
  • Other lifestyle factors such as sufficient good quality sleep and relaxation to keep stress levels in check.

When exercise, dietary and other lifestyle factors are in balance fat loss happens more easily. It is most likely that you’ll notice fat loss over your whole body, rather than the “stubborn” areas you most want to target.

Make sure you get a personal trainer to measure your body fat levels if fat loss is one of your goals. That way you’ll be able to objectively measure where the fat loss is occurring. Because we tend to focus on our “stubborn” areas and think they’re not changing, objective measures can help to show that progress has actually been made!

What exercise approaches have you found to be most effective for reducing fat in specific areas of the body? Leave a comment below!


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