Can You Target Fat Loss? Spot Reduction Reexamined

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For those of you not familiar with spot reduction, it is the idea that one can remove subcutaneous body fat in one particular area of the body by exercising that area. For example, repeatedly doing abdominal exercises in an effort to reduce body fat covering your abs. 

The concept originated in 1895, in a journal article published by Checkly. It hypothesized that the dissipation of fat was local and disappears in areas where muscles are highly active in concordance of their daily activity. This hypothesis was subsequently dismissed many years ago by the scientific community, as further research failed to support it. 

Part of me would like to believe that this myth is dead and gone, but time and again I have people ask if this is true. Indeed, 130 years after the concept was firth proposed, there are many people (unwittingly) wasting weeks and months before they figure out for themselves that spot reduction is completely and utterly impossible without surgical intervention (whether it’s invasive or non-invasive). 

Taking from the example in the first paragraph, if an individual does ab exercises in hopes of burning abdominal fat, all that person would really accomplish with those ab exercises is the strengthening of their abdominal muscles beneath their fat. Laboratory results confirm this over and over again.  This second study shows that after a month of regular sit ups (over 5000 of them per participant), there was no difference in the rate of change in the fat covering the abs versus other locations in the body. In fact, total body weight and body fat levels remained completely unaltered. Not only do sit-ups not reduce body fat over the abs, it turns out they’re not particularly effective at burning fat at all. 

Professional tennis players are a great real world example of this phenomenon. If you’re familiar with tennis, you’ll know that the vast majority of the time you’re only using one arm. That arm is consistently subjected to more movement and exercise than the other on an extremely frequent basis. If spot reduction were a valid concept, one would expect the dominant arm of a tennis player to look drastically different than the other. A quick google search will show this to be false. Still, perhaps in a more unnoticeable way the layers of subcutaneous fat could be thinner in the dominant arm. Nope, a study done at the University of California Irvine examined just this in tennis players. Researchers examined the layers of subcutaneous fat on both arms of a group of tennis players and found no statistically significant difference between the two. 

The myth of spot reduction is responsible for the notion that we can target specific areas of our body for fat incineration through certain exercises. Turn on your television late at night and you’ll find an obnoxiously large amount of contraptions promising to zap your fat if you simply strap it to a part of your body and switch it on. Save yourself the money and don't fall for these gimmicks.

One of the most troubling things that is an ongoing issue in nearly every major fitness publication is the proliferation of the concept that you can target a specific area. Titles like “8 moves to saddlebag-free thighs” and “lose your arm fat with these 3 exercises” all ultimately fall victim to the spot reduction myth. These types of articles completely ignore the fact that to effectively lose fat you need to use a holistic approach of creating a body-wide daily calorie deficit, and that spot reduction has been disproven. A daily caloric deficit is the only way you’ll lose fat anywhere on your body. The law of calorie balance is subject to the laws of mathematics and if you’re not consuming less calories than you’re using during a day, you won’t lose fat anywhere in your body – no matter how many thousands of sit-ups you’re doing. 

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons to learn in fitness, because once you realize that genetics is the only determinant factor in terms of location and amount of body fat, the faster you recognize the importance of nutrition and of approaching your training holistically. It doesn’t matter where you want to lose fat on your body, the approach is the same. In a sense, this greatly simplifies fat loss for many people, as they can let go of the constant push and pull and conflicting information found in mainstream fitness publications, and concentrate on what really works.

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