Spot Reduction: Is It Possible and How Can You Do It?
Legendary bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, and Frank Zane did hundreds of sit-ups because they believed they could target an area with exercise and lose fat in that area (i.e. “spot reduction”).
In the fitness industry, the concept of spot reduction has been passionately debated and argued on both sides.
First, let me say that no one will argue that calorie intake in relation to how many calories are burned matters when it comes to fat loss.
However, new research seems to support what the bodybuilding legends used to practice.
The Case FOR Spot Reduction
Medical researchers and fitness professionals have yet to fully agree on whether spot reduction is possible or little more than a myth. But there is compelling and promising evidence that suggests targeted exercise can actually help you reduce fat in your most troublesome spots.
A study published in the American Journal of Physiology tested 10 healthy men while doing one-legged knee extension exercises at 25 percent of their max for 30 minutes, followed by exercise at 55 percent max for 120 minutes with the other leg and then at 85 percent max for 30 minutes with the first leg.
According to the researchers’ conclusion, “Blood flow and lipolysis are generally higher in SCAT [subcutaneous adipose tissue] adjacent to contracting than adjacent to resting muscle irrespective of exercise intensity.” Thus, specific exercises can induce “spot lipolysis” in adipose tissue.
Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark required men to perform single leg extensions with light weight for 30 consecutive minutes. The researchers discovered increases in blood flow in the men’s subcutaneous fat cells in the exercising leg when compared to the other leg.
Ultimately, they concluded that body fat is disproportionately used from the specific part being trained. In their application statement, the researchers hypothesized that this effect would be replicated in other muscles and body parts as well.
The Case AGAINST Spot Reduction
However, some fitness experts are convinced (and some studies have shown) that it’s not possible to reduce fat in just one single area of the body. This argument points out that fat can only be lost from the body collectively as a whole by way of proper diet and exercise.
The American College of Sports Medicine states that believing spot reduction is possible is one of the top 10 most common mistakes people make while trying to lose weight. In an ACSM Health & Fitness Journal article, James A. Peterson Ph.D., FACSM writes, “No exercise will eliminate fat from a specific area of the body, just as no change in your level of caloric intake will guarantee that the fat will melt away in the area of the body you most want to address. As a rule, the pattern in which you lose body fat is genetically predetermined.”
Back in 1971, the University of California, Irvine conducted a study on tennis players because their arms see a disproportionate amount of exercise based on the nature of the sport.
According to the researchers’ experiment, there was “no significant difference in the thickness of subcutaneous fat over the muscles of the arm receiving more exercise as compared to the arm receiving less exercise.” These studies provide direct evidence against the validity of the concept of “spot reduction.”
More recently, researchers at the University of Connecticut studied 104 adults during a 12-week resistance training program to assess fat in their non-dominant arms before and after the program. The conclusion was that fat loss was generalized but not significantly more noticeable in the arm that was targeted. Their results were published in the journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Spot Reduction Strategies
But despite the skeptics and naysayers, I’ve found that spot reduction is an integral part of any holistic bodybuilding training regimen. There are so many different aspects involved in training, and spot training has its place in helping you achieve the shape and form you’ve been working towards.
First, let’s take a quick look at how the body burns fat:
- Resting metabolism (fueled by your heart beat, breathing, and cell division)
- Digestive metabolism (as your body turns food into amino acids)
- Exercise metabolism (from physical activity)
- The liver stores energy as glucose and releases it into the bloodstream
- The brain receives signals to use stored fat as energy
- Hormones activate an enzyme in the blood vessels of fat tissue
- Energy is delivered to working muscles, using fat cells as fuel
- Fat tissue shrinks when exercised and muscle grows
Spot reduction exercises work by increasing blood flow and putting fat to use in the fat tissues closest to working muscles. The key is to contract the muscles adjacent to your targeted fatty area and schedule your aerobic activity and midsection workouts properly in your gym routine.
The results are often subtle and only measurable in small increments, which is why so many fitness buffs are quick to write off spot reduction as a myth. It can also take many months for spot reduction work to make a visible appearance on your body. This means you’ll need an extra dose of dedication to stick with it. Medical researchers often only follow subjects for a few weeks or months, which may indicate why scientific results have been inconclusive.
Spot Reduction Exercises
The most effective spot reduction exercises are ones that involve high reps and combine those reps with high-intensity cardio workouts. Adding variety to your routine and interval training go a long way in targeting your problem areas.
Here are a few targeted exercises to try for your trouble spots:
Observations & Conclusions
Spot reduction is always a popular weight loss topic because it seems logical and appeals to our intuition. When you target a specific body part with your training, you won’t exclusively lose fat in that one part; you’ll lose it everywhere. However, spot training helps you work more of the fat in your target area than anywhere else.
It’s easier to see the results of spot reduction training in athletes and bodybuilders who are already fit, while more casual exercisers should start off with a more general approach to getting in shape. This is particularly important to remember for abs workouts, which increase blood flow to the midsection to chip away at fat covering up the muscles underneath.
Remember that gender and genetics play a big part in where your fat accumulates and where you’ll lose it from first. Target the muscles around your fatty areas for the best results, and be patient with your progress. Spot reduction works to mobilize fat next to working muscles, but it takes time and is just one piece of the complex puzzle of body sculpting.