Being the fitness lover you are, you’ve probably heard of spot reduction. It’s the alluring idea that if you focus exercise on a specific area of the body you can burn fat in that area. The idea has been peddled by popular figures and infomercials alike, for years. Who doesn’t wish for a miraculous transformation in that one “problem area”?
Be it your arms, stomach, or thighs, there’s a buzzy product or routine for every body woe. While the idea of getting legs like Cristiano Ronaldo or abs like Kayla Itsines ASAP is exciting, it’s simply not that easy. Time and time again, spot reduction has been shut down as pure fallacy. But, is it possible that there’s even a shred of truth there? Can we hold out hope?
Looking for answers that go beyond a quick Google search, we spoke with Doctors Karena Wu (DPT, MS, COMT, CSCS, CKTP, CPI) and Clifford Stark (DO, Medical Director at Sports Medicine in Chelsea, Director of Northshore LILJ Plainview Sports Medicine Fellowship). It’s time we buckle down and get to the bottom of this Mariana Trench of a myth. Read on to see what they had to say to us about spot reduction and it’s more realistic counterpart—spot toning.
Let’s restate it here: Spot reducing isn’t a realistic method of fat-loss. At least, not in the ways that one would hope it to be. “Technically speaking, the idea of being able to target fat loss in a specific area by exercising that area appears to be false,” Stark said.
“It’s important to realize that when people develop more fat, they are not making more fat cells,” Stark said. “Instead, the existing fat cells are storing more lipids and becoming larger. Where and how much individuals tend to concentrate their fat differs. Some see fat pockets in the abdominal area, some in their legs, etc.” Where you store fat depends on a number of factors, including gender, hormones, genetics, and insulin sensitivity.
Stark explained that this more of a metabolic phenomenon and fat cannot be selectively burned off by exercising that specific area where you see fat increase. So, much like how you can’t choose where you gain weight first and last, you can’t select when and where you lose it.
Full-Body Exercise is Key
There is hope, though. While you cannot rid yourself of all of the fat in, say, your stomach, all at once, you can burn overall fat, over time. In fact, consistent strength-building and cardio exercise is the most effective way of losing and keeping off body fat.
“Building more muscle overall can help consume more calories and thus results in less fat overall,” Stark assured. Wu agreed, telling us, “Cardiovascular exercises that are for fat burning affect the entire body— as they usually incorporate the full body, or both arms or legs—the entire system gets affected. This is general or systemic fat loss.”
This thinking has also been confirmed in various studies. One study published by the Physical Activity Sciences Department in Los Angeles had participants train their non-dominant leg on a leg press for 12 weeks. By the end of the training period there wasn’t a significant dip in body fat percentage in the legs or body as a whole. But, there was a decrease in fat in the upper-body.
To review it simply: Your body doesn’t pick and choose where it takes energy reserves (aka fat) from. When you do a set of lunges, the fat cells in your thighs don’t begin to burn up. Instead, it notices that you’re in need of energy and sends enzymes and hormones throughout your entire body to provide it. Thus, total fat loss.
Try Spot Toning Instead
Unlike spot reduction, spot toning is realistic. Often the terms are used interchangeably, but they aren’t actually the same. While the former refers to losing fat in the spot of your choosing, the latter refers to strengthening a certain muscle, or group of muscles. Think weightlifters with large arms, or dancers with pronounced legs.
“Selective toning of muscles (“spot toning”) can certainly make a vast difference in the appearance of a given body area,” Stark explained. “Though it is not specifically targeting the overlying tissues and ‘burning away fat.’”
Wu had a similar view, “The only thing that can help tone and define a targeted area is to develop the lean muscle mass in that area. In that sense, you can target fat loss locally. If you add cardiovascular or aerobic exercise in, that can help with general fat loss, which will help further define an area.”
In short, you can focus on a certain muscle all you want, but unless you include some form of cardio or whole-body workout, you may never lose the fat that’s covering it. To see the results of “spot toning” you’ll need to reduce fat throughout the body. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t always target specific muscle groups, though. It’s fine to include those moves in your routine, but avoid doing only that, since it can eventually cause a muscle imbalance.
When it comes to defining muscle or reducing fat in a certain area, working the whole body is key (that plus a healthy diet). Keeping this in mind will also ensure that you’re using your time wisely. For instance, if you’ve got limited time to workout, separating it into body-part specific workouts can be difficult. If you focus on total body workouts instead, you’ll be getting the most out of your time. This, too, will lead to building more muscle overall which burns more calories (like Stark explained).