Can you really spot target fat loss?
Who doesn’t dream of a miraculous transformation in *that* problem area?
Spot reduction is the idea that if you perform exercises which concentrate on a targeted area, you can burn fat there, and only there. Be it your stomach, your saddle bags, your arms or thighs, there’s an infomercial or product claiming it can target it and give you that dream body you’ve always wished of. But it’s not that simple.
While you can reduce your body fat overall through consistent strength and cardio workouts, your body doesn’t get any real say in where it chooses to reduce fat (or draw energy) from. Which, as you’ll soon discover, can actually be a good thing...
How does fat burning work?
When we work out, our body recognises that we need energy, sending hormones and enzymes throughout our system to provide it, ultimately burning fat, regardless of whether it was a series of walking lunges or some lat pull downs that fired our body up.
“Unfortunately, subcutaneous fat loss tends to be more generalised versus just the part that is being trained,” Lara Carlson, C.S.C.S., president of the New England Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine tells Greatist.
What the research says
There’s a large number of studies which have shown spot reduction to be ineffective. For example, one study in 24 people who only completed exercises targeting the abdominals for six weeks found no reduction in belly fat.
Another study, which looked at the effectiveness of upper body resistance training in 104 participants who exercised only their non-dominant arms, found that although some fat loss did occur, it was generalised to the entire body -- not the arm being exercised.
Why it’s a good thing that we can’t spot reduce
If you think about certain athletes, like tennis players for example, if spot reduction were true, you’d expect to see them with one arm significantly larger or leaner than the other depending on which is their dominant arm… It’s as though our bodies are intuitively designed to adapt to these types of irregularities?
Plus, if you really disliked a certain exercise that claimed to target one area, you can take some pleasure in knowing you didn’t - or don’t - need to do it anyway. You can pick up other strength and cardio workouts as you please and focus on fat loss overall.
That being said, there is still a case to be made for “spot toning” instead...
Why you should focus on spot toning instead
Unlike spot reduction, which sends you down the garden path, spot toning is actually quite realistic. The terms “spot reduction” and “spot toning” are often used interchangeably, however it is important to note that they’re two different things. One is targeted at reducing fat in a specific area, and the other is focused on strengthening a specific muscle or group of muscles.
“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.” Dr Karena Wu, owner and clinical director of ActiveCare Physical Therapy® in NYC and Mumbai tells Aaptiv.
Will spot toning alone work?
In short, you can focus on a certain muscle all you want. However, to see the results of “spot toning”, you’ll need to focus on reducing fat overall by including some form of cardio or full-body workout and maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
In other words, if you’re short on time and you need to squeeze in a workout, you’re better off using that time to complete a full body workout rather than trying to phase through all the areas (arms, legs, stomach etc) through spot toning exercises. The more muscles you put to work - and the longer you do so - the higher the calorie burn rate, and thus overall fat loss revealing those oh-so toned muscles.
Have you ever tried spot toning?