Fat spot reduction - truth or fiction?

Fat spot reduction - truth or fiction?

We all have at least one of those wobbly trouble spots – maybe the back of the thigh, lower stomach or love handles – that we would love to focus all our fat burning efforts toward. Question is, is it even possible? Does performing endless sit ups really spot reduce fat from the stomach or are we simply wasting our time?

On the face of it, getting a definite answer on this may not be straight forward.

It is widely reported that “spot reduction” is a myth, yet it isn’t hard to find popular online resources such as T-Nation arguing that spot reduction is real and using recent studies to reinforce their point.

So, who’s right?

The basics: Exercise and fat loss

Whether we’re exercising or not, we require energy to survive.

Your basal metabolic rate is the number of calories (energy) you require at rest and for most people it may equate to one or two calories per minute (to find your BMR try using our calorie calculator on the weight loss page). The body gets these calories from both fat and carbohydrates, typically in a fairly even ratio at rest.

When exercising you require a greater amount of energy to fuel the activity and you therefore burn more calories.

A proportion of this energy inevitably comes from fat, yet the fat cells as they exist in body fat must first be broken down into glycerol and free fatty acids before the working muscle can use it as a fuel source.

This is the fundamental barrier against the claim that directly exercising an area of the body, such as the abdominals via crunches, can spot reduce fat. The body fat must first be broken down and circulate in the bloodstream before it can be made available as fuel for the working abdominal muscles.

Additionally, the argument that spot reduction is a myth has been backed up by numerous studies, one of which showed that even though tennis players had greater muscle mass in their dominant arms, there was no significant difference in subcutaneous fat levels covering the muscles1, something we wouldn’t expect to see if spot reduction were true.

But…

If the above is correct, why do some still claim spot reduction is possible?

The counterargument is that although the above is true, it isn’t the energy consumption of the working muscle that provides spot reduction – it’s the thermogenesis (heat) the working muscle creates that is behind it.

Significantly, this thesis has science backing it. A study carried out in 20072 looking at this very issue concluded that lipolysis (fat breakdown) is greater adjacent to contracting muscles and “thus specific exercises can induce "spot lipolysis" in adipose tissue”!

So, who’s right?

For practical purposes, we should consider spot reduction a myth.

While it does appear to be true that a greater level of lipolysis occurs next to a working muscle, the magnitude of the phenomenon is too small to have any real practical implication.

What’s more, the idea that performing a high number of reps of a given resistance exercise spot reduces fat has ironically diverted focus away from the methods that are unquestionably the most effective for reducing fat - cardio.

Fat loss is all about your energy balance – the number of calories you’re consuming compared to the number you’re expelling through activity. This is why a weight loss diet combined with regular cardio is so effective for fat loss.

Hundreds of crunches may help develop your abdominals, but it simple does not compare to a 30-45 minute steady paced jog if fat loss, wherever it may be desired, is the goal.

  1. Thickness of Subcutaneous Fat and Activity of Underlying Muscles - Grant Gwinup, M.D., F.A.C.P.; Reg Chelvam, M.R.C.S.; and Terry Steinberg, M.D annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=685223
  2. Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? - Stallknecht B, Dela F, Helge JW. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16985258



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