Mention "targeted fat loss" or "spot reduction" to pretty much anybody who works in the fitness industry and they’ll most likely do one of two things…
Laugh or shoot you a look that would turn medusa herself to stone.
That's because the entire notion defies the number 1 law of fitness – you simply cannot pick and choose where you lose fat. To say, or even think, otherwise is fitness sacrilege.
But, you can't really scoff at people who do believe in spot reduction. After all, it makes logical sense to assume that when you train a muscle, the fat you burn will come from around that muscle.
That's not to mention the fitness magazines screaming from their glossy covers to "tone up" and "shred that belly fat" all with one revolutionary move aimed at doing so.
Alas, you could sit-up, squat and follow as many 30-day challenges with the goal of spot reducing that one area of your body that really ticks you off, and achieve nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nadda.
Yes, your muscles might look more defined but it's more likely because you’ve managed to reduce your overall body fat percentage.
Unless you've gone under the knife to get rid of those love handles – spot reduction is a marketing fallacy. Sorry!
Here Ryan from Minus The Gym explains why...
The idea of spot reduction has been around so long that no one really knows where it originated but countless studies have shown that while the theory is great, it's just not possible – more on why later…
One of the first studies was conducted in 1971 by the University of California where Grant Gwinup, Reg Chelvam and Terry Steinberg compared the thickness and circumference of subcutaneous fat on the arms of tennis players.
Their theory was that the dominant arm would have much less fat than the non-dominant one due to varying amounts of exercise over many years. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and the idea of spot reduction was rendered invalid.
Fast forward 36 years and in 2007 the University of Connecticut asked over 100 participants to complete a 12-week resistance training programme which focussed on the training of their non-dominant arm. The supervised training programme ended with an MRI scan which indicated that fat loss was generalised throughout the body.
Then, in 2013 the idea of spot reduction was broached once again, this time looking at the leg using a similar premise to the 2007 study. After 12 weeks of intense training, it was concluded that while the "training programme was effective in reducing fat mass, [the] reduction was not achieved in the trained body segment."
But wait… Could there be hope after all?
While the evidence and research tend to stack up against spot reduction, another 2007 study published in the American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism actually proved the opposite!
The researchers measured the changes in fat mass and fat breakdown in the tissues during high rep knee extensions as well as blood flow. Test subjects completed 30 minutes of knee extensions with one leg on a low weight then immediately switched legs to complete 120 minutes using more weight.
The results showed that fat reduction and blood flow were much greater surrounding the harder worked muscle proving that spot reduction can work but only in very small percentages. A bit like a single grain of sand being blown across the desert.
So now we know that spot reducing fat is confirmed as being next to impossible – let's see just what ‘fat’ is all about…
Understanding fat - what is it and why do we need it?
Not all fat is created equal. In fact, there are two types of fat found in your body – essential and stored.
Essential fat is the fat stored in your organs, central nervous system, and bone marrow. You simply cannot live without this fat as it is vital for your organs to function properly.
Stored fat refers to the fat that surrounds your organs to protect them from trauma and the fat you find subcutaneously (under your skin).
Subcutaneous fat is not only the larger portion of stored fat in the body, but it's the one we're all keen to shift.
Now, our bodies evolved to store fat as an energy reserve. That’s why when we eat a surplus of calories, these excess calories are stored as subcutaneous fat which can then be utilised as an energy source when your blood sugar levels drop.
Why do women have more fat?
The reason for the difference in essential body fat percentages is because women at some point may become pregnant and thus nourish the foetus – then baby – from their own fat resources. This means they need an extra stock of energy in anticipation of future pregnancies.
Men and women store fat in different areas of the body. Men are more prone to storing those excess calories on their bellies, whereas women tend to pile it on the hips, bums and thighs.
This, however, isn't set in stone with genetics playing a role in how and where you store it. In fact, according to Pérusse, L (1996), as much as 56% of your abdominal fat can be attributed to heritability!
How is fat used?
1. Glucose, stored in your liver, is gradually released into the blood stream to maintain basic energy levels. From breathing to blinking, your body is using energy 24/7, 365.
2. Your brain continuously monitors these glucose levels. Once they run out, it instructs your body to start using fat as an energy source. This process is called ketosis.
3. The enzyme Lipase is activated which tells your body to break down triglycerides (the form in which your subcutaneous fat is stored) into glycerol and other fatty acids for energy.
4. This energy is pumped straight to your working muscles.
5. As a result, your fat cells are depleted and will lose their mass.
NB: your fat cells will never vanish, they will simply decrease in size. As soon as you eat a surplus of calories again, these cells will begin to plump up!
The best way to blast it
As already mentioned, subcutaneous fat is used when your blood sugar levels drop, and your body needs fuel to keep moving. It obviously needs more fuel when exercising so your ability to mobilise and metabolise fat into energy naturally increases.
The question every person will ask when they decide to slash that fat is “should I focus more on weight training or ramp up my cardio?” The truth is all forms of exercise have their advantages.
Cardio may burn the calories, but strength training has added benefits cardio alone simply cannot achieve.
And a fitness regime that combines both cardio and strength training will be the most effective way in reducing your overall body fat percentage thus making those muscles pop.
It's generally accepted that Low Intensity Steady State cardio is perfect for fighting fat. This is because walking has been shown to burn most fat per calorie compared to jogging due to increased oxygen levels and fat requires oxygen to be metabolised into energy.
While it may not feel like you're doing much going for a 45 minute walk – don't forget that any activity where you're moving at a decent pace for a reasonable amount of time is going to burn calories resulting in fat burn.
High Intensity Interval Training is not only super time efficient but it's been proven to potentially be “more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal fat than other types of exercise” because it:
· Increases the resting metabolic rate for up to 24 hours post exercise
· Boosts levels of fat oxidation in the muscles
· Supresses post exercise appetite
· Improves insulin sensitivity
The only drawback of this type of training is that it can excessively stress your system. It's recommended you don't do more than 3 sessions a week to ensure you allow your body to recover.
And to be honest, the research around this still needs a good bit of reviewing so take this with a pinch of salt…
Strength training is amazing when it comes to stoking the fires of your metabolism as your body will continue to burn through energy AFTER you've completed your workout. This phenomenon is known as EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption).
Strength training also ensures you lose mainly fat, whereas too much cardio can cause you to lose muscle mass – and nobody wants that! Plus, larger muscles burn more energy and, as a result, will increase the body's resting metabolic rate.
It's not all about exercise
Fat loss doesn't just come down to how you train. What you eat can also have a major impact on how your body stores fat and things like cycling your diet between ELEL (eat less, exercise less) and EMEM (eat more, exercise more) should also be considered.
The bottom line
While completing hundreds of crunches may strengthen the underlying muscles, they will not specifically reduce the overlying fat. This is because the body gleans its energy from wherever it pleases. It's not choosy!
Of course, working on individual muscles will help strengthen and grow them. But to see the definition you need to aim to reduce your overall body fat percentage. This can be achieved through a well-planned diet and exercise regime combining both cardio and strength-based training.
Essentially, you need to forget those isolation exercises and try something that'll stoke the fires of your metabolism instead. After all, the more muscle you build, the more energy you'll need and the more fat you'll burn!