Spot Reduction – Myth or Fact? (Spoiler: It’s a myth.)

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In the training world you’re constantly met with clients who have very specific goals. Normally, this is great! When someone has a list of things they want to accomplish with their exercise it actually makes the trainer’s job easier in the long run. Setting good goals creates a road-map to your future Best Self. We talked about goal setting in our New Year’s blog, so we won’t go more into that here. Suffice to say that Good Goals lead to Good Results.

But that brings us to Bad Goals! A Bad Goal is one which is unfeasible or not able to be accomplished in the manner the goal setter wants to achieve it. By and large the most common Bad Goal we get is people who want to reduce body fat in a particular area through exercise alone. This is called Spot Reduction, and it’s a Myth! The idea behind Spot Reduction is you exercise a particular muscle group – for instance, your abdominal muscles – and exercising those muscles causes the fat near those muscles to be used preferentially for fuel because they’re close. This, in theory, causes that fat to be burned more than other body fat. This is a frustrating myth for fitness professional because so many media companies and Snake Oil (Snake Sit-up?) Salesmen have promoted this as fact, that it becomes a piece of “common knowledge” we need to constantly combat.

Where did Spot Reduction come from?

The truth is, we weren’t able to find an actual origin for this myth. It’s been around so long, that tracing it to a specific source is difficult at best; maybe even impossible! Through research we found examples of people trying to spot reduce as far back as the mid-90’s, and the question of Spot Reduction was addressed specifically in 2001 by Carolyn Nickol [2], where she stated it was a myth.

The most oft cited study we have found supporting Spot Reduction is one from Denmark conducted in 2006 by Stallknecht, Dela, & Helge. They had 10 healthy, active males go through a regimen of exercise and rest over several hours, measuring their Adipose tissue blood flow (ATBF), Adipose tissue interstitial and arterial plasma glycerol concentrations, and Adipose tissue lipolysis at different points during the test. The study concluded, in their final remarks, that spot reduction is possible, however their results do not actually support this conclusion. We’ll talk about why in the next section.

How do we know Spot Reduction doesn’t work?

We’ll start by citing anecdotal evidence (i.e. stuff we know from experience, but didn’t learn from a strict scientific study). In 10 years of training experience, I’ve never once seen someone start with a pot belly, do a ton of sit-ups over any period of time, and reduce their belly fat as a result. I have two examples for you, one from me and one from a client.

In 2010 I was having issues losing belly fat. I had spent years getting in better shape, but the men in my family have the predisposition to hold belly fat like it’s made of gold (Pro Tip: It isn’t). I read up on Spot Reduction and decided to try it. I made no changes to my overall routine (nutrition, exercise, etc), except for adding 50 sit-ups every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I did this for four months. At the end of the time, I had no change in body fat, my waist line had increased (from building ab muscle), and there was no Six Pack in sight.

Next, in 2012 I was working with a client who was convinced that Spot Reduction was possible because popular media had played it up so much over the years. I explained why it wouldn’t work, but she was determined, so we came up with a plan. To preface this, she was not fat and was in pretty good shape overall. Her goal was Six Pack Abs and she didn’t have far to go. Our spot reduction plan was this: for two months, every other day, she would do 30 sit-ups, 30 lying leg lifts, and 30 oblique crunches per side. At her level of fitness, that was not over-training. And after two months…nothing. She was stronger, but no closer to a Six Pack.

Now, let’s address the study we talked about that seems to be constantly cited when spot reduction is promoted. The study tested three factors during exercise and while at rest:

  • Blood Flow: how much blood is flowing to fat tissue
  • Interstitial/Arterial Plasma Glycerol: how much sugar is in the blood near the fat tissue
  • Lipolysis: the rate at which lipids are metabolized

They found that the first two increased during exercise, which makes perfect sense. When you exercise blood flow increases to the areas being worked. The tissue responsible for the movement you are performing needs oxygen to keep moving, and oxygen is provided via blood flow. Also logical is the increased concentration of glycerol in the blood. Glycerol is a simple sugar chain responsible for metabolizing body fat into energy. It makes sense that working tissue would be burning more fats than resting tissue. These are expected findings and they don’t really support spot reduction.

The last measurement – lipolysis in the fat tissue near working muscle – is the key finding in this study. Lipolysis is the process of breaking down fat tissue into component parts and this is what we mean when we say “burning fat during exercise”. The study found no significant change in lipolysis in working tissue versus resting tissue, though in the study they manipulate the statistics to try to show it does. A measure of significance sets a threshold for whether or not the findings in a study matter. In at least two sections the authors change their threshold to make a finding significant where normally they would not be.

This means that the fat burned near the muscle doing the work was not appreciably different than the fat burned in resting parts of the body.

What does work?

As much as we wish that it was as simple as “work this area, lose the fat there” the truth is that only diet combined with exercise will have a significant impact on your body fat. Of those two, diet is by far the most important. If you ever have to choose between maintaining a healthy diet and maintaining a vigorous exercise regimen, pick diet.

We’ve gone into detail about good diet choices in the past in several articles:

Protein: The Muscle-building Macronutrient
Dietary Fat: The Much Maligned and Misunderstood Macronutrient
Carbohydrate: The New Menace?

To get you started, here are some general rules to help clean up your diet and start seeing results:

  • Stop drinking calories. Soda, milk shakes, juice. Anything that is just liquid and calories is not a good part of your diet.
  • You don’t need to carb-load to exercise. Low carb diets with moderate exercise burn more body fat than high carb diets with more exercise.
  • Your Lean Mass is equal to your weight minus your body fat.
  • To calculate your calories per day: 370 + (9.82 x Lean Mass in Pounds)
    • On workout days, increase that calorie count by 10%
  • Know your Macro’s:
    • Fats have 9 calories/gram
    • Proteins have 4 calories/gram
    • Carbs have 4 calories/gram
  • Dietary Fat isn’t a bad thing. It should make up about 55% of your daily calories.
  • Dietary Protein is what will ultimately build new muscle. It should make up 25-30% of your daily calories.
  • Dietary Carbs are dangerous because they are so easy to overeat. They should make up no more than 20% of your calories.

Now, go get fit!

Resources:

1. Stallknecht B, Dela F, Helge JW. “Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans?”. http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/292/2/E394

2. Carolyn Nickol. Spot Fat Reduction. University Fitness Center, University of Cincinnati. 2001.

3. Jeffrey F Horowitz and Samuel Klein. Lipid metabolism during endurance exercise. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/72/2/558s.full