Many start their fitness journey because they have a specific part of their body that they want to shed fat from and get lean. What these people are looking to do is often referred to as “spot reduction”, “spot toning”, or “spot training”.
This refers to the idea of reducing fat in a certain area of our body by doing specific exercises which work the muscles in that area. Common hot spots people often want to spot train are the upper thighs, lower abs, butt, and upper arms.
This seems like a sensible notion, right? Well, as much as it might seem like it can work, it’s just not true.
So why is spot training a myth, exactly? Let’s take a closer look at the process of how body fat is burned when you’re active.
How is fat really burned?
What we commonly call body fat is subcutaneous adipose tissue, a loose connective tissue which is stored just underneath our skin. That’s the “flab” we can see when looking in the mirror. Our bodies can also store this fat found around our organs, which can even be problematic for our health.
Independent of its location, body fat is stored within fat cells and released when energy is needed.
For example, when we exercise or don’t eat as much. This is when fat is released from fat cells as triglycerides. These are then used up for energy.
While triglycerides are stored in certain areas of our body, they are used up globally – our bloodstream does not discriminate where the triglycerides come from.
The area where they are taken from is determined by genetics and hormones, not by the exercises we do. This has been clearly shown in numerous studies so far.
One notable study had participants perform thousands of leg extensions with just one of their legs, observing whether the participants could induce fat loss in that single area of the body.
And what was the result? You guessed it– there was no reduction in the fat on and around the trained leg.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, participants did see a reduction in fat in a specific area of their body after performing the exercises –the upper body!
While the researchers couldn’t provide insight as to exactly why this occurred, their experiment could not support the idea that one can reduce fat in a specific region by focusing their training on that area. Spot training remained unproven.
The realistic approach to fat loss
Now that we know the idea of spot training doesn’t work, you might be asking yourself: “How can I get rid of my problem area if I cannot target it specifically?”
The answer is simple: Train your entire body while reducing your caloric intake.
By combining a healthy, energy-restricted diet with full-body strength and interval training (like HIIT), your muscles will become more visible as your body burns off its fat reserves.
As an example, let’s say you want to lose fat in your upper legs. You can do all the squats you want, but if you don’t lose the body fat that covers them, your quads will stay hidden.
So combine diet, interval training, and of course exercise to develop your leg muscles. That way, your whole body, especially your legs, will start looking leaner and more athletic.
The same is true if your goal is to have a six-pack: simply doing sit-ups will not be enough.
So how exactly do you go about it if you want to shed those pockets of fat?
- Keep up a healthy diet while consuming fewer calories than you burn. This allows you to lose body fat that sits in front of your abdominal muscles and prevents the world from seeing them in all their glory.
- Speed this process up further by doing interval training sessions... so your body burns off even more fat. At the same time, you can still do your core workouts (including Situps, if you like them). By training them in this manner, your abs will become more visible. As you’ll hopefully see for yourself, abs truly are made in the kitchen as well as the training room (or outdoors on your mat).
- At the same time, gradually work on improving your diet. An important first step is to focus on eating healthy foods. Take your time building one healthy habit at a time to slowly decrease your body fat – that way, you’ll also perform better in training instead of burning out through a crash diet.
Repeat after me: fat loss is a marathon, not a sprint!
With all of our ambitions, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and that’s normal. Getting your diet in order and including interval and strength into our daily lives is not an easy task for most of us.
While many magazines and even studies use time frames such as three to six weeks for their programs, this is not ideal. They use these time frames out of convenience, not because this might be optimal for you.
While it is tempting to see your problem zones as “one-off” projects to deal with, it is more sustainable to adopt a fit lifestyle to get, and more importantly, keep the results you want.
Given that you may need an extended period of time to see the kind of fat loss that you want to achieve, it’s also a good idea to build up your self-control and mentally support yourself through the journey.Spot reduction is a myth that needs to die. While it may be tempting to try, in the end, you will not reach your goals chasing it. Instead, focus on changing your lifestyle to improve your body composition, which will include your problem areas. That way, you’ll get to keep the results you’ll see in the mirror.
 Ramírez-Campillo, R., Andrade, D. C., Campos-Jara, C., Henríquez-Olguín, C., Alvarez-Lepín, C., & Izquierdo, M. (2013). Regional fat changes induced by localized muscle endurance resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(8), 2219-2224.
 Katch, F. I., Clarkson, P. M., Kroll, W., McBride, T., & Wilcox, A. (1984). Effects of sit up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 55(3), 242-247.