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Want Flat Abs? Stop Doing Crunches! What You Really Need To Know About Achieving a Defined Core.
An Introduction to Spot Reduction & Targeted Fat Loss
For a very long time, an idea has persisted that has turned out to be very counterproductive for the global population–and their waistlines. It is so intuitive, and seems so obvious, that it is easily believed by credulous folks looking for a bit of help with their body composition.
This idea is known as “spot reduction,” and if you were to survey a large group of professional trainers you would find a not-so-surprising majority of them believe in it wholeheartedly.
A billion-dollar industry has emerged around this one idea.
8-Minute Abs. The Thigh-Master. Ab Rollers. Electric abdominal stimulators.
However, despite its popularity, spot reduction is a myth that won't help you lose weight. Let’s take a look at the facts.
What Is Spot Reduction?
The phenomenon of spot reduction can be defined as the belief that fat in a certain area of the body can be reduced through the contraction of specific muscles in the target area. E.g. exercising the abdominal muscles in an effort to lose fat in or around your midsection.
Makes sense, right? To lose fat in your stomach, do situps and crunches. To lose fat in your upper arms, do triceps pressdowns. To lose fat in your hips, perform squats. Simple.
Simple and wrong, that is!
The way it’s supposed to work never pans out, and much like Einstein’s definition of insanity we keep repeating the very same strategies that have been failing, but expect a different result each time. It’s a case of the blind (mis)leading the blind.
And it’s not just time-wasting exercises that fail to produce the targeted fat loss. There is no shortage of “innovative” products that claim to be able to provide this holy grail. A quick perusal of Amazon’s online marketplace reveals myriad lotions, creams, heating pads, cooling pads, rolling tools, and even electrical stimulation devices all marketed using the principle of spot reduction.
But let’s examine the principle: can you actually target specific areas for fat loss?
Why Spot Reduction is a Myth
The truth is that the regulation of your fat tissue is out of your direct, instantaneous control. There are middle-men called “hormones” that are responsible for regulating the amount and quality of fat tissue you carry. Your only access to this system is to indirectly affect your fat tissue by manipulating these hormones. And no amount of ‘spot reduction’ work will have a meaningful impact on your hormonal system.
Some examples of hormones involved in the regulation of fat tissue include:
- Insulin–released by the pancreas, helps regulate blood sugar and glucose storage.
- Leptin–released from your fat tissue, provides the signal to your brain that you are full.
- Ghrelin–the “hunger hormone,” tells your brain that you need more food.
- Cortisol–commonly associated with high levels of stress, released from the adrenals, can cause excessive fat storage.
- Estrogen–a sex hormone responsible for regulating the female reproductive system, as well as the immune, skeletal, and vascular systems. Can alter the pattern of fat deposition.
- Neuropeptide Y (NPY)–increases hunger and decreases energy expenditure, leading to increased fat deposition.
- Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 (GLP-1) – a gut hormone that helps tell your brain that you are full.
Whew. Who knew there was so much going on beyond “eat less and move more?” In light of the intricate workings of your hormonal system, what are the odds that you can preferentially burn fat from a certain place on your body just by contracting the nearby muscles?
The truth is, when fat tissue is reduced, it is reduced a little bit from everywhere in a hormonally-determined pattern. So if you want to lose fat from anywhere, you have to lose fat from everywhere.
So how do we do it?
Resistance Training Hits The Spot
There are several reasons that full-body, high-intensity strength training is the most effective method for improving your body composition and reducing your body fat percentage. But the main thing is the hormonal enhancement that resistance training–especially when combined with diet, sleep, and other lifestyle factors–produces.
For example, we know that resistance training of this type:
- Enhances insulin sensitivity
- Increases human growth hormone and testosterone
- Induces the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and hormone-sensitive lipase–all potent lipolytic (fat-burning) compounds
Do you see the huge health benefits that are possible when you have a more holistic view? When you’re only focused on fitness myths like spot reduction, you miss out on all the things you could be doing if you just paid more attention to the important things.
When you eat in a way that balances your hormones, consistently get ample sleep, and engage in full-body, high-intensity strength training workouts, you’ll find that those pesky “spots” of fat begin to disappear along with the balance of fat elsewhere in the body. No lotions, creams, or electric shocks needed!
Bringing It Home
Even though we’ve advanced our understanding of fat tissue regulation in recent decades, very old ideas like spot reduction persist. It’s the fat loss version of the get-rich-quick shortcuts that are increasingly prevalent today.
Spot reduction strategies’ potential benefits and relatively low cost might seem superior to the more holistic options discussed above. But half of a sure thing is better than twice of nothing, and our recommendation is that you learn this lesson sooner than later.
The consistent practice of the habits and strategies that improve body composition incrementally over time will do more to rid you of undesirable fat tissue than dozens of gimmicks, tricks, and other counterproductive canards.
Eat, sleep, and train in a way that is compatible with your long-term goals and can be sustainably incorporated into your lifestyle. That’s the best “spot reduction” there is.
And we can help!
- Craig, B W et al. “Effects of progressive resistance training on growth hormone and testosterone levels in young and elderly subjects.” Mechanisms of ageing and development vol. 49,2 (1989): 159-69. doi:10.1016/0047-6374(89)90099-7
- GOTO, KAZUSHIGE1; ISHII, NAOKATA2; KIZUKA, TOMOHIRO1; TAKAMATSU, KAORU1. The Impact of Metabolic Stress on Hormonal Responses and Muscular Adaptations. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 37(6):p 955-963, June 2005. | DOI: 10.1249/01.mss.0000170470.98084.39
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