The Fallacies of “Spot Reducing” and Truth About Fat Loss

By Terry Zeigler, EdD, ATC 

The concept of “spot reducing” is behind many of the infomercial products marketed in the fitness industry. The concept is that if you train a specific area of your body through repetitive low intensity muscle contractions (i.e., massive amounts of abdominal crunches), then the fat overlying the area will decrease (i.e., reduction of belly fat).

UNFORTUNATELY, THIS IS ONLY A MYTH but one that is perpetuated by continuous bombardment of new “spot reducing” products advertised via infomercials. A basic understanding of exercise physiology will help individuals understand how the body actually accumulates excess fat, where it is stored, and how it is lost.

Why does my body need to have fat?

There are two types of fat stored in the body. The first is essential fat. This is fat that is stored in the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscles, central nervous system, and bone marrow. This fat is “essential” for the organs to function properly.

The second type of fat is stored fat. Stored fat includes the fat that is surrounding the internal organs of the body (for protection from trauma) and fat that is subcutaneous (stored just beneath the skin’s surface). The stored fat located under the skin is the larger portion of total stored fat.

The body was designed to store excess fat as an energy reserve. If the individual consumes more calories than it needs, the excess calories are stored as subcutaneous fat. The good thing is that subcutaneous stored fat can be reversed and utilized as an energy source when blood sugar is low.

Why do women have more body fat than men?

Women have more essential fat than men due to sex-specific fat that women need for pregnancy. The lowest limit of essential body fat for women is 12% while the lowest limit for men is 3%. In other words, fat is essential for the healthy functioning of the body and women will need to carry more body fat than men.

How can I reduce subcutaneous fat?

Subcutaneous fat is reduced when the body needs fuel to keep the body moving. As muscles are exercised and blood flow is increased to and from the muscles, the body is better able to mobilize from the fat stored within the body and metabolize that fat into energy.

The key to losing subcutaneous fat is to add low-intensity exercise to a daily routine. Low-intensity exercise pulls directly from stored fat for its energy source.

Aerobic exercise can also help with fat metabolism in that higher level aerobic exercise helps speed the mobilization and transition of stored fat to usable energy within the blood stream. A combination of both types of exercise can help to reduce excess stored body fat.

Can I influence how fat is removed from my body?

It is important to understand that an individual cannot choose the location from which stored fat is metabolized. Fat is stored in a unique and systematic pattern for each individual mostly based on genetics. Excess energy that is stored as fat will be laid down in a specific pattern for each individual.

Some people will store fat beginning in the abdomen and then progressing to the upper extremities, face and neck, and then lower extremities. Others will store fat beginning in the hips and thighs, abdomen, and then upper extremities, face and neck. Still others will have their own unique pattern of fat distribution.

Most commonly, males tend to store excess fat in the abdomen whereas females tend to store excess fat in the hips and thighs. However, this is not always the case and can be reversed in some men and women.

Another interesting point of fat distribution within the body is that fat will be removed in the same order that it was laid down. Once again, this pattern is set by the body and cannot be influenced through specific training.

How can I get a leaner looking abdomen?

While abdominal exercises strengthen the underlying muscles, they do not specifically reduce the overlying fat. However, strengthening abdominal muscles is still beneficial for core strength and for the reduction of back injuries and should still be included in a fitness program.
Be sure to check out the following SportsMD core strength videos to strengthen your abdominal muscles.

Abdominal Exercises and Assessment
Testing Your Trunk and Core
Core Strength Exercises: The Side Bridge
Transverse Abdominal Press

To be able to see the muscle definition of the rectus abdominus muscle (most superficial muscle of the group), the individual will need to strengthen those muscles. However, to actually see the definition of the rectus abdominus muscle, the individual will also need to incorporate fat burning exercises to reduce the body fat that is lying over the abdominal muscles.

This can be accomplished by targeting exercises that specifically burn body fat – low-intensity exercises. One of the best fat burning exercises is walking. If exercise is at a higher intensity, the fuel that is needed to maintain a higher level of intensity is pulled from a different source.

Exercising at a heart rate of 110bpm (may change depending on age) is exercise that is at a low enough level to pull energy from the subcutaneous fat stores of the body. The benefit is that this type of exercise can be maintained for 30 – 40 minutes without taxing the body’s energy systems. The second benefit is that because the individual is exercising at a low level, it can be done every day without injuring the body.

Walking 30 minutes a day has been found to be effective in reducing excess subcutaneous body fat as long as the individual does not increase his/her caloric intake at the same time.

As the body uses subcutaneous body fat to fuel the body during low intensity exercise, the individual will gradually see the subcutaneous body fat decrease. As this type of exercise is maintained over time, the individual will then be left with a leaner body and one in which the underlying muscle definition will begin to be seen.

The individual can also benefit from aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is exercise that is maintained at a higher intensity (60% or higher of max heart rate) and one that is sustained using the large muscles of the body. High intensity exercise actually increases the body’s ability to metabolize energy from stored fat. So this type of exercise will also help in reducing stored fat.

Is there any research that proves that spot reducing does not work?

According to the authors of the textbook “Essentials of Exercise Physiology” (2006), researchers compared the right and left arms of high-caliber tennis players to study the effects of exercise on reducing fat. The researchers compared the subcutaneous fat of the tennis player’s right and left arms.

If spot reducing worked, then theoretically, the dominant arms of the tennis players would have less subcutaneous fat because the dominant arms are constantly exercised as compared to their non-dominant arms.

The researchers found that the overall size of the tennis player’s dominant arms was larger due to the hypertrophy of the underlying muscles (to be expected). However, skinfold measurements of the athlete’s dominant and non-dominant arms revealed that regular exercise of the dominant arm did not reduce subcutaneous fat deposits in the playing arm.

Are products that use electrical muscle stimulation effective in reducing stored abdominal fat?

There have been a number of products marketed to consumers on the premise that the activation of electrical muscle stimulation units on the abdomen can decrease subcutaneous abdominal fat. This is another fallacy.

The “Ab Energizer Exercise System” was recently pulled off the market by the Federal Trade Commission. This system included an exercise belt that included multiple electrical pulses. The individual was supposed to wear the belt with claims that the unit would create “six-pack” abs with “no pain, no work, and no sit-ups”.

The underlying concept of the produce was that of “spot reducing”. The marketers insinuated that the product would stimulate the underlying muscles and that the overlying fat would melt off. They claimed that the device would tighten and tone the muscles while creating a slimmer appearance.

In its ruling of the product and its claims, the Federal Trade Commission permanently banned the owners of the product from claiming that the Ab Energizer or any similar device was effective at “weight loss, inch loss, fat loss, muscle growth, or well-defined abs” (McArdle, W.D., Katch, F.I., & Katch, V.L., 2006).

What is the best way to reduce overall body fat?

Effectively reducing body fat begins with a fitness program combining strength training, low-intensity level exercise, and aerobic exercise. Each type of exercise plays an important role in subcutaneous fat reduction.

Strength training is important because larger muscles burn more energy and increase the body’s resting metabolic rate.

The metabolic rate is how much energy the body needs to sustain its functions. A body with more muscle mass will generate a higher metabolic rate thus burning more energy throughout the day even at rest.  This is a key component to reducing body fat especially for women as they get older. Metabolism naturally decreases with age because activity levels decrease. Maintaining a regular strength training program can help counter this metabolic decrease.

Because women do not have the hormone testosterone, women do not have the ability to gain large muscle mass when they strength train. However, small gains can be seen with regular strength training programs. Women will see an increase in strength more than an increase in size. A regular strength training program emphasizing the major muscle groups of the body should be performed three days a week to see a steady gain in strength.

Focused attention on daily low-intensity exercise is the second component in a program to reduce body fat.

Walking has already been mentioned as the best exercise for reducing body fat. Other forms of exercise can be utilized as long as the heart rate is maintained at a low level (between 100 and 110). These types of exercises should be performed starting for 30 minutes a day and then increasing as time permits.

Last, aerobic exercise can be included three days a week.

The purpose of aerobic exercise is to primarily strengthen the cardiorespiratory system. Understanding that the heart is itself a muscle, the heart grows stronger with aerobic exercise. Secondary to improving the cardiorespiratory system, aerobic exercise also enhances the body’s capacity to metabolize stored fat.

These three types of exercises combined into a fitness program are the keys to reducing stored fat in any body type.

The fitness industry is a billion dollar industry with a constant supply of “new” products vying for the consumer’s dollar. Good products are based on exercise physiology and solid research. However, a healthy body can be obtained with a focus on the basic principles of strength training, low-intensity exercise, and aerobic exercise.

References

Anderson, M.K., Parr, G.P., & Hall, S.J. (2009). Foundations of Athletic Training: Prevention, Assessment, and Management. (4th Ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore, MD.

McArdle, W.D., Katch, F.I., & Katch, V.L. (2006). Essentials of Exercise Physiology. (3rd Ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore, MD.