If I had to rank the most common fallacies in the health and fitness industry, "spot losing fat" would be at the top. Also, millions of dollars are spent every year on products that claim to do it. So, let's learn why we can save our money.
What is Spot Loss?
The theory of spot loss (aka. 'spot reduction' or 'targeted fat loss') states that if we exercise a specific muscle, then the fat that sits on top of that muscle will melt away. Spot reduction techniques and products commonly target our "trouble areas", such as the abs, thighs, buttocks, and upper arms.
Here are some popular products that have devoured the pocket books of those desperate to find help for their own trouble areas. One of my favorites is Dr. Ward's Crystal Undulator, which claimed way back in 1922 to "reduce fat deposists and give a perfect figure from neck to ankles." Problem solved?
Why Trouble Areas?
I will not get into detail here, but we are designed to store fat in particular areas. For example, men tend to store more fat in the belly area (apple shape), while women tend to store more fat in the hips and buttocks region (pear shape). Of course, there are individual differences in where fat is stored, excess fat urges storage in new areas, physical inactivity and poor diet contribute to excess fat, and hormones tend to change where and how much fat is stored. For instance, estrogen is able to guide fat storage to the hips, which has been shown to be very advantagous for many reasons. However, after menopause, when estrogen levels decline, more fat is stored in the abdominal area.
The truth is, we do not like fat. This dislike and disgust is a focus of my own research, because of the impact it has on our behavior and pocket books. Companies know this truth. They know what are common trouble areas are, and create products to target these areas. The infomercial gives the illusion that it is speaking directly to you, but in actuality, it is speaking to millions of people. The marketing is quite smart...exploit an issue that is common to millions of people, and whether it works or not, the hope that the product will actually work, makes us buy it.
As you see in this picture, the pesky fat sits under the skin, but above the muscle. This fat is called "subcutaneous fat". When this fat builds up, we get our "trouble areas". As mentioned, the theory of spot loss claims that if we work this muscle, then the fat that sits on top of it will pull a Houdini and disappear. However, notice that the blood vessels in the fat run horizontal, side-to-side, and not vertical into the muscle?
Fact 1: Fat does not magically melt into the working muscle that sits below it.
So, how is fat used then? The fat in fat cells is broken down into smaller parts, then enters those blood vessels for transport to the working muscle. However...
Fact 2: Fat loss is a total body experience, and we cannot dictate where our fat is broken down from.
In other words, I could be working my abs, but am breaking down fat for energy in my thighs. Think about it, where is commonly the first place that people notice we have lost weight? Our faces. But, have we been doing face exercises, working the underlying facial muscles in order to lose that fat? Of course not.
I ask my students, if I had a fatty finger, which of the following prescriptions would the best way to lose fat off my finger?
- Do repeated "inch-worm" exercises with the small amount of my muscle in that finger, hoping the spot loss theory holds true?
- Go for some long walks and eat a healthy diet?
Good job class!
Fact 3a: To maximize fat loss, even in trouble areas, we want to use as much muscle as possible, as often as possible.
Fact 3b: To maximize fat loss, even in trouble areas, we want to eat as cleanly as possible, as often as possible.
Physiology and common sense usually enough to debunk the spot loss fallacy, but I wanted to share just a bit of research to put the final nail in the coffin.
Dr. Gwinup and colleagues did a study back in 1971, where they compared the dominant and nondominant arms in elite tennis players. If spot loss theory were true, then the dominant arm would have had less fat. What did they find? Despite the dominate arm having more muscle and being larger (see picture to left), the amount of fat on each arm was the same.1
In 1984, Dr. Katch and colleagues put their participants through a grueling sit-up training regimen. On average, they did 335 sit-ups per day for 27 days.2 Ouch! Surely, that many situps would cause the fat cells on the abdominals to shrink, right?
To test this theory, the researchers took fat biopsies to measure the size of the fat cells before and after the 27 days. In the end, they found that even after valiant attempt of over 9,000 sit-ups, the fat cell size did not change, nor did body weight, total body fat, fat/skinfolds, or girth measurements.
More recently, in 2011, Dr. Vispute and colleagues had participants do 7 abdominal exercises, for 2 sets of 10 repetitions, on 5 days per week for 6 weeks. Even though they got stronger (as measured by sit-ups) there was no significant effect of this abdominal exercise routine on total body weight or fat, abdominal fat or circumference, or the fat/skinfold thickness of the abdominal and above the hip bone.3
Even though spot-losing fat has been, and will continue to be, a popular area exploited by exercises, products and gimmicks, we have no evidence that the theory is true. In the end, the best way to target your trouble areas, is not to target them at all. Rather, put your hard-earned money and effort into staying physically active and eating healthy.
Fact 4: The best way to target your trouble areas, is not to target them at all.
Fact 5: Sometimes we have to make a decision to love ourselves, despite our flaws. We all have them, and can still be healthy and happy despite them.
1Gwinup, G., Chelvam, R., & Steinberg, T. (1971). Thickness of subcutaneous fat and activity of underlying muscles. Annals of Internal Medicine, 74(3), 408-411.
2Katch, 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.
3Vispute, S.S., Smith, J.D., LeCheminant, J.D., & Hurley, K.S. (2011). The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(9), 2259-2564.