Is spot reduction actually a myth?

Posted by Dayne Hudson in Weight Loss

Estimated reading time: 6mins

Is spot reduction actually a myth? Bulk Nutrients has the answers...

The science behind spot reduction fat loss

Both sexes tend to want to reduce fat from certain areas of their body. For women, "tuck shop arms" describe too much fat around the triceps, and for men, too much fat around the abdominal region is referred to as the "beer belly."

This is due to the differences in fat distribution between both sexes.

And so, it's not uncommon to see both sexes perform ab crunch after crunch in the gym, with the aim of losing more fat from their stubborn abdominal regions.

But is this really going to work?

The bulk of the research, without digging too deep, says no.

In the early 80s, this study was conducted to see if sit ups targeted unwanted belly fat.

Sadly, they didn't.

Recently did scientists again, investigate if an ab training program could achieve more fat loss compared to a group that didn't do any ab training, with the same number of calories eaten in both diets.

And no luck again for spot reduction.

And these studies and others led many in the fitness community to hammer the final nail into the spot reduction coffin.

But as some researchers have pointed out since, in some of the aforementioned studies, there was no fat loss at all.

So, we won't see any evidence of spot reduction if no one is losing fat anyway!

The devil is always in the details with some scientific studies, and whilst some studies are set up better than others, it opens the door for more investigation.

Is spot reduction a myth after all? New research suggests maybe not.
Is spot reduction a myth after all? New research suggests maybe not.

New evidence into spot reduction for weight loss

This recent study also ruled against spot reduction, but there was more to the story.

The researchers put two groups of overweight women into different programs: the diet-only group and the diet AND ab training group.

Now, they lost the same amount of abdominal fat, which some might say rules out spot reduction.

But hang on!

We know that women lose weight from their stomachs first generally regardless of what they do. But the study didn't really push them in terms of their abdominal work with progressive overload as we would; ensuring we increase weight and intensity as time goes on. 

So if spot reduction exists at all, where was the evidence of it?

Well, despite it being statistically insignificant, the group training abs lost more stomach fat on all of the three measures of fat loss, and the diet-only group had a greater reduction in hip circumference.

So, there are some promising signs, but nothing definite just yet!

Can we lose fat in a given area on a weight loss diet and training program?

Now for the big revelation!

In this recent study, the conclusions are that spot reduction might actually be possible.

As discussed above, some ab training in concert with a calorie deficit may work slightly, but not to any significant degree.

But in this study, it was more evident due to the strength in study design, and something else that we'll get to.

There were two groups, the lower body strength training group and the upper body strength training group. And the group training upper body lost more fat from their upper body, and likewise for the lower body group. 

And they both lost the same total amount of body fat. Moreover, their calorie intake was also the same, and so the researchers were excited to report spot reduction.

But the difference here was that cardio was performed after the weight training.

So why is this significant?

Well, research suggests that the increase in body temperature, fat burning hormone production, and blood flow, might increase the transfer of the fatty acids from your adipocytes (fat cells) into the region you're exercising and allow fat loss to occur from that place. In other words, spot reduction. 

And it seems that the cardio afterwards means that the fat might just be reduced from that area.

Training legs first and backing it up with cardio may just help you spot reduce fat from your thighs.
Training legs first and backing it up with cardio may just help you spot reduce fat from your thighs.

So practically speaking, the research suggests that for us looking to "spot reduce" fat from a given area, we need to:

Step 1: Train the given area (eg, abs) we want to lose fat from with a relatively challenging weight; probably 70-80% of your one-rep max, to increase body temperature, fat burning hormone production, and blood flow, which can increase the transfer of the fatty acids from your fat cells.

Step 2: Back it up with cardio as we discussed or try something like a full-body workout to get your heart rate up. 

Step 3: Make sure you're eating in a calorie deficit.

So, the old notion of abs and then cardio might not be so silly at all!

The bottom line is that more research might be needed for a definitive answer on spot reduction fat loss.

However, the notion that just doing sit-ups without cardio afterwards for targeted abdominal fat loss is still not (and will likely never be) supported by science.

But the new research suggests cardio following the resistance training of a given area you want to lose fat from (triceps, abs) may actually result in spot reduction. However, a calorie deficit must always be present when you're aiming for spot reduction. 

References:

  1. Frank I. Katch, Priscilla M. Clarkson, Walter Kroll, Thomas McBride & Anthony Wilcox (1984) Effects of Sit up Exercise Training on Adipose Cell Size and Adiposity, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 55:3, 242-247, DOI: 10.1080/02701367.1984.10609359 
  2. Henselmans M. New science: spot reduction is not a myth. https://mennohenselmans.com. 
  3. Karastergiou K, Smith SR, Greenberg AS, Fried SK. Sex differences in human adipose tissues - the biology of pear shape. Biol Sex Differ. 2012;3(1):13. Published 2012 May 31. doi:10.1186/2042-6410-3-13 
  4. Kordi R, Dehghani S, Noormohammadpour P, Rostami M, Mansournia MA. Effect of abdominal resistance exercise on abdominal subcutaneous fat of obese women: a randomized controlled trial using ultrasound imaging assessments. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2015 Mar-Apr;38(3):203-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2014.12.004. Epub 2015 Mar 10. PMID: 25766455.  
  5. Peterson MD, Pistilli E, Haff GG, Hoffman EP, Gordon PM. Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011;111(6):1063-1071. doi:10.1007/s00421-010-1735-9 
  6. Vispute SS, Smith JD, LeCheminant JD, Hurley KS. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2559-64. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fb4a46. PMID: 21804427. 
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