My default answer whenever someone asks me about spot reduction – the idea that fat can be targeted for reduction from a specific area of the body with the use of certain exercises – is that it can’t be done.
That is, you can’t reduce the amount of fat stored in a particular region of the body, be it your chest, arms, stomach or wherever, simply by doing more exercises for that area.
However, I came across a study the other day that suggests the idea might not be as crazy as was once believed.
Here’s what happened:
Two groups of women completed a 12-week training program. The first group did five exercises for their upper body (6 sets of 10 reps per exercise), which was followed by 30 minutes of cycling. Group two did the same thing for their lower body, followed by 30 minutes on an arm ergometer (like an exercise bike for your arms).
The theory behind why the program was set up that way goes something like this:
1. During exercise, the muscles you’re training get warmer. This raises the temperature of the fat sitting next to them.
2. As a result, there’s an increase in the flow of blood to that fat, which ramps up the delivery of various “fat burning” hormones.
3. This in turn increases the rate at which fat is mobilized from those areas. The fat that’s been mobilized then gets burned off during the cardio that follows.
That’s the theory, anyway. But did it actually work?
At the start and end of the study, the researchers used DEXA scans and skinfold calipers to see how much fat was stored in various areas of the body.
What they found was very interesting.
Both groups ended up losing about the same amount of fat in total – 3.7 pounds (1.7kg) in the upper body group and 4.4 pounds (2.0kg) in the lower body group.
However, the group who trained their upper body ended up losing more fat from their upper body, while the group that trained their lower body lost more fat from their lower body.
Here’s how the researchers sum up the results:
We observed that upper and lower limb subcutaneous adipose tissue was affected in a different fashion by the different exercise regimes, with the regions undergoing prior resistance exercise experiencing a greater fat mass reduction. Such observations promote the suggestion that specific exercise programmes may affect adipose depots in a selective manner.
While these findings are interesting, there are a few reasons why they need to be treated with some caution.
First, this is just one trial, with only eight people in each group. There have been many times in the past when a study finds something that appears to go against the grain, only for multiple follow-up studies to show the exact opposite.
In fact, there are lots of trials out there (albeit not using this exact training protocol) to show that spot reduction doesn’t happen.
The results of a single study shouldn’t be used to guide your decisions about how to train or what to eat. It’s only when the findings are replicated, and you get multiple studies showing the same thing, that it’s worth sitting up and paying attention.
No matter what your training program looks like, it needs to be paired with a decent diet if you want fat to be lost. And if you’re looking for some help on the nutrition side of things, head on over here and I’ll show you what to do: