Spot Reduction: The Myth That Just Keeps on Giving... False Hope
I hear it so often: "I want smaller (insert body part)" or, "I just want to lose weight here (pointing to area on body)".
I totally get it. I see the marketing too: the "Two-Week Ab Makeover" on the cover of the popular fitness magazine and "How to Get Smaller Thighs Quickly" on the well known fitness blog.
And while yes, overall, it's a huge issue, the worst part is that I see this type of marketing targeted to mamas more than anyone else. And even more craptastic- I see it ALL THE TIME, especially when we are talking about the abs and, AHEM, "getting them back" after baby.
Here's the thing:
Spot reduction (or localized fat loss) is still one of the biggest fitness myths being perpetuated in the fitness industry.
If you've been following me for any amount of time I'm sure you know my view point on getting anything "back" postpartum or fixing so called "problem areas". If you're new to my site, here's a quick recap: I think the idea is nonsense- you don't have to get anything back after baby, you have to take care of yourself. And those so called problem areas- why are they a problem? Really think about that for a moment...
Fat/weight loss can come eventually but allow it to be on your time and allow it to be slow. From a body-confidence perspective, trying to change one part of your body so it can stand up to ideal proportions shouldn't be a concept we as women should be worrying about.
But, I digress.
Trying to target one area of your body by doing repetition after repetition of an exercise has actually been shown, through research, to be fairly ineffective. In studies, exercise protocols using site-specific exercise protocols (spot reduction techniques) showed these methods when used on the abdominal region (1) and the legs (2) to be ineffective. Thus, trying to rid yourself of your saddlebags by doing 100 reps on the hip abduction machine will likely be void of your intended outcome.
Let's talk about how fat loss works. When you consume extra calories, the nutrients from those calories are converted into fatty compounds called triglycerides which are then stored in fat cells or, adipocytes. During exercise, adipocytes release the triglycerides which are then broken back down into fatty acids (FAs). The FAs are the transported by the blood, through the circulatory system, to the working tissues to be utilized as energy. All fatty acids must travel through the circulatory system- the body does not get to target the location from which it pulls, therefore leaving the proximity of the fat cell to the working muscle as a null factor. The body will dip into adipocytes from all areas to provide the energy it needs to the working muscles, not just the fat cells that are closest in proximity. Therefore, fat loss is a total body process.
Even though fat loss is not site-specific, muscle building is (3). Meaning- you can't work an area to lose fat faster BUT, you can work an area to build muscle- which can change the shape and appearance of that, or another area. This is commonly referred to as spot enhancement- growing the shoulders and latts to make the waist look smaller or, performing glute exercises to make the them look fuller and rounder. The focus rather is changing the appearance of the area by changing the shape and/or size of the musculature- primarily through strength training.
I totally empathize with the desire for our bodies to have certain proportions. I've been there and sometimes, like when I'm buying jeans, almost go right back to that space. That space where I used to wish my thighs weren't so meaty so that I could buy a pair that fit... without alterations. But, I know that in order for my hips to get smaller, my whole body would have to get smaller and, I'm just that interested in that right now.
So let me ask you a few questions-
What is your true purpose for reducing the size of a body part or losing weight. Is it because someone else- perhaps a magazine or TV show told you that you had an area that was a problem? Do you have health concerns? Do you just want to feel better in your clothes? Do you just want to feel better in general? What does feeling better mean? Is it smaller? More energetic? And lastly, can you approach this from a place of acceptance- meaning, accepting yourself where you are now but striving to feel better or look "better"?
Now, if you are still interested in fat loss ...
Then you should choose a program that you can adhere to overtime which emphasizes the following principals:
1) Create a caloric deficit by consuming primarily whole, nutrient dense foods or a lot of nutrient bang for your caloric buck. Things like fruits, vegetables, lean meats and plant sources of protein, and whole grains.
2) Make sure you get adequate protein. Aim for 20-30 grams at each meal or in a day, aim for the number of grams to equal your target weight.
3) Increase muscle mass through resistance training. Increase muscle mass equals increased fat loss. See this article for more specifics.
4) Learn how to rest and make sure you're sleeping enough.
To wrap up...
Spot reduction doesn't work but being mindful about diet and exercise and staying consistent does. Adherence over time is your key to success. You must first understand the goal of your fat loss and how you want to feel and you must accept yourself right now, while striving to make change. Lose fat all over and you will eventually see the changes you desire.
1. Vispute, S.S., Smith, J.D., LeCheminant, J.D., Hurley, K.S. (2011). The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res. 25(9):2559-64.
2. Ramirez-Campillo, R., Andrade, D.C., Campos-Jara, C., Henriquez-Olguin, C., ALvarez-Lepin, C., Izquierdo, M. (2013). Regional fat changes induced by localized muscle endurance resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 27(8):2219-24.
3. Wakahara, T., Fukutani, A., Kawakami, Y., & Yanai, T. (2013). Nonuniform muscle hypertrophy: its relation to muscle activation in training session. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 45(11):2158-65.