If you pick up any health or beauty magazine, you’re probably going to see headlines like, “How to Tone Your Thighs in Just Five Minutes” or “How to Get a Flat Tummy in One Week.” We all have our body hang-ups, so these headlines are probably pretty appealing. The issue is that these claims touting spot reduction are completely unfounded.
Spot reduction refers to the idea that by doing a certain exercise, like abdominal crunches, you can lessen the subcutaneous fat in the area that exercise is supposedly targeting. Studies have disproved that theory a hundred times over, but for some reason readers are still being sold the idea.
The spot reduction myth is just a common misconception. Exercises do tend to focus on specific areas, but they work to build and tone muscles. They do not work to get rid of fat. For instance, abdominal crunches work your rectus abdominis muscles, or the six-pack muscles. They also work your obliques, located at the sides of your abdomen, but to a much lesser degree.
By doing hundreds of crunches, you would have a stronger core. However, if you started doing these exercises with a layer of stomach fat, you’re still going to have that layer of stomach fat when you are done.
A study was completed in 2013 to attempt to officially put this myth to rest. Seven men and four women attempted to train their non-dominant leg for 12 weeks, three sets per week. By the end of the training, the average percentage of body fat mass lost was 5.1 percent. The workout had been mean to “target” the one leg, but that leg was not the body part that actually lost the most fat. In fact, the fat mass lost in the upper body and abdomen was significantly greater than the amount lost in the trained leg.
Spot reduction was disproved all the way back in 1971, when the University of California, Irvine measured the thickness of fat on tennis players’ arms. Tennis players typically have to work their dominant arm much harder than the other, so, if spot reduction was real, we would have to assume that there is more fat on the non-dominant arm. However, there was no significant difference in the amount of fat in either arm.
Scientifically speaking, it’s impossible to target the fat in one area because muscles cannot directly use the fat stored in fat cells. That fat exists as triglycerides. Before muscles can use triglycerides, they must first broken down into free fatty acids and glycerol. Those broken down fats could come from anywhere in the body, not just the area you are trying to work.
The best way to lose subcutaneous fat is to work your whole body, not to do hundreds of crunches. So next time you’re watching an infomercial that claims their workout will give you the six pack you’ve always wanted, just change the channel.