Exercise and Spot Reduction: The Myth vs. Reality

September 26, 2019 - 10 minutes read

The truth behind muscle tone and how to effectively achieve it.

What is spot reduction?

Spot reduction is the claim that you can reduce the amount of fat in a specific area of the body by performing targeted exercises that “tone” the muscles that lay underneath. In other words, it’s the idea that you can choose where fat can be lost on your body based on which muscles you train.

While in theory this concept would be great – who wouldn’t commit to performing a few rounds of sit-ups every day if it could reduce excess abdominal fat – in reality, it’s simply not how the human body works.

Perpetuating the myth

Numerous studies have been performed throughout the years to debunk this myth, yet the concept is still widely promoted by many seemingly reputable sources. Because of its appealing promise to consumers, it’s not uncommon to still see beauty magazines, online articles, social media and even some fitness trainers promote the achievement of slimmer thighs or the loss of “love handles” by completing their program of exercises that “burn fat” in those areas.

It’s an enticing advertisement but, unfortunately, that seems to be all it is – a marketing tactic that spreads a lot of misinformation. When we’re incorrectly told that targeted weight loss is easy and achievable, it shifts the blame onto us when the program ultimately doesn’t work. This leads us to see the attempt as a personal failure and often creates a high level of dissatisfaction with exercise among people who were at one point motivated to put in the time and effort to better their bodies and their overall health.

Why spot reduction doesn’t work

Let’s start by explaining what happens when you train a particular muscle group.

During exercise, the specific muscles involved are placed under a certain level of stress. This stress causes microscopic tears to be created and, in response, the injured cells send out a signal to the immune system to repair the injury. The resulting cycle of damage and repair causes the affected muscles to grow stronger and more developed, but the cycle has little effect on fat reduction as a whole, let alone on the amount of fat contained in the areas around the exercising muscles.

Now if someone already exhibits a lean body mass, this change in muscle development can be seen relatively quickly as as a more visually “toned” appearance. This is based on the fact that someone with this body type doesn’t hold much in the way of excess weight overtop of the targeted areas and could be what creates the misunderstanding of spot reduction.

If, however, someone holds a bit of extra weight in a certain area (which is generally the case if that person is looking to achieve targeted weight loss), they would still benefit from all the strength gains but would need to get rid of the excess fat before they would see the tone and development that is taking place in the muscles underneath. And unfortunately this can’t be achieved with just strength training.

It’s all about those genes

We’re all wonderfully unique, and our bodies are no different. Some people hold weight across their abdomen, while others store it more readily throughout the hips or appendages. Just like how tall we end up being or what type of hair we have, where your body holds fat is largely a matter of genetics. Take a look at your family members across generations and you’ll likely see a bit of a pattern start to emerge with regards to body type.

Not only does our DNA tell us where to store fat, it also dictates which areas will let go of it first as we start to lose weight. This means that in order to reduce fat across our “love handles” specifically, we actually have to work on building our overall fitness by combining muscular training with general weight loss efforts and let our genes do the rest. For some people, those “love handles” will decrease early on but for others, it could be the last spot to go. The order of reduction is very much out of our control.

What you can do

The path to overall fitness isn’t one that can be taken overnight; it’s something that needs to become a part of your lifestyle if you want it to truly work. As this is the case, it’s important to work on building a feeling of body positivity to start then move into setting realistic expectations for the rest. How much of your current lifestyle are you willing to change in order to achieve a certain result?

Once you’re ready to get started from there, move into working on the following three points to improve your general fitness:

1. Start by tweaking your diet

Good nutrition is the most essential component of any weight loss effort so it makes sense to start here. Now we’re not suggesting that you begin a diet of restriction and calorie counting as these methods aren’t sustainable and often lead to increased weight gain once the diet is stopped.

Instead, we suggest that you start by taking a look at the amount of processed foods you’re currently consuming throughout the day. Begin with what you’re eating for breakfast and see if you can replace some of those items with more single-ingredient whole foods.

As you get comfortable with this small change, move on to lunch, then snacks, then dinner.

For additional support, reach out to a dietitian or nutritionist who can help you understand the best way to fuel your body.

2. Add in some resistance training

Lean muscle burns more calories than other type of tissue so aside from the benefits of building strength, stamina and muscular endurance, resistance training also creates a larger need for energy in the body and therefore helps to burn more calories throughout the day. This has been proved to promote more sustained weight loss over a longer term when compared with diet-only efforts.

For additional support, reach out to a personal trainer who can work with you to create a program that’s right for your body and teach you how to move well.

3. Include regular cardiovascular work

While there are many cardio-specific training programs available, including HIIT, tabata, interval work and endurance training, the increase in cardio could also include a combination of more day-to-day physical activities. This could mean more frequent and brisk walks throughout the week, taking the stairs as a more regular occurrence or other creative ways to get your heart rate up throughout your normal day.

Related: 8 Steps To Find The Right Personal Trainer For You

The take away

If there’s one thing we hope you take away from all this information, it’s to work hard at bettering yourself through the areas in which you have control, but to find a level of acceptance in knowing that some of the results are simply going to be out of your hands.

Love your body regardless and use exercise to feel strong and empowered. The benefits of exercise are far-reaching and if you find the right mindset going into it, the results can be life-changing.