Spot Reduction…no longer a myth?

5 min read

Q: Hi Jenny! So I’ve been working out consistently for the past year, doing both cardio and lifting weights and I have noticed overall weight loss but I can’t seem to loose the excess fat around my lower abdomen, my triceps, and my thighs. Is there anything I else I can do to burn this fat off?

A: Lifting weights and being extremely consistent with your cardio sessions is going to be the foundation for burning fat off those trouble areas, so you’re on the right track! The only sure-fire way to reduce the amount of fat you’re storing in a specific area is to decrease your total body fat. As females, our bodies are always trying to maintain a healthy environment for a possible pregnancy, therefore making us prone to carry more body fat than males, especially in our abdomen, hips, and thighs. Knowing that Mother Nature gave us this genetic make-up can be frustrating, especially for athletic women who are not looking to have children at this point in their life. The first step to ridding your body of this excess fat is to develop an understanding of why your body doesn’t want to let it go and why you are storing fat in certain places.

Your genetics and ancestry play a big role in where and how much fat your body stores. It has been shown that people with an ancestry in countries with hotter climates such as Africa, tend to store fat in their glutes, hips, and upper thighs. Individuals with an Asian ancestry tend to store fat around the abdomen. The homeland of both of these nationalities are hot climates where it would make more sense to store fat in a smaller area rather than spread over the entire body, which would affect the body’s thermoregulation and make everyday life unbearably hot. In comparison, those with eastern European ancestry tend to distribute fat more evenly over their entire body, because in the past their bodies experienced extremely cold winters and evenly distributed fat was beneficial to their survival.

While your gender and ancestry are both major causes for your fat storage, neither of these factors are things you can control. Let’s take a look at the factors that you can control … the first being overeating. Overeating is going to enlarge your fat cells; along with regulating muscle protein synthesis, this is another benefit of eating 5-6 smaller meals per day, instead of 1-3 large meals. Along with this, it is also important to not starve your body. Eating one meal a day means your body is waiting for a prolonged period of time for its necessary nutrients and it goes into starvation mode. Starvation mode can also occur even when you are eating multiple meals per day but not enough for your body to function properly. Starvation mode causes your fat reserves to increase as your body adapts to adjust for prolonged periods of time without calories. Meaning, your body will store the calories you’re consuming in the adipocytes, which are the cells that primarily compose adipose tissue, specialized in storing energy as fat, in order to provide your body with energy. The fibrous connective tissue that binds adipocytes forms a tough layer that makes the circulation of blood and oxygen to that area extremely difficult. Once this connective tissue is developed, it is very difficult to break down, which is what those fat deposits around your abdomen, thighs, triceps, and lower back are bonded by.

Until recently, burning fat off of a couple specific areas, also known as spot reduction, was thought of as nothing but a myth. However, lately I have come across some research that proves this might not be as mythological afterall. The foundation of this research revolves around addressing the problem of lack of blood and oxygen flow to the fatty area. If you run a quick little touch-test on yourself, you’ll see that these fatty areas on our bodies are the coldest to touch. If you touch the back of your thighs, triceps or lower abdomen, you will notice that they feel a lot cooler than the rest of your body and the reason for that is the lack of blood flow in that area. With a lack of blood flow to this area, fat reduction would be extremely difficult. There are 3 solutions to help solve this problem. The first would be to keep the area warm while doing cardio. By keeping the area warm, you will be allowing an increase in circulation. Using one of those slimming rubber waist belts (you know, the ones that everyone who knows anything in the fitness industry has crossed off their list of helpful tools for every reason except for skin dehydration) actually comes in useful with this theory. The trick with this is to make sure it is snug but not too tight. If it is too tight it may force blood out of the area in which you are trying to increase circulation in. The second trick is to train the muscles adjacent to the fat. By doing this, you are increasing the circulation in the area directly next to the fat stores. This can be done in the middle and at the end of your cardio session. Hop off the treadmill and perform a couple sets of ab work with high repetition and little to no weight, with the intent to just increase blood flow in that area. The third method would be to perform your cardio when your body is in a fasted state. The intake of carbs and insulin before a cardio session has been proven to greatly reduce the break down of fat. So pre-breakfast cardio is going to be the time when your body’s fat stores are accessible and readily available to be used as energy.

Much of the available research I have come across on this topic focuses mostly on losing abdominal fat, but these practices can also be useful in burning fat off those other trouble areas, such as the triceps, glutes, and thighs. I suggest using supersets or circuits to target these areas when I am working with my own clients. By performing multiple exercises in a row that are targeting one muscle group, you will be allowing a constant flow of blood and oxygen to that area which will enable your body to burn the fat off.

Please be aware that these methods may only be useful if you already have a low body fat percentage. If you need to drop more than just a thin layer of fat, you may not notice results by simply increasing your circulation to these areas. If you are looking to drop more than a more substantial amount of weight, a good nutrition program, consistent cardio sessions and resistance training is the way to go.

  1. Moro, C, et al. Sex differences in lipolysis-regulating mechanisms in overweight subjects: effect of exercise intensity. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.). 2007 Sep;15(9):2245-55.
  2. Turcotte, L. Role of fats in exercise. Types and quality. Clinics inSports Medicine. 1999 Jul;18(3):485-98.
  3. Stallknecht B, et al. Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2007 Feb;292(2):E394-9.

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1st Phorm Athlete Jenny Drennan
1st Phorm Athlete Jenny Drennan

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