Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?

Elena Perry April 3, 2011 20

Running can be more effective than crunches for getting rid of love handles. Photo courtesy of canstockphoto.com

Perhaps, like many people, you tend to overdose on cookies and pie during the winter holidays. Or maybe last semester’s study breaks and late-night runs to Durfee’s are beginning to catch up with you, and you find yourself facing the dreaded “freshman fifteen,” even if you are not a freshman. Either way, you may have been tempted at one time or another to use specialized exercise machines supposedly designed to deliver six-pack abs or buns of steel. But can selectively targeting certain body parts truly result in localized fat loss? Infomercials and even some fitness magazines would certainly like you to believe so. Scientific studies, however, suggest otherwise.

Targeted fat loss, also known as “spot reduction,” is a popular idea partly because it appeals to our intuition. After all, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the fat you burn while exercising comes from the area around the muscles you are using. Yet a 1971 study conducted by the University of California, Irvine on tennis players found that this is not actually the case. Tennis players constitute a population whose right and left arms have been consistently subjected to very different amounts of exercise over several years. Consequently, if spot reduction were a valid concept, one would expect the players’ dominant arms to have thinner layers of subcutaneous fat compared to their non-dominant arms. When the researchers measured the thickness of subcutaneous fat at specific points along the players’ arms, however, they found no statistically significant difference between right and left arms.

More recently, in a 2007 study led by the University of Connecticut, 104 participants completed a twelve-week supervised resistance-training program in which their non-dominant arm was selectively exercised. MRI assessments of subcutaneous fat before and after the program revealed that fat loss tended to be generalized, rather than only occurring in the trained arm.

It turns out that there are a few basic physiological reasons why targeted fat loss does not work. The fat contained in fat cells exists in a form known as triglycerides. Muscle cells, however, cannot directly use triglycerides as fuel; it would be analogous to trying to run a car on crude oil. Instead, the fat must be broken down into glycerol and free fatty acids, which then enter the bloodstream. As a result, the fat broken down to be used as fuel during prolonged exercise can come from anywhere in your body, not just the part that is being worked the most.

Another reason is that many of the exercises commonly associated with spot reduction do not actually burn many calories – and if you are not burning enough calories, you are not going to lose much fat from anywhere in your body. (Keep in mind that one pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories.) In fact, you are more likely to shed your love handles by taking up a running program than by doing crunches and sit-ups every day, simply because cardiovascular exercise is a much more efficient calorie-burner. High-intensity interval training (alternating between brief periods of high-intensity and low-intensity exercise) can be particularly effective, due to the phenomenon of after-burn – that is, an increase in resting metabolic rate that occurs for up to 24 hours post-exercise. Weight training can also help to achieve optimal results. It is important to maintain your muscle mass because you will not achieve a toned look if you lose lean tissue along with fat. Finally, good nutrition is essential. After all, even if you burn 500 calories by exercising, you will not end up losing any fat if you also consume 500 more calories than usual.

Ultimately, fat loss comes down not to targeted exercises, but to the basic principle of how many calories you expend versus how many you take in. Doing 100 crunches a day can effectively strengthen your abdominal muscles, but it probably will not make them any more visible unless you also take other steps to reduce your overall body fat. If you combine cardiovascular exercise with weight training and sensible nutrition, however, those fat cells will not stand a chance.

20 Comments »

  1. Eric October 7, 2011 at 9:08 PM - Reply

    There are at least a couple of clinical trials that indicate targeted fat loss is absolutely possible. If you’re going to write a piece on an antequated myth (“spot reduction is impossible”) do ALL of the research first! Increased blood flow = increased hormones to certain areas and increased usage of subcutaneous fat. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16985258

    • Daniel January 29, 2012 at 8:21 PM - Reply

      does that mean that if you do say 500 situps a day you burn a mesuerable amount of fat around your abdomenal area? One pound of fat is about 3500 calories.

      thanx.

    • Ri Walton March 11, 2013 at 1:05 AM - Reply

      This was left a while ago, but one of my students recently unearthed it and I had to comment. Please remember that “spot-lipolysis” and “spot-reduction” are not the same thing. A temporary rise in glycerol around a working muscle does not indicate (1) that only local fat stores are contributing to this rise, or (2) that this rise leads to a specific, permanent loss of adipose storage around this muscle. This study looked at acute changes in blood flow around the working muscle, not at long term (or even short term) reduction in subcutaneous fat. So when you do “ALL” of the research, make sure it pertains to the actual topic at hand.

      • Chus July 11, 2013 at 6:48 AM - Reply

        Besides, back in 1979 this study took place: “The effect of unilateral isokinetic strength training on local adipose and muscle tissue morphology, thickness, and enzymes.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/161225)
        So, 30 years ago researchers found a plausible explanation for the outcomes obtained in “Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans?” five years ago. In the 1979 study it can be read: “The decrease of thickness of subcutaneous adipose tissue was not associated with a significant decrease in fat cell size and was probably due to geometrical factors secondary to hypertrophy of the underlying muscle.” and “It is concluded that the relationship between lean and fat components of the human thigh is significantly influenced by changes in the activity of the thigh skeletal muscles, but a local dynamic strength training program can hardly be used for local emptying of the fat depot over the exercising muscles.”

        • a_foreigner August 29, 2013 at 12:03 PM - Reply

          uhm… long dead, this path, but I feel I simply *have to* leave a comment.

          the fat is stored in adipose tissue, and the muscle underlying it does not “own” the fat immediately upon it, but…

          …it turns out that blood flow is THE physical quantity responsible for local depletion of localized fat: NO blood flow, NO fat breakdown.

          if you work your – initially perhaps even – athrophic belly muscles very hard, they’ll get hypertrophic, instead.

          this will raise the temperature of the superficial/subcutaneous zone and consequently the subcutaneous blood flow

          blood flow increases linearly: if it has a value of “1″ at 28°C subcutaneous temp., it will be:
          - “2″ @ 31°C,
          - “3″ @ 34°C,
          - “4″ @ 37°C…
          … and so on

          but muscles are warm, and the more of it, the warmer the subcutaneous zone around it: and this at EVERY MINUTE OF THE DAY/NIGHT.

          this will cure “disbalances” much faster, and it actually turns tut (REALLY) that you can “spot reduce” DISBALANCES.

          this will not work on your belly if it’s fat just like the rest of your body:

          IT WORKS, nonetheless, if the fat region is a stubborn spot that maintains IMBALANCE in spite (and in the face) of every effort made to allign its fat content with the general state of your body.

          so SPOT REDUCTION by hard training WORKS on SPOT stubborn fat regions.

          I’d call it SPOT-to-SPOT-strategy.

          I’m doing it. 78-79 kg CONSTANT bodyweight, in 3 weeks I lost 5 cm in the waist. now my waist is down at levels when I used to weigh 72 kg

          but I do jogging and weightlifting, along with the “spot-to-spot strategy” exercises. its a 1-1,5 hour, 6 out of 7 day, job.

          che–er–rs!!

    • phil May 30, 2013 at 4:12 PM - Reply

      Eric, I would suggest you contiue to read past the abstract of the paper you kindly provided. The results could not be quantified, thus dispelling any hypothesis that spot lypolysis occured or is even remotley possible.

    • Alex Schindler May 1, 2014 at 1:50 PM - Reply

      The information here is not “antequated” [sic] so much as cognizant of the irrelevance of the study you cited.

      They didn’t bother to quantify the net effect on adipose stores that this lipolytic boost would have, but here’s someone who did.
      http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/research-review/are-blood-flow-and-lipolysis-in-subcutaneous-adipose-tissue-influenced-by-contractions-in-adjacent-muscle-in-humans-research-review.html

      So congratulations. You sure showed those snobby Yalies not to rest on their laurels. Spot reduction IS possible. between a thirtieth and a tenth of a gram at a time. I’m gonna go do a thousand lumbar-destroying crunches right now! It might be just what I need to go from a 5.0009-pack to a 5.001 pack.

  2. cellulean reviews November 17, 2011 at 2:06 PM - Reply

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  3. vientomistral March 19, 2012 at 12:02 AM - Reply

    Eric,
    I do believe in the veracity of the Yale studies.. I do not think that you, whoever you are, knows more than those yale scientists

    • Susan September 13, 2012 at 2:30 PM - Reply

      Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that Yale is a great institution but don’t forget, there are other universities, hospitals, laboratories etc. out there – they can be right, too. Also, there are studies that found evidence that cardio isn’t as effective as thought – particularly because the “afterburn” effect is a myth. (note: this is not my opinion, I have found all the information described in various articles; I am not a nutritionist or medical doctor)

      • Ri Walton March 11, 2013 at 1:09 AM - Reply

        Afterburn is not a myth, entirely, just much shorter than originally believed for cardio only (30 minutes-ish) whereas for weight lifting it may be longer (an our) and for high intensity interval training up to 4 hours. It depends on your mode and intensity.

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  10. Blackdiamond August 30, 2013 at 2:55 PM - Reply

    Response that helps in layman terms to Chus’s explanation. Think of skin and adipose tissue as an elastic piece of rubber and it is lets say 1 inch thick and it is wrapped around an inflatable tube, now take and blow that tube up to twice it’s size kind of like if you increase the size of the muscle now measure the thickness of the elastic rubber it now would probably measure 1/2 inch do to it expanding and having to cover more surface area thus thinning out. So the skin and the adipose tissue attached just become thinner than the non exercised muscle do to the increased surface area to cover. just physics.

    • a_foreigner October 11, 2013 at 5:40 AM - Reply

      no, that’s geometry, if any…..

      I’m doing it. I’m losing cm’s in the waist. Blood flow in fasting state is higher, and in the fasting state, with no insulin around, you can lipolize those regions, too, that have alpha 2 adrenoceptors, and that normally don’t get thinner as you exercise.
      but……. the key is to increase blood flow during exercise right THERE….. and there’s a way….

  11. Mr Haver February 4, 2014 at 4:53 AM - Reply

    i dont think its a myth, if you follow proper diet plan.

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