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Is Spot Reduction Possible?

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You’ve got limited time in the gym and you want to make your sessions as productive as possible – and if you want that rippling lean body, and still have a life outside of the gym, every second counts.

Ideally you’d like to be doing exercises that burn fat in the places where you’re struggling to lose it.

This is a process known as ‘spot reduction’, where you essentially pick a ‘spot’ on your body that you want to reduce the fat on.

But is spot reduction possible?

There is a lot of controversy surrounding this style of training, with several studies both for and against it.

If you’ve been researching spot reduction and are still unsure if it’s really possible, this is the article you need to read. We cover all the major points on spot reduction and fat loss, answering the following questions:

  • What is sport reduction?
  • What does the science say?
  • How will this affect your training?
  • Final Word

What is spot reduction?

Spot reduction refers to the idea that you can target fat from a specific part of your body by performing exercises that involve muscles from that area. For example doing squats to target fat from the glutes, or ab curls to target the beer belly. It’s often a concept that fitness professionals laugh at.

Tune into the TV late at night and you’ll see some ‘expert’ selling you a fitness product – they’re usually selling something that will promise tight abs just by performing a few curls – think ab rollers for example.

You eat a sandwich. You can’t choose where you store it as fat can you?

Of course not – so why would you be able to choose where you burn it off?

From a physiology point of view it would make sense that you burn fat ‘systemically’- from the whole of your body, as you have muscle mitochondria (fat burning furnaces) throughout your system.

So is spot reduction actually a possibility? We’ve done the research, and this is what you need to know:


Is spot reduction possible?

Key Point: Spot reduction refers to the idea that you can target fat from a specific part of your body


Is there evidence to support spot reduction?

Firstly, it’s worth saying that there are a lot of studies that suggest you can’t spot reduce. For example Katch et al [1] asked volunteers to participate in a 27-day sit up exercise training program to assess any changes in fat cell size.

No significant changes were reported at all between any variable demonstrating that traditional sit ups did not preferentially reduce fat cell size or body composition.

Similarly, Vispute et al [2] also found no changes in abdominal fat after 6 weeks of a range of different ab exercises.

There’s a surprising amount of studies coming out that show that adipose tissue can be influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles – basically by training a muscle you can burn fat on top of it and it appears to be all down to blood flow.

#Study 1 – Stallknecht et al. [3]

10 healthy males were subjected to three periods of leg extension exercises with 30 minutes rest in between – researchers found that blood flow was higher in the adipose tissue adjacent to the muscles involved, thus showing that specific exercise induced ‘spot lipolysis‘.

Essentially, burning fat from a specific place on the body.

The researchers suggested that during exercise the temperature of the working muscles increased, as well as the adjacent tissue– basically the fat that lies above the muscle got warmer by ~2ºC.

The result of this was an increase in adipose tissue blood flow, or ‘ATBF’ and it is suggested that this mechanism is responsible for the fat burning effects.

The study concluded that “specific exercise can induce spot lipolysis and increased blood flow in adipose tissue adjacent to contracting muscle”.

Or in other words: spot reduction is possible.

#Study 2 – Kostek et al. [4]

Kostek et al. subjected 104 volunteers (both men and women) to a 12 week arm-based weight training program on one arm only.

After the program had finished their arm fat levels were assessed using skinfold measures and a significant difference was found in fat levels between each arm – strangely though, these results only showed in the male participants. 

There are theories that suggest that if blood flow to a particular area of the body is poor – for example the obliques- then fat burning is decreased. Essentially, ATBF is crucial for fat burning.

If you grab hold of your love handles – the fatty areas of your abs tend to be colder than the rest of your body. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it – and strengthens the theory behind spot reduction.


Can-you-spot-reduce-fat-from-your-abs

Key Points: 

  • An increase in blood flow around fat may be an explanation of how spot reduction may occur
  • Spot reduction occurs best with weight training
  • May be more likely to occur in males than females

It gets even stranger- especially when you start firing lasers at people!

Bizarrely, even laser therapy has been found to help with targeted fat cell reduction. Caruso-Davis et al [5] used low level laser therapy (LLLT- a type of light source treatment) and found ~0.5cm reductions in girth per treatment- resulting in 2cm overall. 

On another note, LLLT has even been found to increase muscle size [6]- so not only could it be a possibility to fire lasers at our bodies to reduce fat levels- we might also be doing it to increase muscle size!


The Final Word – Is Spot Reduction Possible?

When it comes to spot reduction you shouldn’t get too excited.

There’s mixed results when it comes to whether spot reduction is actually possible, but on the whole it looks promising. By increasing blood flow around the desired area you can improve the amount of fat burned in that area. This is known a process as ‘spot lipolysis’ and it’s best achieved with weight training.

You still need to ensure you are in a calorie deficit to maximize fat loss– and the evidence to suggest spot reducing fat is a possibility should not at this stage replace the need for full body weight training and cardio on a regular basis.

So at this stage it isn’t a simple yes or no. While tons of studies, and even more anecdotes, suggest you can’t spot reduce, there’s an emerging amount of data to say it might just be a possibility – and that’s something we don’t want to dismiss.

Obviously, it’s early days and there’s much work yet to be done, but this proves to be a interesting topic for research. Watch this space- who know, maybe in 5-10 years time we’ll all be on ‘spot reduction training programs’.


References

  1. Katch, FI et al. Effects of sit up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. 1984. Res Quarterly for Exerc and Sport; 55(3): 242-47
  2. Vispute, SS. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J Strength Cond Res. 2011; 25(9): 2559-2564
  3. Stallknecht, B et al. Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans. Am J Physiol- Endo Metab. 2007; 292(2). E394-399
  4. Kostek, MA et al. Subcutaneous fat alterations resulting from an upper-body resistance training program. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007; 39(7): 1177-1185
  5. Caruso-Davis et al. Efficacy of low-level laser therapy for body contouring and spot fat reduction. J Obes Surg. 2010; 21(6): 722-729
  6. Baroni, B et al. Effect of low-level laser therapy on muscle adaptation to knee extensor eccentric training. European journal of applied physiology (2014): 1-9