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Coaching Nutrition

Targeted Fat Loss or “Spot Training”

Often when a new client is starting their fitness journey they have a specific body part that they want to shed fat from and tone up. They will describe losing fat from around their abdomen and ask about which Abs Exercises they need. What they are describing is often referred to as “spot reduction”, “spot toning”, or “spot training” call it what you will.

But this approach to training only every ends up in disappointment – it simply does not work. Today I thought I would write about why this doesn’t work and explain what will. Ready? 

The thinking behind Spot Training

The idea of reducing fat in a certain part of the body by doing exercises that target that area seems, on the face of it, a fairly sensible plan. Common areas that people often want to target include lower abs, upper arms, upper thighs and of course the Glutinous Maximus (better known as your backside!).

The problem with this approach is that it does not reflect how the body actually uses fat stores. Whilst “Spot Training” can improve muscle tone in the desired area, that muscle won’t replace the fat that was there and nor will it necessarily use fat that is next to it to fuel itself. So ultimately, you end up with a toned muscle that nobody can see, as it is still covered in fat.

Disappointing… to say the least!

So if “Spot Training” doesn’t work, then what does? To find the answer to that we need to dig a little deeper into how the body actually uses our fat stores.

Metabolising Fat

What we commonly call body fat is correctly termed subcutaneous adipose tissue. This is a loose “connective tissue” which is stored just underneath our skin (“subcutaneous”). That’s the “flab” we can see when looking in the mirror. Our bodies can, and will, also store this fat found around our internal organs, which is far more problematic from a health perspective. But regardless of what we call it, we all understand that carrying excessive amounts of fat in our body is problematic.

But fat does serve an important purpose, therefore we do need small amounts of it. Body fat is stored energy. When we consume more calories than our body needs at that time, and it has replenished our internal glycogen stores, the surplus “energy” is stored within fat cells and then released in the future when (if) energy is needed. Clearly the issue arises when that day never comes! 

For example, when we exercise or don’t eat as much. This is when fat could be released from fat cells as triglycerides. These would then be used up for energy. But releasing energy from fat cells is a relatively time consuming process (its quite slow and inefficient), therefore the body will firstly use more readily available energy sources (stored glycogen) and then when these are exhausted will turn it’s attention to using fat. Its interesting to understand that high intensity exercise (HIIT for example) can not be fuelled from fat supplies as it is just to slow a process. Therefore “working really hard” is not going to help you burn fat more quickly…. 

But back to the main thrust of this post, whilst triglycerides are stored in certain areas of our body, they are used up by all parts of our body; our bloodstream does not discriminate where the triglycerides come from or to which muscles it taken to. It is simply released from the most accessible cells first and taken to whichever cells (muscles, organs, and so on) are in need. 

The area where they are taken from is determined by genetics and hormones, not by the exercises we do.

One interesting study, which is often cited, quite clearly demonstrated this. Although, to be frank, a basic understanding of metabolism will tell you that “spot training” is just scientifically “wrong”. The study in question took a random group of subjects and had them consistently perform thousands of leg extensions over the course of several weeks with a view to seeing how much fat would be lost from their thighs.

As you will have guessed the outcome was that none of them showed any meaningful fat loss from their thighs. However, somewhat surprisingly, many did see fat loss from a specific body part… but that was their upper body!

Whist the research team could not prove why that had happened, what was concluded was that training a particular body part does not lead to fat loss in that area.

A realistic approach to shedding fat

But you still want to lose fat in those “problem areas” right? So if “Spot Training” does not work then what does?

The answer is simple; you need to train your WHOLE BODY whilst simultaneously LOWERING YOUR CALORIFIC INTAKE.

The longer you spend consuming more energy (calories) than you are burning, then the more your body will store it “for a rainy day”. Step one has to be to break that cycle so your body can start using some if it’s stores.

Step two is to increase the rate at which your body burns calories – this is called your metabolic rate. Whilst exercise does mean you will need extra energy, in the overall scheme of things this is a relatively small amount (unless you are a serious athlete and training for many hours each day – for instance marathon training or preparing for a long distance triathlon).

But (and it is a HUGE BUT), exercise will help you improve your metabolic rate, but mostly when you are not exercising! A well toned muscle will use more energy to sustain itself at rest than an untoned one. This is great news! This means that if we can tone our muscles then we will start to increase our metabolic rate at rest… It follows that if we can tone large muscle groups they will (in relative terms) give us a bigger improvement in calories burned at rest.

Therefore exercise can, and does, help. And this is what my exercise for weight loss programmes focus on whole body workouts that tone up all of your large muscle areas. Which, now you understand the basics of metabolism, makes sense right?

Making it sustainable

Thinking about weight loss can be overwhelming. Particularly if you have a lot of fat to lose. I know exactly how that feels! The reality is that getting our diet under control and incorporating effective exercise into our daily lives is not an easy task for most of us. Let’s face it, if it was then you would have already done it.

To make matters worse we are targeted by magazines and fitness advertising that offer short timeframes such as six or twelve weeks for their programmes. This is not helpful and far from ideal. They use these timescales for their convenience (and because in the “industry” we know that these lead to an easy sell!), but they are probably not what you actually need and will likely be sub-optimal for you.

It is very tempting to see your “problem areas” as a one off project to be dealt with. But it is far more sustainable to work on changes to your lifestyle. This really is the only way to achieve, and then importantly KEEP, the results you want.

Reality check: you are going to need an extended period of time to see the kind of changes you want, if they are to be maintained for life. This means that learning new habits and behaviours is far more important than the latest crazy workout or starving your body of carbohydrates for six weeks. Far more important is to develop and build up self-control as well as mental strength to support yourself through your journey.

In summary

Spot Training does not work. Short term fixes are just that, short term. And ultimately no Personal Trainer on the planet is going make you slim… The only person that has the power and control to make you lose weight is you!

So as Fitness Coach, have I just put myself out of business? No. My role is simply to help you find information and then help you figure out how to apply that to your specific circumstances. For instance, if this post has helped dispel just one myth for you, or given you an additional strand of understanding then that’s progress… And when there are enough strands in place, you will make the changes you need in order to create the outcomes you want.

Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash