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Spot Reduction: Fallacy or Possibility?
In a recent study, Italian researchers out of the University of Rome set out to shed light on an age-old argument of spot reducing body fat.
For likely decades, many unassuming people have fallen victim to the idea (myself included at one point) that simply working target body areas with exercise will allow for a reduction of localized body fat. Most often, you’ll see people doing so with sit ups or arm exercises to hopefully reduce unsightly body fat around those regions.
Before getting into this research, let it be known I understand why people do this. It’s logical at first: if I want a six-pack, I should probably work that area directly.
However, there are a few flaws here. First, it’s important to remember that fat loss is a bit more complicated than just exercising and dropping pounds. This is confirmed by most of the overweight people you see working out intensively, yet never seem to get thinner.
Overall, fat loss from a biological standpoint is fairly simple: reduce energy intake and increase energy output. Unfortunately, fat loss attempts are rarely so simple.
The reason body fat reduction is so difficult to prove (or disprove) is because while some people may or may not have success with body fat spot reduction, there are hundreds, if not thousands of other variables that could be playing a role.
Currently, the consensus is this: spot reducing body fat, probably isn’t strictly possible. Each human body responds to exercise and fat loss differently. Essentially, if spot reduction could occur, you’re essentially losing weight and body fat, but deciding where that body fat comes from. If this were strictly possible, everyone would be trying to cash in on the specific mechanisms.
Lastly, as we’ll get into the study at hand, if there was one method that I believe would be plausible for spot reduction, it would probably be the method used in this study.
16, middle-aged women participated in the study. Participants were separated into one of 12 groups.
Group 1: Completed Resistance Training For Upper Body, followed by a 30 minute Cycle Ergometer test at 50% of V02 Max.
Group2 : Completed Resistance Training For Lower Body, followed by a 30 minute Arm Ergometer test at 50% of V02 Max.
Essentially, group 1 did upper body resistance training followed by lower body aerobic training (cardio) Group 2 on the other hand, completed a lower body resistance program followed by 30 minutes of upper body-based cardio.
The course of the training tests was 12 weeks, 3 times per week. Prior to this training procedure, measurements such as DEXA and body composition tests were carried out.
Resistance Training Protocol
Group 1 was exposed to an upper body resistance protocol, using the following exercises:
Group 2 was exposed to a lower body resistance protocol prior to cardio using the following:
All resistance training sessions were completed in the following fashion:
Aerobic Training Protocol
The upper body resistance training group was then exposed to a lower body aerobic sessions using a cycle ergometer for 30 minutes at 50% of V02 max (predetermined). The lower body group on the other hand used the same intensity, yet used an arm cycle ergometer instead.
Essentially, these subjects trained either upper body or lower body and then completed cardio afterwards, using opposite muscle groups. Essentially, the idea is like this:
You resistance train specific muscles, which should theoretically release fatty acids from the target area. Thus, these fatty acids are available in the blood stream. Then since lower intensity cardio is optimized for metabolizing fatty acids, the previously released fatty acids (from resistance training) should theoretically be metabolized, in a sense, spot reducing body fat. (Largely theoretical, keep in mind).
Overall Body Mass was not significantly changed across groups (above image). However, it did seem that there was a tendency for spot reduction of respective muscles that were being worked (colored squares above).
As you can see, while not significant, there was certainly a tendency for the specific muscle groups that were resistance trained to show a reduction of fat mass. For example, in the upper body resistance group (red square), these individuals had a tendency to reduce fat mass in the upper limbs. Alternative, this wasn’t the case for the lower body resistance group.
However, when we look at the fat mass changes in the lower limb, the opposite is true for the lower limb resistance-training group. Fat mass in lower limbs had a tendency for reduced fat mass with almost no change in limbs for the upper resistance group.
Essentially, when upper body resistance was employed, there were reductions of upper body fat mass as a result of this procedure, but no real change for lower limbs. When lower body was resistance trained, lower limbs lost fat and upper body didn’t. I.E. These subjects were spot reducing.
If that doesn’t convince you, take a look at these graphs.
In the left graph, we see a clear association between the target muscle group that was resistance trained and a change in fat mass. While changes from baseline may not be significant, there was a clear group difference in terms of area worked and fat amount reduced.
If there is a way to spot reduce, this idea is probably the best
Truth be told, this method of training is actually one that I’ve promoted for some time. Think about it really, higher intensity exercise is always touted for “long term” fat loss, rather than fat loss during the exercise session, whereas low intensity cardio is usually touted to be great at burning fat during the training session.
Thus, it stands to reason that pairing the two training styles would be optimal. Use high intensity exercise to free fatty acids from storage for metabolism, and then use normal cardio to actually “burn off” those freed fatty acids. That’s essentially what they were trying to do here and quite frankly, it’s not a bad idea.
Really, for years everyone has said spot reduction isn’t possible. It’s more about global fat loss, is the primary argument against this theory. However, is it really hard to believe that you can manipulate the tissues that are releasing these fatty acids?
I mean, lets think for a second. This theory is sort of out there. It seems like it’s probably not possible. But really, if you’re hoping to specifically reduce body fat on your arms, it makes sense to at least exercise those areas. Just keep in mind that spot reduction of body fat probably is a result of overall fat loss, but you’re just potentially manipulating where that fat comes from.
Let it be clear, this isn’t definitive. I personally think that if there is in fact ways to spot reduce, this method is probably the best. I.e. Workout target body parts at a fairly high intensity and then do some cardio afterwards.
I mean, the use of this method at least wouldn’t hurt to try.
Resistance Training Was Lackluster
Sure, it's a laboratory study, but the resistance training was lack luster. Personally, I'd love to see a few things changed.
First, It would be great to see if different rep ranges, taken close to failure, would make a larger difference. I personally think that if the resistance protocol was a bit more metabolically demanding, the results might have been significant.
Second, there was no progressive overload or an inkling of periodization. If there was benefit of either resistance program, eventually the body adapts, making each subsequent workout less effective. Results may have become significant if progressive overload or some other form of periodization was incorporated.
Further, if intensity was higher and a greater variety of exercises were used, results may have been different. It's at least important to point out that this lackluster training program almost produced results. Imagine if it was actually a programmed fat loss specific training procedure...
The Approach To Use This Method
First, if you’re trying to lose some body fat, your best bet is to go for overall fat loss. Keep in mind that the “global fat loss” idea is probably still true. With this method you’re just trying to manipulate exactly where that reduction comes from. Just keep in mind this theory of spot reduction isn’t proven so your best bet is to go for overall fat loss and then try to manipulate it.
This means, you should first, probably be in a calorie deficit of some form. Second, continue exercising as normal, hitting various rep ranges and intensities.
From here, I suggest using some form of metabolic resistance training for target areas. Complete a difficult resistance training routine and then use some cardio afterwards. Just keep in mind; you should also have some normal resistance training mixed in as well.
Here are a few examples of how I would use this method (and already do).
Chest / Back / Shoulders
Spot reducing has been somewhat of a topic of discussion, but largely one that is overall ignored and considered to be impossible
However, the potential for this to work really doesn’t surprise me. Of course total body fat loss is most important, but its it hard to believe that you can manipulate where that fat actually comes from? Truthfully, it’s not hard to believe that contracting certain muscle groups would promote release of fat from that specific area.
Overall, this theory is largely unproven but logic and at least the findings of this study indicate the idea is at least plausible. Not to mention, if you’re specifically hoping to reduce body fat in your arms, and are using an effective dieting approach, it’s at least worth trying. Just keep in mind that in addition to the theoretical notion of this idea, you’ll probably need to continuously use this method consistently to potentially see any benefit.
Why This Should Matter To You
It matters because most of us have been saying spot reduction isn’t possible. Currently, there isn’t strong evidence to say otherwise, but this research indicates that it may be possible. Further, the protocol they used was logical, meaning that the potential for this to work may be real and not based on some ridiculous training procedure or magical supplement. Further, it’s always prudent to re-evaluate sentiments you believe to be truth.
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